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‘Yeah, she’s a big alley player!’ - Bourke living the dream

First up on the Senior Singles semi-finals programme tomorrow at Croke Park are Mayo’s Cuileann Bourke and Sligo’s Laura Finn, who are both striving to make the Senior Singles final for the first time and, in fact, are lining out in their first semi-finals, writes Paul Fitzpatrick.

For 21-year-old Bourke, from the Belcarra club, competing at this level is a dream come true – but she is keen to go one step further.

“It’s a bit surreal to be honest, since I won this has been an absolute goal of mine to get to senior in general. To have this chance, I don’t think it’s really hit me yet that I am playing in the Senior Championship against all these unreal players,” Cuileann told

“I’m definitely more excited than nervous. There is a bit of pressure on your shoulders, both of us obviously want it so bad. It will be a very tough game but I’m looking forward to it.”

Cuileann was introduced to handball “sort of by fluke” and has been in thrall to the game from day one.

“I started around 10 or 11 years ago now, I was only a little tot when I started. Mam wanted me to start playing handball in Belcarra Handball Club and I didn’t have a notion what it was, I thought it was like volleyball. I was over at my neighbour’s house one evening and they all played handball, she was going down to the handball alley and she said she’d bring me along.

“I walked in and the minute I started playing, I just fell in love with the game. I know it sounds very clichéd but the minute I walked into the alley and started throwing the ball around, I fell in love with it. It’s such an addictive sport, oh my God. It started from there then and I’m so delighted that I did start.

“The amount of handball I played in those 10 years is just crazy.”

Last year, she achieved a big goal by winning the All-Ireland Junior Softball Singles and she has kicked on since then.

“Winning the junior big alley All-Ireland was a really big win for me. I had been training for so long and I really wanted it, I really was aiming for this and nothing was going to stop me. I’m the sort of person that when I set a goal, I am very determined to get that and to just come out of that court with a gold medal and going up to intermediate, it was the next stepping stone for my handball career. That All-Ireland I must say did mean a lot to me.

“Something clicked once I won that. I had the confidence but that gave me re-assurance, ‘God, I really can do this’. I worked so hard to get it and then when I won, it was like ‘Well, now I know what I have to do, this is how hard I have to work for these things’.

“It kind of flicked a switch in myself to show the sort of effort that has to go into it. But I am willing to do all that work because I know how good it feels to get a gold medal.”

Cuileann and Laura have trained together quite a bit and are beginning to meet competitively in big games now, too.

“We have trained together a lot. Before last year we hadn’t met in many competitions, just She’s Ace or local competitions. Last year, when I was training for the junior, we had some practice games together. We met in the junior 40x20 All-Ireland final, I luckily came out in top in that game, in the last year we’ve been fairly neck and neck with each other.”

While she plays all codes, Cuileann prefers the 60x30.

“I think everybody in handball knows, once you hear Cuileann’s name, ‘yeah, she’s a big alley player’.

“I think it’s because I started in the big alley. My Grandad played it, my plays it, I don’t know. I think it’s just because it’s what I was born into and what I started on. I’ve always had the love for it. You need to be strong, it’s harder when you’re younger but I’m from an agricultural background so I’d be able to throw a few bales over the shoulder!” she laughs.

A student in Trinity College, where she is doing Deaf Studies, Cuileann also plays camogie with Castlebar Mitchells and formerly with the Mayo county team.

“I put that (county camogie) aside, handball has always been my number one sport. But I think having a team sport on the side is nice, it’s not vital but it’s nice, handball is very individual.

“My camogie team are always saying to me to bring them down to the alley and show them a trick or two. They go hand in hand, handball is great for camogie players in the off season and vice versa.

“Playing an individual sport does teach you a lot about yourself, what you can take, what you need to work on. A lot of camogie and hurling players in college go into the alley in the off-season. I’d definitely encourage people to take it up.”

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