‘And this is Rory our drummer,’ said the lead singer. I was interviewing a band for a radio show. ‘Nice to meet you,’ Rory said, as he gripped my hand and pumped it vigorously. The pain was instant and searing. ‘Hello,’ I managed to croak. Rory was another one to be added to the list. What list is that? It’s a list I’m compiling of men who proffer bone-crunching handshakes. As my not-unduly-petite fingers buckled under Rory’s clasp, I realised ‘drummers’ can now be included on my database.
Ever since I was a little boy I’ve been taught to shake hands with people. It’s a civil and gentlemanly thing to do. But ever since I was a little boy I’ve always approached each and every handshake with great trepidation. ‘Am I going to get my fingers grievously wounded again?’ I think to myself. Some men just put far too much physical emphasis into their handshakes, and there’s no need. Is there a subtle game of masculinity one-upmanship at play? Maybe for some, but from analysing my list I don’t think such a generalisation can be made.
There are some men and, even before you’ve both been introduced, you can tell they’re limbering up for a good digit crunching. They stand there with a glint in their eye, as names are announced, and you can see them flexing their hand muscles and readying their handshake stance. The manoeuvre is straightforward: rest the bodyweight on the back foot, slow lunge forward, and momentum increases pressure. They grab your hand and, with lightening speed, gain the advantage by latching onto the middle of your palm and mercilessly securing their thumb on the point between your own thumb and your index finger.
The palm clasp is the most crucial part of the operation. If they get in first with a vice-like grip, you’re done for. All you can do, as you painfully reflect on another battle lost, is stand and nod moronically through gritted teeth and hope they don’t notice the tears of pain welling up in your eyes. Through my research I’ve identified a few key practitioners in the dark arts of bone-crunching handshakes.
GAA men are possibly the worst offenders. Maybe it’s conditioning through years of grasping the hurley, or possibly it’s because the pre-match handshake is used as a physical means of psyching out the opposition, but these guys know how to turn your finger bones to dust. Old wiry men from an agricultural background: stay away from these fellows if you ever want to have the full use of your right hand again. Another group to watch out for are prospective fathers-in-law. In some respects, you can’t blame these men for wanting to break your fingers. By means of a simple handshake they’re sending you a message: ‘The pain you are feeling now is nothing compared to the pain you’ll feel if you upset my daughter.’
I’ve added Gardaí to the list also. I have reason to believe that handshake drill is a weekly element of training in Templemore. The long arm of the law isn’t just impressive in length; it also has a hand at the end of it that can do some serious damage when in contact with another man’s hand.
At this point you might be thinking: why don’t you give as good as you get? Why don’t you fight fire with fire and execute an equally – if not superior – physically strong handshake? There are two responses to this. The first is that I’m simply not that kind of hand-shaker; I like a firm but non-aggressive approach. The second is that I don’t want to run the risk of getting dragged into a prolonged torturous pumping match.
It isn’t a pretty sight when two bone-crunchers come face to face, or should I say hand to hand? I heard tell of a meeting in 1988 between two Mullingar men, both masters of the knuckle-maul, which lasted many hours. They were introduced one morning during a busy day at the local mart. By mid-afternoon they were still shaking and pumping hands, locked in tense hand-to-hand combat – literally. Crowds had begun to gather round the pair, shouting words of encouragement and throwing twenty euro notes into a pot. The hours passed and the two main continued their deadly embrace, constantly hissing through clenched teeth how nice it was to meet the other. The handshake continued and the air was filled with the sickening sound of knuckles cracking and oaths being uttered. The story goes that at 2am the following morning, the local priest was summoned to resolve the dispute. The good clergyman duly arrived and, through a series of Vatican-sanctioned handshake exorcisms, eventually separated the two sluggers. Both men fell to the ground, hands throbbing and bruised, swearing that it was pleasure to have met the other. The bout was declared a draw.
I will finish with a truly appalling proposition. Imagine your fiancé is the daughter of an older Garda and part-time farmer, who happens to be chairman of the local GAA club and also likes to play drums with the band at the monthly parish hall dinner dance. Your hands will never be the same again.