2018 is coming to a close and it is a time to reflect on another action packed year on the Handball courts both in Ireland and across the World. It was a year to remember for Limerick's Martina McMahon who dominated Ladies Handball and 2018 also saw first time All Ireland titles for Martin Mulkerrins, Gary McConnell and first World titles for Cork's Killian Carroll, Limerick's Martina McMahon and Tyrone's Conor McElduff. Our juveniles continued to excel both home and abroad.
Read Paul Fitzpatrick's review of the year below..
The John Gaffney Memorial’s status as the effective starting gun for elite handball continues, but the freshly minted Kingscourt Shootout attracted 32 Junior and Intermediate players to the Eastern tip of County Cavan on the first Saturday of the new year, with Wexford’s Daniel Kavanagh taking inaugural honours.
Further west, The John Gaffney Memorial was in its ninth staging. 24 of the nation’s best took to Ballaghderreen to start the year in style. Following the capture of maiden All-Ireland the previous year, Charlie Shanks carried his momentum into the new year, defeating Robbie McCarthy in the final to solidify his place at the top of the Irish 40x20 rankings.
Towards the end of the month, Mayo venues played host to the annual She’s Ace event, celebrating women’s sporting prowess, in association with Breast Cancer. More than 80 entrants travelled west, competing across five categories in 40x20 and three categories in One-Wall, with “Just for fun” 11-and-under categories in each. In the showpiece event, Catriona Casey edged Martina McMahon in the first staging of an intense rivalry that would rage late into the year.
Early February means the ICHA Collegiate Championships at Kingscourt. Regularly one of the year’s biggest events in terms of participation, this year promised new names on the Roll of Honour with five-time Open singles champion Martin Mulkerrins graduation and reigning Ladies champion Ciana Ní Churraoin out through injury. The stage was set for University of Limerick’s Colin Crehan to assume the mantle, and duly obliged, defeating fellow UL man Michael Hedigan to take top honours. DCU’s Fiona Tully emerged victorious in an all-Dublin final against Ciara Mahon of TCD.
The following week saw the culmination of the 2nd level colleges events. The Junior Girls singles title went to Mairead Fox of Loretto, Omagh, and the Junior Doubles titles went to Chloe Philpott and Orla O’Brien of St. Joseph’s in Tulla, Clare. Niamh Heffernan of Colaiste Baile Chlair won the Senior Girls Singles and Cuilleann Bourke and Claire Reynolds of Balla SS, Mayo took top honours in the Girls Senior Doubles. Boys titles went to Billy Drennan of Kilkenny CBS in the Junior Singles, and Tiernan Slattery and Patrick Crotty of Scariff CC in Clare took the Junior Doubles. St. Macartan’s Eoghan McGinnity won the Intermediate singles and Omagh’s CBS Antoin Fox and Lorcan McBride took the Intermediate Doubles. Tiernan Agnew of St Camin’s College Shannon won the Boys Senior Singles title while Sean McAdams and Cormac Doheny representing Borrisokane CC Tipperary won the Senior Doubles.
By mid-February, provincial championships were in full swing with most adult grades decided by month’s end, and GAA Handball’s National Congress took place in Croke Park on the final weekend.
The first weekend in March was All-Ireland Semi-Finals in singles across all adult and juvenile grades. Senior Singles semi-finals featured defending champion Charlie Shanks edge a nail biter against Clare’s Diarmaid Nash and Martin Mulkerrrins prevail against a rejuvenated Brendan Fleming. The Cork man had scored one of the biggest upsets in recent memory when outgunning three-time champion Robbie McCarthy in the previous round. Later, on St. Patrick’s weekend, an inspired Mulkerrins wasn’t to be denied, putting in a blistering performance in the final to earn his first senior singles title.
Catriona Casey had little trouble in her semi-final against Kilkenny’s Ciara Mahon, while Martina McMahon overcame Aisling Reilly to set up a repeat of the 2016 final. In arguably the match of the year, McMahon recovered from a narrow first-game defeat to take the remaining games 21-19, 21-20, joining Mulkerrins on the podium for the first time.
Clare’s Tiernan Agnew took the minor singles title, Offaly’s David Hope win the Intermediate Singles and Kerry’s Dominic Lynch took the Masters A Singles title.
Kildare’s Leah Doyle took the Ladies Minor singles, and Megan McCann from Armagh captured the Ladies Intermediate singles.
At juvenile level, Boy’s titles went to Galway’s Mikey Kelly and Kilkenny’s Daniel Hanrahan and Thomas Sharkey in Under-14 singles and doubles respectively, Rory Grace of Tipperary and Kealan Murphy and Gearoid Healy of Cork inUnder-15 singles and doubles. Mnaghan’s Eoghan McGinnity took the Under-16 singles, with Kilkenny’s Kyle Dunne and Jack Doyle prevailing in Under-16 doubles, and the Cats tasted further success at Under-17 singles as Jack Holden took top honours, with Luke Barrett and Colin Healy of the Rebel county taking the Under-17 doubles.
Tyrone were to the fore in the Under-14 girl’s division, with Clodagh Monroe taking singles and Sky Ni Mhaille Breathnach and Eadaoin Nic Dhonnacha winning the doubles. Monaghan’s Louise McGinnity and Cork’s Celine Kelleher/Muireann O’Brien took Under-15 singles and doubles respectively. The Red Hand county again took top honours in the Under-16 Singles through Mairead Fox, with Chloe Philpott and Amber Nolan from Clare taking the doubles title. And finally, Mayo’s Claire Reynolds and Orla Whyte and Aoife Nic Dhonnacha took Under-17 Singles and Doubles respectively.
Third level handball would have the final say in March with the ICHA Wall-Ball championships held at DCU. Paidi Quish of UL took top honours in the Men’s Open with Ciara Mahon winning the Ladies, avenging her 40x20 defeat to Fiona Tully in the final.
April began with Juvenile handball to the fore at the junior Nationals. With the added bonus of a place on the Irish team for the upcoming world championships at stake, entry numbers were expectedly high, and hosting venues were spread nationwide, with qualifiers from each venue through to the finals weekend to be held at Carlow and Wexford venues later in the month.
The following weekend saw doubles take centre stage.
In a year for firsts, Diarmaid Nash and Colin Crehan sensationally toppled 11-time champions Paul Brady and Michael Finnegan in the Senior Doubles final. Despite ceding home advantage, the Banner men overturned a first game defeat to secure Clare’s first Senior Doubles title since 1979.
Tiernan Agnew completed the sweep of minor titles as he teamed up with Mark Rodgers to land the Minor doubles title, as did Dominic Lynch in the Masters A Doubles when partnered with John Hoe Quirke, while Cork’s Daniel Relihan and Michael Hedigan clinched the Intermediate Doubles.
Unfortunately, the Ladies Senior Doubles lacked the drama of the Singles final, as Catriona Casey joined forced with Aisling O’Keefe to put Roscommon’s Fiona Tully and Leona Doolin to the sword, with Leah Doyle teaming with Molly Dagg to complete the Minor sweep for Kildare.
Two weeks on from the Junior Nationals qualifiers, the cream of the underage crop duelled it out to secure passage to Minneapolis for the World Championships.
There were victories for Galway’s Emma Kinane in the 13-and-under and Niamh Heffernan in the 17-and-under, Mairead Fox from Tyrone in the 15-and-under, and Armagh’s Megan McCann in the 19-and-under Girl’s categories.
Meanwhile, Kyle Jordan and Shane Dunne from Kilkenney took the 13-and-under and 19-and-under divisions respectively, while Wexford’s Josh Kavanagh took the 15-and-under and Eoghan McGinnity of Monaghan captured the 17-and-under title.
With the juvenile 40x20 team now assembled, the final weekend in April saw the senior men and women compete for the honour of representing their country at Open Doubles level in Minneapolis. Incredibly strong on paper, the team of Diarmaid Nash and Robbie McCarthy justified their top seeding and cruised to victory, booking their place on Team Ireland with victory over Tadgh Carroll and Ryan Harkin. The Ladies’ Final again stole the show. For the second time in as many months, Martina McMahon and Catriona Casey squared off, with Aisling Reilly and Aisling O’Keefe respectively as partners. Over two close games, Reilly and McMahon emerged victorious with Casey again falling victim to a 21-20 result.
With the 40x20 season effectively wrapped up and the Irish World’s team part assembled, the calendar progressed into Wall Ball season, with all roads leading to Breaffy House on the May Bank Holiday weekend. With more than 400 matches scheduled, and 20 divisions up for decision, this would prove to be the single biggest event on the GAAHandball Clar in 2018.
Having become something of a Wall Ball specialist in recent years, Conor McElduff from Tyrone had victory and Irish team qualification in the crosshairs. From the outset, a mouth-watering final against Martin Mulkerrins was on the cards, and so it proved to be. Mulkerrins, riding the crest of a wave that earned him Irish team captaincy for Minneapolis, and McElduff put on a supreme display of high-octane, incredible athleticism, with the Tyrone man just shading it 11-8 in the tie-break.
Martina McMahon was clearly the person to beat in the Ladies’ Singles, and so it proved to be as she dominated the event, defeating Fiona Tully in the final.
Kyle Jordan added the Wall Ball 13-and-under title to the 40x20 title he secured just weeks earlier, as did Mairead Fox and Leah Doyle in the 15-and-under and 17-and-under divisions respectively. Also victorious were Kilkenny’s Mikey Kelly in the Boy’s 15-and-under, Galway’s Eíbhin O Diolluín in the Boy’s 17-and-under, Daniel Kavanagh from Wexford in the 19-and-under, and Galway’s Emma Kinane in the Girl’s 13-and-under.
The final weekend in May was the annual Wall Ball gathering at Mount Talbot, nestled on the Roscommon/Galway border.
Fresh off his victory at Breaffy House, and with sights firmly set on the World Championships, Conor McElduff proved too strong for Paudi Quish in the Men’s Open, and took top ranking points to solidify his place at the top of the Irish Wall Ball rankings. Meanwhle, Leah Doyle furthered her Wall Ball credentials with victory in the Ladies Open at the expense of Mayo’s Amy Corrigan.
With the nation happily embracing the biggest heatwave in living memory, Conor McElduff was enjoying unprecedented domination over the Irish Wall Ball scene. In a repeat of the Mount Talbot final, Irish world title hopeful McElduff again bested Paudi Quish in a successful defence of his GAAHandball Wall Ball Championship title.
Having tasted national success and clearly loving it, Martina McMahon consolidated her new-found status as queen of the Irish Wall Ball scene with another dominating performance over Laois’ Niamh Dunne.
Little over a month after the huge turnout at Breaffy House, the John West Féile na nGael at Galway venues turned out to be second largest in history with more than 70 teams competing across the three codes. Ultimately, teams from 16 different counties would challenge for divisional or plate honours.
Local club Abbeyknockmoy took top honours in the Boy’s 40x20, beating Tyrone club Breacach by the slender margin of 27-24, thanks in no small part to division one skills winner Mikey Kelly. Division two was won by Fermoy, edging fellow Cork club Ballydesmond by two points overall. Kingscourt took division three, Laois’ Cullohill division four, Clogh from Kilkenny won division five, and in perhaps the match of the weekend, Friary/Abbeyside/Ballinacourty of Waterford beat Wicklow’s Coolboy 11-10 in a tie-break, with the initial match having ended tied at 32 apiece in the division six final.
In the Girl’s 40x20, Clogh impressed most, seeing off Galway’s Micheál Breathnach to land the division one title. Kilkishen of Clare took division two and Carlow’s Garryhill came out on top in division three, with Clogh’s Amy Brennan winning the skills competition.
Division one of the Boy’s 60x30 went to Kilfane of Kilkenny, comfortably seeing off Tipperary’s Ballina, with Kilfane’s Sean O’Keefe adding the skills title for good measure, while Castleconner brought the division one plate back to Sligo after overcoming Wexford’s Castlebridge.
The Boy’s One-Wall title went to Clough Ballacolla of Laois, with the O’Moore club edging the Tribesmen’s Mountbellew/Moylough, however, the club’s girls team went one better, beating Oughterard in an all Galway final, and also landed skills titles for Joseph Gallagher and Emma Ryan.
The first half of 2018 was rounded out with the 60x30 interclub finals. Disappointingly, with no Ulster entry, Kells of Meath were already due to receive a bye to the final where they faced Limerick’s Hospital Club, benefactors of a bye themselves after Galway club Willimastown were forced to give a semi-final walkover. Despite a spirited effort from the challengers, the Royals maintained their status as the nation’s top “big alley” club.
July was a quiet month in terms of national events, with players around the country generally dividing their time between the 40x20 court (for those intent on travelling to the World Championships in August) and the traditional 60x30 code.
The warm weather provided ideal 'big alley' conditions and locally-run events were the order of the day, with Virginia HC in Cavan running an excellent doubles tournament on July 7 which was won by Offaly duo David Hope and Noel Murphy, who would continue their fine form into championship later in the season.
One of the most successful club-run events was in Tyrone, where the progressive Loughmacrory club again hosted the One Wall Lough Showdown, which proved to be an outstanding success.
This volunteer-led event attracted over 250 players with entries from Belgium and England. The club later re-opened their new centre including their renovated 60x30 court.
The weekend of August 18-19 was a famous one in the annals of Irish handball as it saw two new World Open Singles champions crowned in Killian Carroll of Cork and Limerick's Martina McMahon.
The four-wall Open Singles finals were the culmination of an excellent sojourn for the Irish at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and added to the Wallball Open Singles titles won by McMahon and Tyrone's Conor McElduff, it capped off a most extraordinary 10 days.
First to Carroll, the Boston-based Mallow man who wowed the crowds in Minneapolis and on the webcast.
He turned in a magnificent display to see off Galway’s Martin Mulkerrins in the final in a match which was a superb advertisement for the skills of our top players.
Carroll, conqueror of Westmeath’s Robbie McCarthy in a tiebreaker in the semi-final, fell 10-1 down in the opening set against the hard-hitting Moycullen man but turned the tables with a spectacular exhibition of retrieving and precise attacking play.
Carroll caught his opponent at 15 in the first game and closed it out 21-16. In the second, Mulkerrins looked a little jaded at one point but came roaring back and looked set to close it out when he led 18-16.
However, four kills and an ace serve just when they were most needed saw the 24-year-old Mallow man – now based in Boston – close it out on a 21-18 scoreline.
Carroll is the first new world champion to be crowned since Paul Brady in 2003. Cavan’s Brady qualified for the semi-finals here but was forced to withdraw due to a badly sprained ankle sustained during his quarter-final win over Mexican Luis Cordova.
Meanwhile, in the Women’s Open, Ireland’s Martina McMahon, Ciana Ní Churaoin, Catriona Casey and holder Aisling Reilly made up the final four, with McMahon coming through to defeat Casey in the final on a 21-18, 21-12 scoreline with a spectacular exhibition of aggressive attacking play.
And the pair would meet again in an epic 60x30 final before the year was out...
What must surely rank as the greatest rivalry in Irish female sport threw up another epic at Croke Park on Saturday, September 29 with Martina McMahon defeating Catriona Casey 14-21, 21-20, 21-20 in the MyClubShop.ie All-Ireland 60x30 Senior Singles final.
Incredibly, their 40x20 senior final earlier in the year had also gone to a 21-20 third game, with the Limerick lady also claiming the title on that occasion.
In the third game of the 'big alley' final, the duo were level an astonishing nine times, with both playing aggressively and the crowd on their feet.
McMahon went 20-17 up with an unreturned serve but 2017 champ Casey wasn’t going away and drew level at 20-all.
She had two chances to win it but eventually McMahon closed it out with a right-corner kill. The players were awarded a rare standing ovation from the attendance after another astonishingly close battle.
In the men’s final, Westmeath’s Robbie McCarthy turned back nine-time winner Eoin Kennedy of Dublin on a 21-19, 21-14 scoreline.
Early on, the Mullingar maestro looked stronger, despite some notably aggressive play from Kennedy, nine years his senior. McCarthy built up a 20-12 lead and while Kennedy came roaring back to 19, a flat rollout from the backwall saw McCarthy return to service box and he closed it out after a dramatic rally.
Game two followed a similar pattern. The early exchanges were close but McCarthy surged into a 16-7 lead with some deft front court play.
After patient play, he buried another for 18 and was soon serving for the match before Kennedy again turned it on getting back to 14 before McCarthy sealed his seventh title with a sweetly-struck kill in the left corner.
In the Minor Singles final, Kilkenny’s Jack Holden beat Kerry’s Daire Keane 21-12, 21-18.
October was all about doubles in the big court - the grand old code which many would opine is the most attractive form of handball of the lot - with the senior finals down for decision.
The men's grade produced one of the best deciders in years and, in the end, the familiar Meath colours came out on top after Kells duo Brian Carroll and Gary McConnell saw off Dublin's Eoin Kennedy and Carl Browne in a pulsating final at Croke Park.
The Royals fell 9-1 down in the first game, with first-time finalist McConnell displaying signs of nerves.
However, they quickly settled and even though they lost the first set 21-19, they rallied to win the second 21-14 and out-lasted the Dubs 21-17 in a thrilling third game, with McConnell immense in the closing exchanges.
Carroll now has eight medals in this grade in the traditional 'big alley', having won the title seven times before in partnership with the retired Tom Sheridan.
Earlier, Kilkenny's Ciaran Cooney and Billy O'Neill won the Minor Doubles against Cork, with the Cats also claiming the Intermediate Singles when left-hander Brian Mahon crowned an excellent season by defeating another citeog, Waterford's Philip Butler, in a third game (21-9, 13-21, 21-8).
Elsewhere, the top ladies 60x30 doubles pairing of Cork's Catriona Casey and Aishling O'Keeffe retained their MyClubShop.ie All-Ireland 60x30 Senior Doubles title when they had a comfortable win over Kilkenny's Ciara Mahon and Aoife Holden at Croke Park on Saturday.
With Casey controlling play from the left of the court, the Rebels ran out emphatic 21-4 winners in game one before Kilkenny upped the pace and asked some questions of the Rebels.
However, the Dublin-based Ballydesmond duo closed it out 21-15 in fine style to affirm their position as the dominant doubles pairing in the sport at present.
Having earlier seen off a youthful Kildare pair in the semi-final, the Cork ladies can reflect on another highly-impressive 'big alley' success.
Meanwhile, the All-Ireland juvenile 60x30 finals took place at Tipperary venues, with Kilkenny's Roisin O'Keeffe and Kyle Dunne winning the blue riband U16 Singles titles respectively while in the second level Colleges competition, Mollie Dagg (Colaiste Chiaráin, Leixlip) and Jack Holden (Greenan College, Kilkenny) won the Senior Singles titles.
After the highs of the 60x30 season, it was back into the smaller court in November for the traditional curtain-raiser in Belfast, the St Paul's Golden Gloves, at which Diarmaid Nash and Catriona Casey claimed top honours.
Clare left-hander Nash defeated number one seed Charly Shanks of Armagh in the final (15-3, 15-6) while Cork's Casey saw off local favourite Aisling Reilly (15-1, 15-12) in the Ladies decider.
Nash was awesome in his semi-final against Martin Mulkerrins, winning the first game 15-0 and riding his momentum to a 5-0 lead in the second and while the Galway man rallied, the Tuamgraney clubman closed it out 15-7.
In his semi-final, Shanks, meanwhile, rallied from 11-2 and 14-7 down to win the first game 15-14 against Wicklow's Michael Gregan and followed up with a 15-1 win in the second.
Elsewhere, Casey was in splendid form as she eased to yet another ranking success, just a week after winning the latest WPH pro stop in Tucson.
The Ballydesmond superstar saw off Sinead Meagher in straight games (15-2, 15-0) in her semi-final before defeating St Paul's own Reilly in the final.
The event was a huge success, with 180 matches over three days.
The final national championship of the 2018 season was completed on November 24 with the 40x20 Inter-club championships.
In the Open grade, played in Culohill, Coolboy (Wicklow) took the premier title for the first time when they defeated Glenbeigh (Kerry) in the final on a 74-42 scoreline.
Moycullen (Galway) defeated Antrim's St Gall's 81-58 in the Junior final in Leixlip and St Brigid's, with Kilkenny's Windgap seeing off Limerick's Hospital (62-46) in the Junior B final at Curraghboy.
The final month of the year saw a focus on club tournament activity, with two very successful competitions in Galway. First up was the Salthill Open, which was run by the Galway City club and proved a resounding success again, with Monaghan's Gavin Coyle winning the A Singles.
Just out the road the following week, Moycullen Handball Club held their first Open and this time the title stayed in Connemara as All-Ireland champion Martin Mulkerrins took first place on his home court with a final win against Diarmaid Nash.