Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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MEDALS

All-Ireland Senior Handball Singles Champion: (10)
1965, 1967, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1982 & 1983.

All-Ireland Senior Handball Doubles Champion: (7)

PEADAR MCGEE
GAA HANDBALL CHAMPION.

Peadar McGee is the first to admit to the terrible irony of how he banjaxed his hand. After he retired from the sport he had dominated for over 20 years, Ireland’s 10-time handball champion set himself up as a firearms dealer just outside his native village of Newport, Co. Mayo. One day he was cleaning a shotgun. As his right hand passed over the muzzle, the gun most unexpectedly went off. And when Peader looked at his hand again, a chunk of it was missing.

He got it fixed up and it works usefully enough these days. And if you’re out the Mayo way and looking for a shotgun, or maybe some tackle or a fishing rod, then Peadar is your only man. ‘Best Prices in Ireland’, his business card vows.

Peadar’s grandfather, Peter Paul McGee, was an Ulster Catholic from Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone, who, aged 20, broke with prevailing trends and migrated to Co. Mayo. He found work as a groomsman with the O’Donnell family of Newport House and, in 1910, married Bridget, the local school teacher.[i] ‘My grandfather was a sort of buckshee vet,’ says Peadar. ‘I knew him well when I was a young land. People would come to him when their animals were sick.’

During the 1930s, Peadar’s grandparents moved to a farmhouse, right beside where he lives today, and from where Bridget carried on teaching. ‘We’d have been classed as pretty well off in those times’, Peadar says.[ii]

His father, Charlie McGee was Newport’s postman for many years.His wife Kathleen O'Malley hailed from the island of Inishcuttle in Clew Bay. They had seven children. Peadar, their second child and eldest son, was born in 1943.

‘Newport was still a very busy port when I was a boy’, he says. ‘There were farmers everywhere, and fourteen pubs, but there was no dole so everyone was doing some sort of work or other. It got very busy when the ships arrived with the ESB poles’.

The ESB [Electricity Supply Board] poles began arriving in the 1950s as part of the Rural Electrification Scheme. Inspired by the new dawn of power supply, Peadar became an electrical engineer at the age of 19. ‘I was in charge of one of the gangs who were laying everything out and surveying’.

But electricity was not destined to be Peadar’s greatest calling in life. In 1948, Charlie McGee brought his five years old son down to Newport’s riverfront to admire the new handball court which he and some friends had just created from concrete.

‘Handball was a big game in Ireland in those times’, says Peadar.[iii] ‘You hadn’t got your televisions or your soccer matches to watch in pubs. And you didn’t have a car to go anywhere. So we were all looking for things to do and ways to exercise. Youngsters in them times were much fitter than they are now.’[iv]

Handball was his sport of choice and in 1962 he scored his first national title when he won the Junior Doubles aged 19.[v] Four years later, he won his first senior All-Ireland Singles title. ‘Nobody from the province of Connaught or the county of Mayo had done that before’, he says, clearly still delighted. He would go on to win the Singles a total of ten times, including a straight run of seven years from 1972-1977. His personal tally means that Co. Mayo, despite producing no other winners, remains fourth in the list of Ireland’s Top 10 Handball Counties. Put another way, Co. Mayo have won eighteen All-Ireland handball medals, singles and doubles combined, and Peadar McGee holds seventeen of them. At the time of his retirement, that tally puts him on a level par with the late JJ Gilmartin of Kilkenny as the biggest handball titleholder in the sport.[vi]

Its something you’re born with’, he believes. ‘Like the way some people can play whatever they want on an accordion or fiddle. I never trained in my life. I listen to them all now, the young fellows, training, training, training, and then pulling their muscles and straining tendons. I never missed a match in my life through ill health or injury. If I did get injured, I’d ignore it. But I worked hard when I was growing up. During the summers, when I was off school, I was on the salmon boats for Newport House, hauling nets. That’s hard work. You’d dig your heels into the ground and pull and you’d gain an inch at a time. I also worked as a relief postman in the summer, cycling around the hills and all. So you build up your muscles that way. I was tough. There’s no doubt about it. And I played for stubbornness. I didn’t want to give into anyone. I played hard because I didn’t want to lose. It’s an in-built thing. It gave me mental pleasure to beat people’.[vii]

Peadar had an unusual psychological advantage over his opponents. ‘Throughout my career, whenever I went into the fifth game, the tie-breaker, I never lost it. My opponent would know this too, so that must have psyched him out every time.’

He says the game has become steadily easier on the players over time and that modern courts are both smaller and better. ‘We only ever played outdoors so the weather played a big part in it. We were running about on hard, cracked concrete floors in canvas slippers, ramming into the walls. And still I haven’t a pain in my legs!’. He also says that the modern match lasts a good deal less time than it did in his day. ‘When I began, there was a rubber [or set] of seven games, with only two minute-long stoppage breaks for water. You’d be damned dehydrated by the break’. Today, a rubber lasts for three games and includes ‘plenty of stoppages and time out for injury’.

In 1978, he married Maureen Prendergast and took a four year career break to build their house and focus on his career with the ESB.[viii] He returned to triumph in the championships again in 1982 and 1983, retiring form the sport in the latter year aged 40.

‘The travel was a devil’, he says. ‘I might have to travel from here to Kerry, Kilkenny, Kells or Croke Park to play my match. Then I’d hit the pub, as you did in those days, and have a few pints and drive home again. The County Board gave you an allowance which would just about cover your petrol but they weren’t paying for you to stay in a fancy hotel like they do now’.[ix]

He remained with the ESB until 1989, retiring aged 46. ‘The Unions had come in and started computerizing man days and so on. It drove me crazy, so I thought I’d pull plant and leave.’

His next venture was to borrow enough money from the bank to purchase a large catamaran which he ran as a sea-angling boat for 12 years. The Katamara was her name and she sailed out of Newport, around Clew Bay, escorting tourists around the islands. ‘It was hard work at times’, says Peadar. ‘But I was always into fishing and that way of life. That’s why I sell the tackle’.

Peader retired from the Clew Bay cruises when he was 58. Today he likes to hunt, shoot, fish and sit back amidst his fine library of books, from where he runs his modest firearms and fishing business. An annual joy is the Peadar McGee International Handball Tournament, which he launched in 1980, still ongoing every summer. Peter was elected head of the O'Malley clan in the year 1991 for one year.

FOOTNOTES

[i] At the time of the 1911 Census, Peter Paul McGee gamely gave his occupation as ‘car owner’.

[ii] ‘They had three boys and three girls. One of my uncles lived near Westport, one went to London, the other got the farm. One of my aunts went to Ballina, another to Galway and the other moved to London’.

[iii] Handball is very much a Mayo game and nearby Westport was one of the major handball centres in Ireland during the 1940s. ‘I could have taken up any sport when I was growing up’, he says. ‘I could have won the tennis tournaments without practicing. Its something you’re born with, like the way some can play the accordion or fiddle.’ Peadar has not mastered music. ‘I know people who can play anything but I could stay at it for months and not know it’.

[iv] Peadar’s brother played football for Mayo.

[v] When Peadar started playing, each match comprised a rubber [ie: a set] of seven games which could last anything from 150 minutes to three hours. ‘That was an awful long time spell to play’, he says, still shuddering slightly. ‘You had to be awful tough and fit.’ They later reduced it to five rubbers, and then to three. ‘You’d get two stoppages of a minute in the five rubbers, so you’d be damned dehydrated. The games are now down to three with lots of stoppages and injury times.’

[vi] Away from Ireland, he has played in Belgium, England, Canada, Mexico and the USA. To his eternal dismay, he was knocked out of in the first round of the World Handball Championships [year?] by the eventual runner up. ‘I won the loser section’, he laughs.

During the 1970s, he also tried his hand at racketball with positive results. ‘I’d say I have the privilege of being one of the few people in the country who has been played both handball and racketball internationally’, he believes. The two sports are not dissimilar, he holds, but racketball is ‘much faster than squash’.

[vii] ‘I never missed a match in my life through ill health or injury. If you did get injured, you’d ignore it. You wouldn’t whine about it. Telling the public that you had a sore knee or a sore shoulder! I remember one time I ha a big session of arm wrestling in a pub on Pearse Street in Dublin. I must have wrestled about twenty of them. With both hands. God I suffered the next day. I couldn’t lift my arms up. The following Sunday I went to play an All Ireland semi-final in Roscommon. I went to see Dr Langan in Castlebar on the Sunday morning and he gave me two injections, one in each arm, and I went on to play the game. You wouldn’t be allowed to do that now. I won. They were different times though. You’d ignore an auld bit if an injury. Times have changed because no matter what paper you pick up they’re discussing who’s injured in some team. For the slightest injury.’

[viii] The McGee’s have two adopted sons and their grandchildren live nearby. ‘I never encouraged my lads to play handball’, he says ‘because the name would be there and they’d be expected to do it and there’d be too much pressure’

[ix] The last All Ireland I won, I left here on my own on Midsummers’ Day, a Saturday, and drove down to Cashel in Tipperary, played the match, hit the pub as you did in those days, went for a few pints with the wife, then back into the car and home again.’


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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.