One Wall handball being played against the wall of Ferns Castle, Co Wexford.

Cavanman's Diary: Handball goes back to the future

Of all the old handball photos and memorabilia I have collected over the years – and as an avowed hoarder, there is no shortage – there is one picture I love.

It shows a group of men in old-style clothing playing handball against the wall of Ferns Castle in Co Wexford, 100 years ago or more. Strikingly, there are no side walls on their handball alley – the game they are playing is essentially One Wall handball, which we now see as a modern invention in Ireland.

The truth is that One Wall (recently rebranded as Wallball) is the oldest form of the game – and it may soon be going back to its roots.

Handball is enjoying a moment – and not just because the sport’s greatest living icon, Paul Brady, has returned to competitive action and will line out in the All-Ireland Senior Singles final on Saturday week in Croke Park.

After the existential crisis that was the pandemic, when the sport was suspended for over two years and haemorrhaged juvenile players, handball is back and growing at a rate not seen before in my time.

Key to this is the growth of Wallball – that’s right, the old game of just hitting a ball against a flat surface has made a resurgence and is fuelling a major regeneration.

Recently, you may have seen the TV coverage of the success of two Afghani-born young players, twins Ehsanullah and Subhanullah Ahmanzai (11), who claimed national glory in the colours of St Felim’s NS. Those talented young lads started playing against a gable wall in their school (under the tutelage of Mr Brady, coincidentally – or not).

From there, they moved on to the traditional 4-wall code. That is the route GAA Handball hope thousands more children will take in the years to come but Wallball is a fine game in its own right and, this August, a Wallball event at the University of Limerick has the potential to radically transform the sport.

The inaugural World Wallball Championships are set to attract 1,000 players from around the world to a custom-built arena. The barriers to entry in the Wallball code are very small; it costs very little to construct the courts compared to the expensive 4-wall courts and, crucially, it is easier to play so is beginner-friendly.

And in terms of international handball, the greatest area for potential growth is in wallball and, when the story comes to be written, this Worlds could yet be seen as a tipping point.

Already, there is talk of staging further events in places like New York, Paris or the Czech Republic.

“It’s not outrageously costly to construct five wallball courts back to back and host a major international event whereas in 4-wall, you just can’t do that unless you have the facilities on site already and if you are going to build them from scratch, that would cost a lot of money that organisations just don’t have,” the President of the World Handball Council, Mayo’s Dessie Keegan, said recently.

Wallball, as well as having the last barriers to entry in terms of construction costs, is also the code, which seems best-placed to cater to the largest number of countries. Again, Keegan’s words are quite instructive in this regard.

“Anyone involved in international handball knows that, while there are brilliant codes with different perks, in terms of the true international game that’s going to break down so many barriers or get into Olympic or other international Games, wallball is the one that has any hope of doing that,” he said.

“When you speak to sister sports organisations, the one thing they tell you is you need 25, 30, even 40 different countries legitimately playing your sport before you can get invited to various different events.

“For the Olympics, you’ve got to have over 40 countries playing. There’s no way we’re going to have over 40 countries playing 4-wall – and that’s okay, 4-wall will have its place but wallball is our only legitimate chance to bring this sport to a level we’ve never seen before and either we’re going to be serious about that or not. And I’d like to give it a go and see what happens.”

That – potentially one day making the Olympic Games – may seem like a pipe dream but is it? For one thing, it is something the GAA have been happy to publicly discuss, which is itself promising.

Shane Flanagan, the association’s Director of Coaching and Games, spelled out his vision in an interview with the Irish Examiner in June 2022.

“There is massive potential internationally,” stated Flanagan.

“I think we should be trying to get handball on the Olympic charter as well, I think that would be a terrific prospect for the GAA as a whole and I think it’s a vision we should have.”

Recent European events have left observers in no doubt as to the rising standard on the continent and in the UK, while Wallball is played by tens of thousands in New York and the wider east coast of the United States.

Outdoor 3-wall handball, which could reasonably be viewed as Wallball's close cousin, is very popular on the west coast and in cities in the mid-West and elsewhere as well as having a strong base in Australia.

So, there is a large base of existing handball communities already in situ and playing wallball or something very close to it - and that's before we even get to mention the massive numbers of Basque pelota and Frontball players in Spain, the Basque Country, Mexico and other parts of South America. Of late, a fledgling Wallball association has even been set up in India, while Irish expats in GAA clubs across Europe are now trying their hand, no pun intended, in Wallball.

I was in the Basque Country recently and saw first-hand the number of courts and the interest levels in their own handball game of pelota. I made a point of picking up the local newspapers each day and each had a page or two of pelota coverage.

The Basques will be in Limerick in August, as will players from over a dozen countries, and the Irish will have their work cut out to win titles.

With the GAA now fully behind it, handball seems on the verge of a tipping points; the success of the twins from St Felim’s proved that Wallball works.

Recently, I drove past the old ball alley at Potahee – now a cattle crush, or something like that – and the romantic in me had visions of men playing in that beautiful setting beside the river back in the day.

With the rise of Wallball and the potential of the August event, the days of every other parish boasting an outdoor handball court could return. Build it, as the old movie line goes, and they will come!