2023 a break-out year for GAA handball:

By Paul Fitzpatrick

While Gaelic football and hurling are the leading GAA codes in terms of participation, 2023 was something of a break-out year for another part of the family – handball.

In 2022, handball came under the wing of the GAA’s Coaching & Games Department and with a long-awaited new National Handball Centre opened at Croke Park, changes to the staffing structure including the addition of full-time Development Officers and major governance reforms, the last year has seen rapid progress.

In recent months, clubs around the country have been reporting increased interest while several tournaments have recorded record entries as the changes undertaken begin to take effect ahead of schedule.

Waterford native David Britton took up the reins as Head of Handball in late 2022 and believes the sport has made great strides in the year just passed.

“Integration began in 2022 so it’s relatively early in that journey. We have had huge support from Shane Flanagan (Director of Coaching & Games) and Tom Ryan (GAA Director General), going back as far as last December with the European 1-Wall Elite event in Croke Park, and now we are really starting to reap the benefits of that integration piece and the ongoing connection,” Britton told GAA.ie.

“Last week, for example, over 50 GPOs were in the National Handball Centre doing the handball Foundation coaching course which will in turn allow them to go out next year and start delivering handball within the schools.

“We have just confirmed that another county board will be doing the same thing early in the new year as well. From a structural perspective and an overall organisational perspective, the link with Coaching & Games has been a huge boost for handball.”

Handball found itself struggling after the pandemic; as a primarily indoor sport, activity was greatly restricted for long spells. By the time the green light was given to return, membership had fallen and the sport was in a worrying position. Radical changes have helped turn that situation around.

“It’s an entirely new staff, including myself, I have just gone past my first year in the job. We have introduced a centre co-ordinator, a new Competitions Officer and on top of that we have seen the introduction of three Regional Development Officers.

“So there has been a complete re-staffing in the office and also the structure itself has changed. The previous structure that was there didn’t have space for RDOs and we can see the impact they’re having already, along with the impact of the two coaches in Ulster as well, Fiona Shannon and Eilise McCrory.

“There have been over 200 different GAA Handball-specific programmes delivered since the start of the year to over 13,000 people. For the first time, we have been included in the GAA World Games and in Cúl Camps as well which is massive for the sport. It’s putting the sport where it probably always thought it should be.”

Britton’s primary focus has been on reforming the governance end of the sport. It’s far from glamorous work but, he says, it is essential and, a year on, GAA Handball are in a strong position.

“When I came into the job it was abundantly evident that that was the area where the origination was at its weakest, to the point where the Minister for Sport had written to the Uachtarán, Larry McCarthy, pointing out these shortcomings in governance within GAA Handball.

“It was also having a detrimental impact on our ability to draw down government funding through Sport Ireland. They had put a freeze on all funding as far back as 2022 due to these non-compliance issues around governance.

“For the last 12 months we have worked very, very closely with Sport Ireland and they have been very good in providing us with their expert services. We also worked very closely with the departments in the GAA to assist us in becoming code compliant and because of the work we have put in in the last 12 months, Sport Ireland has now released the funding that they were withholding due to non-compliance.

“This is a big step forward for the organisation. Compliance with the good governance code for sport is a requirement, it’s not negotiable, this is something that Sport Ireland have told any NGB (National Governing Body) that is receiving government funding that they must do in order to receive funding.

“The structural piece and the governance piece were the two priorities when I came into the job. Getting the staffing structures correct, getting the volunteer structures correct in relation to the suite of governance reforms which were introduced at the last GAA Handball Congress in relation to Ard Comhairle and the various sub-committees required to push us further towards that compliance. That and getting the National Handball and Community Centre, which was built in 2019, fully operational from a handball perspective.

“There has been huge work done in these areas over the last 12 months and it’s all very positive. Sport Ireland have been very complimentary about the work that has been done. The meat on the bone is that we are seeing the money that has been withheld now being released, so we are on a good footing going forward.”

Britton is new to the game itself but he has detected a real buzz on the ground.

“It’s important to state that I’m coming into this position as a new set of eyes given the fact that I don’t come from a handball background, my sporting background is primarily in boxing, so I can’t speak to what participation was like in the past but what I can say is that the feedback from the staff and members is very positive.

“We are up approximately 35% on last year’s entries in the Junior Nationals, that is a huge jump and we are seeing increases across all competitions. And anecdotally, we are hearing good things from members of the organisation who regularly speak about how positive things currently are. They are being inundated with enquiries about the game from new people looking to get into the sport and from people looking to get back into it.

“It’s something we have also witnessed in the National Handball Centre in relation to the activity up there. It’s getting busier all the time.”

Next August, Ireland will host the World Wallball Championships at the University of Limerick, followed by the World 4-Wall Championships in Kilkenny, Carlow, Laois and Dublin in October.

“I think there is a huge potential there for the development and growth of the sport. Next year we are hosting two World Championships, which I believe has never been done before, and it’s also the centenary of the establishment of the Irish Handball Council so those events are going to be at the forefront of everybody’s minds.

“We want to platform and show the sport at its best. That’s what we’re really here to do, to grow and develop this sport. That’s the reason the restructuring was done and the RDOs were hired, it’s to give us the best possibility of achieving that development.

“The work they are doing with schools, through Local Sports Partnerships, through initiatives like the one with the North East Inner City Dublin (NEIC) initiative, across the board – that’s really going to push the growth of this sport.

“The more we can highlight our fantastic sport through the upcoming World Championships and our centenary celebrations, the more appealing the sport is going to become to the wider GAA family and the public in general.

“I’d like to look back this time next year, all going well, on what will have been a very positive year for handball, with growth that is measurable and sustainable as well.”