While provincial club football activity will take centrestage in the GAA world this weekend, in handball, the focus shifts north to Belfast for what is arguably the most famous weekend tournament in the sport.
The Golden Gloves, hosted by the St Paul’s club, has been running since 1985 and this year’s event has attracted a record entry of 183 players from 22 counties, proof of the rising tide of the sport in general.
The tournament, which draws its title from the unique framed set of handball gloves awarded to the Men’s and Ladies Open champions, has been running since 1985 and has attracted a who’s who of handball legends, with the late Michael ‘Ducksy’ Walsh winning the first renewal.
The ‘Gloves’ has long been regarded as one of the most difficult tournaments to win. With players shaking off the ring rust on their return to competitive action, upsets have been common over the years.
This year should be no exception. The star attractions in the men’s division include number one seed Charly Shanks as well as Galway’s Martin Mulkerrins, who reached the final of the World Championships in Minnesota last August, and Clare lefty Diarmaid Nash.
In the Ladies Open, leading lights Catriona Casey and former world champion Aisling Reilly, from the host club, share top billing.
Shanks, the 2017 All-Ireland senior champion, will play the winner of One Wall specialist Conor McElduff (Tyrone) and Kildare’s Niall O’Connor in the round of 16, with Nash taking on either Tyrone’s Shane O’Neill or Offaly’s David Hope, a multiple Faithful SFC medalist with Rhode.
Mulkerrins, meanwhile, will meet the winner of youngsters Daniel Relihan from Cork and Mayo’s former All-Ireland minor champion Niall Joyce.
“As curtain-raisers for the season go, it couldn’t be much tougher but that’s what we want. There will be nothing easy, every player will want to lay down a marker early and pick up ranking points,” said Shanks, a member of the Clann Eireann club in Lurgan.
“I grew up watching the Gloves and started playing in the Open when I was 18. I was lucky enough to win it twice and it ranks right up there with anything I’ve achieved in the game.”
With 180 matches down for decision over nine courts in St Paul’s, Gort na Mona, Rossa, Coláiste Féirste and Queens, the Golden Gloves will be the largest club-run handball event in the world in 2018.
“We have been working hard at it for a couple of months and we’re aiming to raise the bar and keep bringing the top players back to Belfast. We have a really stellar line-up this year in the Men’s and Ladies Opens,” said Tournament Director Séamus Ó Tuama.