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Life & Culture Stories

Getting to Grips: GAA Handball

From ancient Egypt to the Aztecs, handball-like games have been depicted in history over millennia. In Ireland, what is now known as GAA Handball was first known as Gaelic handball.

When the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was founded in 1884, handball was one of the Irish sports they wanted to promote. Although not as widely popular as other national games such as Gaelic football and hurling, GAA handball is a growing sport in Ireland.

Played on a purpose-built court, there are four types of handball: 40×20, One-Wall, 60×30 and Hardball. The latter two are traditional Irish games. The aim is to make the ball hit the front wall and bounce twice before your opponent can return it. It is played in singles and doubles and the difference in codes relates to the size of the court, the number of walls used and the type of ball. To the uninitiated, handball might look like squash without the rackets.

Still played in various forms around the world, on the international handball stage Irish athletes have dominated the sport in recent years.

In 1785, the first depiction of Irish handball appears, though in Galway ball games were forbidden to be played against the walls of the town back in 1527, according to records. How the game historically developed in Ireland is unclear but there are theories, including Galway's trading links with Spain, specifically the Basque region where a similar game called pelota is still played. Archaeological finds in Ireland have since discovered evidence that a similar handball-type game may have been played here over many centuries.

The game was brought by Irish and Scottish emigrants to other countries including the United States, Mexico, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Still played in various forms around the world, on the international handball stage Irish athletes have dominated the sport in recent years. Paul Brady of Cavan won a record five successive handball world titles, while Belfast's Aisling Reilly took home two consecutive world titles.

The current game is in safe hands as Killian Carroll of Mallow in County Cork has risen to become the top player on the professional handball circuit in the United States.