Gaelic handball (known in Ireland simply as handball; Irish: liathróid láimhe) is a sport where players hit a ball with a hand or fist against a wall in such a way as to make a shot the opposition cannot return, and that may be played with two (singles) or four players (doubles). The sport, popular in Ireland, is similar to American handball, Welsh handball, fives, Basque pelota, Valencian pilota, and more remotely to racquetball and squash. It is one of the four Gaelic games organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). GAA Handball is the section of the GAA that deals with the sport.
Handball is played in a court, or "alley". Originally, an alley measuring 60 feet by 30 feet was used with a front wall of 30 feet, off which the ball must be struck.
A smaller alley was also introduced, measuring 40 feet by 20 feet with a front wall 20 ft high. The first alley of this size was built in Ireland in 1969. This smaller size is now the standard in the international version of the game, but both alleys are still used in the Gaelic game, with two separate championships run by the GAA in the two codes.
The objective of a game is to score a set total of points before your opponent does. Points are only scored by the person serving the ball. In other words, if a player wins a rally but did not serve at the start of that rally they only win the right to serve, and thus the chance to score after a subsequent rally. The serving player has two opportunities to hit the ball, from the "service area" (between the two parallel lines), off the "front wall" and across the "short line" (which is located exactly halfway down the court from the front wall).
Players take turns at hitting the ball off the "front wall" before the ball bounces twice on the floor of the court following their opponent's previous shot. Most handball games take place in a four-walled court but there are also three-walled and one-wall versions of the game.
Handball-like games have originated in several places at different times. Hieroglyphs in the temple of Osiris in Egypt portray priests taking part in a game very similar to handball. Mesoamerican civilisations in South and Central America had a form of handball-like game, which was a large part of pre-Columbian culture. Recent archaeological finds in the Callan and Mooncoin areas of Kilkenny indicate that a game similar to handball was played.
In Ireland, the earliest written record of a similar ball game is contained in the town statutes of Galway in 1527, which forbade the playing of ball games [generic] against the walls of the town. The first depiction of an Irish form of handball does not appear till 1785. On the west coast of Ireland, Galway had many trading links with Spain, especially the Basque regions, where the similar game of pelota is played. According to Dublin Handball GAA "It is highly likely that one game is derived from or influenced by the other.".
Both Scottish and Irish immigrants brought the game to many countries in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. It is still played in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Wales, Africa and England.
Since the GAA
The GAA wrote the first rules for the modern game of handball. Handball was included in the GAA Charter of 1884 as one of the sports to be promoted by the new Association. In 1924 the Comhairle Liathróid Láimhe na hÉireann ( the Irish Handball Council) was established to promote, develop and organise the sport. In the same year the 'Irish Amateur Handball Association' was founded. It held its inaugural meeting on 27 January 1924 in Croke Park, County Dublin Prominent Irish republicans, Eoin O'Duffy and Ned Broy were members of this association, with O'Duffy serving as its President from 1926 till 1934. The association's work can be seen in corners of rural Ireland where there are many handball alleys in villages and small towns. However many are no longer used.
Taoiseach, President of Ireland and Irish revolutionary Éamon de Valera was a fan of the sport. He played it while interned in Gloucester Prison and while interned in Arbour Hill Prison. Austin Stack records in his diary (while in Arbour Hill Prison) that on 26 April 1924 "Dev [De Valera] beat me decisively a couple of times" at handball.
In 1925 the first All-Ireland Handball Congress was held and the All-Ireland Senior Softball and Hardball Championships were established
In 1971 Comhairle Liathróid Láimhe na mBan was founded to administer the sport for female competitions. In 1998 the amalgamation of Comhairle Liathróid Láimhe na hÉireann and Comhairle Liathróid Láimhe na mBan saw a single national administration. The Irish Handball Council was rebranded as GAA Handball (Liathróid Láimhe C.L.G.) in 2009.
Types of handball
In Ireland, there are four main types of handball. There is 40x20 (small court), the traditional 60x30 Softball & Hardball (big alley) and One-wall handball. The playing of one-wall handball has increased since early in the 21st century; it is the most popular version of international handball, played in over 74 countries including the USA, Mexico, Ecuador, Spain, the Basque Country and Wales.
There are many handball competitions that are run in Ireland, such as the Gaelic Senior Hardball Singles and the Gaelic Senior Softball Singles. In 40x20, the main competitions are County, Province, and All-Ireland Championships plus the 40x20 Irish Nationals. In 60x30 Softball and Hardball, the main competitions are County, Province, and All-Ireland Championships and the Junior B Interclub. In 2011 GAA Handball Ireland launched the 60x30 Nationals and this competition will be held in July. In One-Wall handball, the main competition in Ireland is the Irish One-Wall Nationals, and this is now held in Breaffy House, Castlebar. There are also many competitions during the year held by various handball clubs around the country.
- American handball
- Australian handball
- Basque Pelota
- International fronton
- Pêl-Law (Welsh handball)
- Valencian frontó
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