A BUSY school hall on a Sunday morning isn't quite the norm, but Edmund Rice College (ERC) was a hive of activity this week as they hosted a charity handball tournament.

The sport has experienced a huge revival at the Hightown Road school with its old courts refurbished and with the support of handball enthusiasts on the teaching staff, participation has exploded once again.

On Sunday, the tournament was in aid of ALPS (All Lives are Precious), a mental health and suicide prevention charity that provides free help and counselling through funding.

The initial plan was for a low-key tournament involving school pupils and local handballers, but after before long they had world champion Conor McElduff, former wold champion Fiona Shannon and Irish U19 champion Fiachra O'Duill just some of the names signed up, while players from across Ireland arrived to take part. 

Much of that is down to the revival of handball in the school.

In years gone by, Edmund Rice, formerly known as Hightown Road CBS, was a hotbed for the sport, producing leading names in the sport including Ricky McCann. As the years passed, it dwindled, but that is certainly not the case now as evidenced over the weekend.

A collegiate approach between the school, local GAA club, Ulster GAA, and Antrim Handball Committe has seen the school host the best players from across Ireland and Europe and increase juvenile playing numbers significantly. With a strong community focus, ERC has also supported the formation of both men's and ladies' social leagues alongside its local GAA club, Naomh Éanna.


"Four or five years ago, handball had somewhat died in Edmund Rice," said handball coach, Dan McVicker.

"Back in the old days when we were called Hightown, it was part of the DNA in the school. Every lunchtime, kids were always playing handball, so we looked at why it dropped off.

"The courts weren't in great shape, but with the generosity of a past pupil, we got the courts painted and resurfaced. The school really bought in with the backing of Miss Colette Deery, Mr Paul Beirne and his wife, we started pushing the sport.

"It's great we have Irish and European champions here, but also a testament to those who play the sport that they are coming here and hold the school in such high esteem."

Edmund Rice has been selected to host Irish trials and the 'Antrim Slam' - a wall ball tournament with 140 participants.

Players travelled from throughout Ireland and further afield, boosting the local economy as-well-as the profile of the sport in ERC.

Already, the Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council have pledged to back further competitions as it's a win-win for all involved.


"There were just 20 players from the district and 120 came from places as far away as the Basque Country and then right throughout Ireland," Dan explained.

"The Council was delighted and have committed to backing us going forward as in their mind, that was 120 people visiting the Borough who spent money in the shops, stayed in the hotels and got to see what the area has to offer.

"To get the Irish trials is also great as there are around 100 schools in Ireland with courts and many more clubs, so we were delighted to be selected. The school is also a hub for other schools and clubs as we host training sessions for schools in West Belfast, St Malachy's, St Mary's on the Hill, Gaelscoil Éanna and St Bernard's all come and make use of the courts, which has helped drive the game."

Already, there are Ulster and European champions in the school and others who have come up just short in finals despite having just taken up the sport a few years ago.

An Ulster Colleges title - the first in the school's history despite having produced top players over the years - was a major boost and won by girls who have also just taken up the sport.


"It's mental as within a year, they have fitted about 10 years of handball in," said Dan, who will manage Team Ireland for the upcoming World Championships in Limerick alongside Tyrone's Paula Clarke.

"Every day during lunchtime they are playing and rocking up to the school at 8.30am looking to get a game before classes start, then after school until 5pm.

"Handball is a GAA sport, but a sport for everyone of all ages. We have people playing in the upcoming World Championships from U11, up to over 80 years of age."

Last weekend's tournament, which ran from Friday until its conclusion on Sunday, exemplified the hard work that is being done at ERC.

It also underlined the charity ethos with handball coach and teacher, Colette Deery, set to take on the Italian Camino over the summer with a fellow teacher to raise further funds for ALPS which was central to the weekend tournament also.

ERC prides itself on its community ethos, forging a welcoming environment for all where its pupils are cherished.


Sport, recreation and pupil welfare go hand-in-hand, so using handball as a vehicle for positive change is leading to not just success on the court, but in a wider context.

"Academics is obviously a priority, but if you speak to the principal (Mr Beirne) or our Community Manager, Miss Deery, we are creating an environment where they can thrive and succeed in the real world, building resilience," Dan continued.

"The kids in the school all look out for each other and although we don't shout about mental health, everyone knows we are here for them as there is a family feel to the school."


Men's Open Doubles

1st Conor McElduff and Paul Donnelly (Tyrone)
2nd Ben Devlin and Jack Turkey (Louth and Down)

Men's A
1st Paul Magill (Antrim)
2nd Callum Gallagher (Monaghan)

Men's B
1st Paul Bateson (Derry)
2nd Gerard Lynch (Antrim)

Ladies A
1st Una Cassidy (Antrim)  
2nd Maura Creelman (Antrim)

Ladies B
1st Deirbhile O’Neill (Antrim)
2nd Ciara Smyth (Antrim)

Girls Juvenile
1st Cliona McGinley (Antrim)
2nd Meadhbh Gallagher (Antrim)

Boys Juvenile
1st Kevin McGrath (Armagh)
2nd Cormac Walters (Armagh)

Player of the Tournament: Kevin McGrath (Armagh)