Ulster has produced a number of outstanding handballers
All you need to start playing handball is a ball and a wall to hit it off! It is a competitive game in which either hand or either fist may be used to serve and return the ball. There are three main kinds of handball in Ireland, determined by the size and type of court they are played in, 40x20, 60x30, and One Wall. In each form of the game there is a different ball used.
The 3 types of handball
Four-wall handball is a game similar to racquetball and squash, except that the players hit the ball with a gloved hand instead of using a racquet. Both the left and right hands are used, depending on where the ball is hit. The objective in the game is to score 21 points before your opponent does. Points are scored by the person serving the ball. The game can be played as singles or doubles, and a high level of hand-eye coordination is required along with balance, flexibility, speed and no small amount of skill. It can be argued that no other game reached the same scope of fitness requirements, due to both hands being used.
The 40x20 code refers to the dimensions of the court (40ft by 20ft) and was introduced from America during the 1960’s and is now the International standard court. The ball is hard, and gloves are worn by the players. It is known as ‘Four Wall’ in the United States, as all four walls and the roof can be hit during play. In the 40x20 court a small solid rubber ball is used. Similar in size to a golf ball, this ball is extremely lively and can reach speeds up to and including 100 miles per hour. The 40x20 code is the international version of the game and is played in over 10 countries worldwide.
Handball in the 60x30 ‘big alley’ is indigenous to Ireland, and is the more traditional code of the game. The ball is red, and only half solid which means that the wearing of gloves is not compulsory. This was traditionally an outdoor game, only moving indoors as the old alleys were roofed and new indoor alleys erected, during the latter half of the 20th century. The rules are quite similar to its small court cousin. With the ball being heavier, this leads to the natural underhand stroke as more power is needed to move the ball around the court.
One Wall is the most basic of the handball codes. Played only using a front wall 20ft by 16ft and a floor area 20ft by 34 ft, it is a much more physical game, with blocking of the opponent allowed. It is a popular outdoor game during the summer, and the ball used in Ireland during the summer is similar to a racquetball.
Even though the history of Handball stretches back to ancient times in Ireland, the game was included in the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) charter in its year of formation, 1884, as one of the sports to be promoted by the new Association. The first official Handball Championships did not take place until 1923, and were sponsored by the GAA. The following year, the Irish Handball Council was established to promote, develop and organise the game.
The 1960s witnessed rapid developments in the game. The 60x30 Inter County National League commenced in 1965, while the first 60x30 Juvenile Championships were held in 1966. The Handball World Championships were held in Ireland in 1970, and to mark the event a modern 60x30 court was built at Croke Park in Dublin – GAA headquarters.
The game grew in popularity during the 1970s and 80s. During this period, 152 new indoor 40x20 courts and 9 new 60x30 courts are constructed. 25 old 60x30 courts are roofed and 24 60x30 courts are renovated. This popularity has increased even further in recent years, and by 2003 the formation of Third Level Handball Ireland aimed to promote and develop Handball at higher level education. The 11th World Handball Championships were also held in Ireland in 2003. The venues included Cavan, Dublin, Laois and Kilkenny. Over 1100 players took part, with Ulster handballer Paul Brady winning the Men’s Open Singles.
Several players have dominated the sport since the 1970s; Pat Kirby from Clare won six 40x20 All Ireland singles titles in a row between 1975 and 1980. This feat was equalled by Michael ‘Duxie’ Walsh from Kilkenny between 1986 and 1991. ‘Duxie’ went on to win another two titles to cement his record as the most successful handballer in the 40x20 event.
Ulster has produced a number of outstanding handballers. Paul Brady from Cavan won both the Irish and International 40x20 titles in 2003, a remarkable achievement. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that Paul plays Gaelic Football for his county and is one of the key players on the Cavan team!
Handball is immensely popular in rural areas of Mid-Tyrone, and the village of Loughmacrory outside Omagh has produced a number of outstanding handballers. Ciaran Curran won the prestigious All Ireland minor 40x20 singles title in 1991, and had a number of other national successes during the remainder of his career. Ryan Daly, who hails from the same parish as Ciaran, won the All Ireland 40x20 senior ‘C’ title in 2001, further adding to Tyrone victories in the sport.
© Cathal Coyle 2005