Irish Handball

Gaelic Handball in Ireland

Forget conventional sporting tournaments, with preened players and elaborate venues; Irish Handball is something quite unique. Around small towns, villages and even in big cities the playing courts are ample. The game requires only a very minimalist outfit, a wall, a ball, and two players.

The history of handball in Ireland

The exact origins of handball is unknown but the game has been played for thousands of years in various countries. In Ireland, handball is said to be one of the oldest Irish sports dating back to the Tailteann Games, also known as funeral games, were athletic competitions held in honour of a recently deceased person. Although handball is known as an ancient Irish game, the earliest written records appeared in the Statutes of Galway in 1527 forbidding locals from playing the game against walls in the town.

By the 1800’s popularity for handball grew exceptionally, being played almost in every town and village in Ireland. Many of the landowners in Ireland supported the game and built ball courts on their land allowing players to participate in ball games.

As Irish people migrated to England they introduced handball using indoor tennis courts where it’s thought the use of side-walls in the game was established. Returning Irish men brought the idea of side walls back to Ireland giving the game a new edge, sidewall courts became known as Fives Courts. However, locals were often forbidden from playing in the new style courts so they continued with their one-wall handball games.

Although there was no handball league in Ireland many players would travel all over the country to compete against anyone who was willing to lay down a wager. By the late 1800’s the game went international with players from the US competing against Irish players for the world title but with the lack of regulations many matches were often disputed. When the Gaelic Athletic Association was formed it helped to promote Gaelic games which included handball and by 1924 they helped create the Irish Amateur Handball Association who set out in organising regional and international competitions.

The game thieved throughout Ireland and became a popular spectating sport for many. Many would play the game in local villages, after church on a Sunday, and in schools. Although popular with spectators the construction of new and improved indoors courts resulted in a decline of spectators to the point where the game was no longer played in the local streets.

Types of handball

According to the GAA there are four variations of handball played in Ireland

Four Wall (Small Alley) is the most popular game in Ireland and it’s played in a court similar to a squash or racquetball curt measuring 20ft x 40ft. To protect players from injury its compulsory to wear eye guards and gloves as the rubber ball can travel at 100mph during play. The four wall season runs November through to April and its internationally played by 10 different countries.

One-Wall (Wall ball) can be played outdoor or indoor and with only needing a single wall for a match its a simplistic version of the game. The wall usually has a measurement of 20ft x 16ft and the ball is similar to a racquetball. The Irish season of One-wall is played from May to August. Played by over 33 countries the World Wall Ball Association was established with an aim to achieve Olympic status.

Softball (Big Alley) is recognised as the traditional game of handball in Ireland it was widely played outside during the summer months in a court measuring 60ft x 30ft. The ball is softer than the Small Alley ball so players are not required to wear eye or hand protection. The softball season is played from June to October.

Hardball is the oldest form of handball in Ireland and the ball is made from cork and leather so hand padding is required. Hardball is plated in a 60ft x 30ft court and the season is from May to June.

Hardball is the most ancient of our games in Ireland, and it is also played in the 60×30 court. As the name suggests, the ball used is small and hard, and is made from cork and leather. Padding on the hands is required due to the hardness of the ball that can travel at speeds over 100mph. The hardball season runs from May to June.

Handball is played today in University, County and Village Club teams in Ireland – however, many other teams from various countries around the world come together for the World Championships every three years.

Similar to all Irish sports, there are a select group of historic and present players of almost legendary status. Revered for their skills, many who currently play presently in Ireland, instruct various teams and partake in training sessions worldwide in attempts to maintain the popularity of the game.

This article was first published on 15-11-2016 and last modified on 16-08-2017.

About the Author

Dave Donnelly
Dave was born in Cork but migrated to Kerry where he works in IT. He's a self confessed bookworm and has a passion for anything relating to Ireland but whenever he isn't stuck in a book he's out and about with his camera.