the handball alley

the game
Handball is an ancient game, played in various forms all over the world. In modern historical terms, the earliest known records of its playing in Ireland date to the Statutes of Galway in 1527 wherein people were ordered to stop playing handball against walls in the town. Castleblaney, a painting from 1786 by John Nixon depicts handball being played against a ruined castle wall. Literature sources mention its playing from the mid 1700s, though the 1800s and into the late 1900s, predominantly in appropriated spaces until the early 20th century, the more common of which included religious ruins, unused RIC barracks, walls of bridges, and walls of hillside lime kilns. Although now an international sport and keenly supported in many parts of Ireland, its last great era occurred during the 1970s. Handball is now mainly an indoor sport and those examples still in good repair are rarely used for playing handball, only by the Traveller Community, if at all.

Irish emigrants are credited with bring handball to North America (though influences also came from south and central America) where to this day it thrives as an urban sport. It was included in the G.A.A. charter from its foundation. The first G.A.A. Handball Championships were held in 1923, coinciding with a renewed interest in the game evident by the construction of purpose built handball alleys across the country during the preceding decade.

the alley
The handball alley has an inherent architectural, sculptural and aesthetic beauty, possessing a striking form unarticulated or adorned in any architectural sense. Purpose-built alleys first emerged in the late 1700s; though seem to have remained the exception for at least a further 100 years. These early purpose-built alleys typically comprised two short side walls either side of a wide front wall. Later versions extended these walls and raised the height of the front wall making the familiar 3-wall alley standard by the early 20th century. A fourth back wall was added in the 1950s and incorporated various combinations of solid walls, viewing windows, or raised viewing terraces above changing rooms or void space. A small proportion of alleys were later internalised by the addition of a roof. Interestingly, the size of the floor space remained relatively consistent from the outset.

The handball alley was significant in the cultural and political life of the surrounding community. For the most part it was built by voluntary local labour, though alleys were sometimes gifted by landlords and patrons.Throughout its history playing handball was associated with large, often day-long, gatherings; people waiting for a game, those spectating, those engaged in betting and match-making activities. The introduction of high enclosing walls resulted in such gatherings became more formalised and a socio-political role emerge. In addition to Sunday dances, card playing and hiring place for casual and seasonal labour, other common uses of the handball alley include as a meeting place during the 1798 Rebellion, the Black and Tan era and the Civil War, and sometimes as a place for execution-style killings.

The handball alley was built on shared community sites often attached to schools, lime kilns or religious ruins. Construction methods paralleled the evolution of construction techniques in Ireland. Early examples were constructed from timber planks, cut stone, rough stone or rubble, with cement, mass concrete, precast concrete and brick used in later examples.

It is evident from surviving examples that the handball alley demonstrates the ambitious, non-expert application of these advances in construction technologies; in the marking of their long, tall and thin walls, the stepped viewing galleries and changing rooms added in later years and the occasional roofed typology.

Interest in the game went through a period of decline in the early decades of the 20th century as people began to move to towns and cities and transportation advances made it easier to assemble teams of people for the increasingly popular hurling and football games. Interest revived when television and other media coverage broadened their focus beyond these two games. Air travel made Ireland accessible for competitors from the USA but while this initially strengthened the popularity of handball, it subsequently contributed to its decline as a ‘national pastime’. Now positioned in a world rather than national arena, international rules began to dominate, with the international standard adopted in 1969. This required the changing the ball from the ‘Irish hardball’ to a soft rubber ball and reducing the court size to 20x40 feet. New, mainly indoor, covered courts were built and use of the ‘big alley’ declined.

Attitudes regarding the value of these alleys have changed in the years since their decline as a focus of rural community life, resulting in their ongoing demolition. Some of them are used as garages, animal pens, and dumping places, but most are truly abandoned.
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