The sport of handball is an Irish game and the dominant versions were the traditional 60×30 – the old outdoor ‘ball alleys’ with a roof, essentially – and the American 40×20 game, which arrived on these shores around 1970 and spread rapidly.
One-wall handball was barely an afterthought and it was only in the mid-1990s that an Irish One Wall Nationals were inaugurated.
The version of the game, which had emerged in New York during the Great Depression and became popular on the American east coast, was seen as a potential crossover code to bring all of the international games of handball – from the English public-school game of fives to Basque pelota and many more – together.
But few envisaged its growth to where it is now. In 2010, the Irish nationals were held under one roof at Breaffy House in Mayo for the first time and off the back of that ambitious move, participation exploded.
The barriers to entry for one wall, now rebranded as wallball, are much lower. Courts are very cheap to construct in any hall or against a gable wall and the game is easier for beginners to take up and develop competence in.
Next year, for the first time, wallball will have its own world championships, which will be staged at the University of Limerick and are expected to attract up to 1,000 players from around the world. The launch for the event takes place at UL today.
“One wall was seen as an afterthought when I was growing up, it was in its infancy in Ireland really and would have ranked well behind the other handball codes,” says five-time world 4-wall champion Paul Brady.
“As time has moved on, though, it has really grown. I see it myself in school (Brady is a teacher at St Felim’s NS in Cavan town), it’s really simple to construct a wallball court and kids absolutely love it.
“Plus, at the elite level, the standard is very high in Ireland so there is a pathway there.”
One of handball’s selling points over the years was that it was the only GAA sport with a meaningful international aspect, but that has faded to some extent over the last decade with the decline in standards of juvenile players in the US and Canada in particular.
GAA handball no longer annually send a team to compete in the USHA junior nationals at Christmas as the results became a foregone conclusion.
However in wallball, the status quo has been flipped on its head. America leads the way, with top talent in several European countries, including English No 1 Luke Thomson, a regular visitor to Irish tournaments who recently made the last four from 200 players in New York’s prestigious King of the Courts.
“We see wallball as a truly international version of handball which is growing in many countries,” stated David Britton, head of GAA handball at Croke Park.
“Such is the growth that a decision was made to host a separate wallball world championships next August in UL and we are anticipating a huge entry.
“We cherish all of the handball codes but at this point in time, I would say that wallball is the largest growth area and we see a lot of potential in it.”
On the weekend before last, more than 40 Irish players attended the Belgian Open, which was the second stop this year on the Euro 1-Wall Tour.
Irish champion Conor McElduff from Tyrone made the trip, losing in the final to Londoner Thomson.
At the previous one, in Valencia, no Irish player made the last eight of the men’s open, which included American, Belgian, English, Dutch and Basque players.
“The standard is getting higher all the time and it provides great motivation,” said the Tyrone man (30), a six-time Irish champion.
“There’s pride at stake, you want to represent Ireland well and take down the top international players if you can. The international element is definitely a major motivating factor.”
The European Tour will also take in stops in Toulouse and London, with a team of juveniles from Antrim attending a major youth event in the Netherlands in January.
GAA handball is now under the remit of the GAA’s coaching and games department and it is believed they see wallball as a route to international markets as well as, following the New York model which boasts 2,000 courts in the city, in urban areas.
“The GAA as a parent body is extremely supportive of handball, there has been significant investment there. It won’t happen overnight but the future looks very promising,” said Britton.