The Great Wall
Ireland’s lesser-known, ancient sport is finding a new legion of fans.
It was a sweltering day, late March, in Arizona. Two sportsmen stepped into the small court, and fixed their stare at the wall ahead.
Limerick student Colin Crehan, bedecked in his GAA jersey with club colours, eyed his opponent: a sophomore from Lake Forest College, Illinois who cleaned the floor with his competitor in the semi-finals of this championship, the World Collegiates. The winner would take home the men’s singles title and all that stood between Crehan’s victory was a ball, a wall and two thrilling games of fast, furious and highly skilled play.
Handball is perhaps the lesser-championed division of the GAA – its All Ireland finals don’t take place on the hallowed grass of Croke Park, and they don’t attract crowds in the tens of thousands – but it is the association’s only true international game and one that Ireland produces an elite legion of players for. With rapidly growing popularity, handball is played at a significant level in the USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Puerto Rico, the UK and Spain. Emerging nations include Holland, Italy, Belgium, Argentina, Japan and India, and the recently established World Handball Association is making tracks to have the sport recognised by the Olympic Council.
Colin Crehan is a Clare native studying at University of Limerick and is hot on the heels of Ireland’s top players, having dominated at 2017’s collegiate finals. He went on to win against Lake Forest’s Leo Canales and also took home the doubles title with the help of fellow UL player, Jason English.
In Ireland, handball goes back many hundreds of years:
The first record of the rebound wall sport was in 1527 although it’s widely perceived to be much more ancient than that. Archaeologists have discovered ancient ball courts and reliefs depicting hands striking balls across Mexico and in the US, while Henry VIII had a bespoke court at Hampton Court that survives to this day.
Whatever its exact roots, the sport as it is known today is presided over in Ireland by the GAA and its sportsmen and women dominate on the worldwide stage, with Cavan handballer Paul Brady holding no fewer than four world senior singles titles. As the season reopens for 2018, all eyes are on the World Championships, taking place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in August. In the lead up to this, teams from around Ireland will travel across Spain, The Netherlands, England, France and Italy for the European Wallball Pro Tour following a fresh stint at the US Collegiates in Springfield, Missouri, this February. Most notably, perhaps, the UL Wolves Handball team will be looking to add to the 50-plus international medals they have taken home in recent years, with new additions to the growing team for 2018 and top ranked players Colin Crehan, Martina McMahon and Catriona Casey among the team members.
What is Handball?
Handball is a fast-paced, highly skilful sport that keeps its players in peak fitness. The beauty of the sport is that you only need your hand, a ball and a wall to play. In Ireland, there are four ‘codes’ or types of handball – the 60x30 Softball and 60x30 Hardball are the more traditional incarnations, while the Four Wall and One Wall (or Wallball) are the internationally played sports. Despite the slight differences (in court size, number of walls used and shape/weight of the ball), essentially the idea is the same: to rebound the ball against a wall and for it to bounce twice before your opponent can return it. Think of squash, minus the rackets, and you will have a good idea of the pace and skill of the sport. The pinnacle of the sport is the World Championships which take place in August and at which Ireland will defend both the men’s and women’s titles in 2018.
As a growing sport with up-and-coming players dominating, college handball has developed greatly in the past ten years and is a vital training ground for new and experienced players. Under the careful tutelage of coach John Bosco Hurley, UL’s college handball team has become the first Irish club to win the Men’s Team competition in the US Collegiates twice in a row.
The names to know: Irish handball rankings
Men’s Four-Wall 40x20
- Charly Shanks
- Robbie McCarthy
- Martin Mulkerrins
- Diarmuid Nash
- Colin Crehan
Women’s Four-Wall 40x20
- Catriona Casey
- Martina McMahon
- Aisling Reilly
- Fiona Tully
- Ciara Mahon