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Building of the Month - March 2009

The Irish Handball Alley

Irish Handball Alley 01 - Ballykelly, Wexford Irish Handball Alley 02 - Ballykelly, Wexford

Figures 1-2: A view of the handball alley in Ballykelly, County Wexford, adapted from a vacant Catholic chapel (1796).  Evidence of the ecclesiastical origins survives in a small collection of cut-stone wall monuments with one inscribed: "Pray For Ned/Crowley 1788"

Handball is known to have been played in Ireland from at least the mid 1500s.  Its origins are likely shared with the contemporaneous games of Royal Tennis, Palla, Pelota and Eton Fives.  While Royal Tennis was played in purpose-built courts from the early 1500s, handball, like Palla (Tuscany) and Pelota (Basque Region), was predominantly played in appropriated spaces until the early twentieth century (figs. 1-2).

Purpose-built handball alleys first emerged in the late 1700s although these seem to have remained the exception for at least a further one hundred years.  Comprising two short side walls either side of the playing wall, the early examples signalled the introduction of side-wall play into what was previously a one-wall game, a practice credited to the playing of handball on Royal Tennis courts in London throughout the 1700s.  Later versions lengthened these walls and raised the height of the playing wall, culminating in the familiar three-wall alley: this form was to become the standard by the early twentieth century, in rural and urban settings alike, and was to endure for a further fifty years.  The handball alleys at Johnstown, County Kilkenny (fig. 3), and Kilmacteige, County Sligo (fig. 4), can be considered as typical examples.  The inclusion of a fourth wall became popular with advances in concrete construction and tended to incorporate viewing terraces above changing rooms or a 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.

Irish Handball Alley 03 - Johnstown, Kilkenny Irish Handball Alley 04 - Kilmacteige, Sligo

Figures 3-4: A view of the handball alleys in Johnstown, County Kilkenny (demolished), and Kilmacteige, County Sligo, both of which adhere to the three-wall alley type

Throughout its history handball was associated with large, often day-long gatherings involving people waiting for a game, those spectating, and those engaged in betting and match-making activities.  The introduction of high enclosing walls resulted in such gatherings becoming more formalised and, on occasions, more covert.  In addition to card playing, Sunday dances, and as a hiring place for casual and seasonal labour, the handball alley was often used as a meeting place during the 1798 Rebellion, the Black and Tan era and the Civil War.

Irish Handball Alley 05 - Gormanston, Meath Irish Handball Alley 06 - Newport, Tipperary

Figures 5-6: A view of the handball alleys at Gormanston College, County Meath, a good example of the twentieth-century back-to-back type centred on a water tower; and the handball alleys in Newport, County Tipperary, built against the wall of the nineteenth-century Newport National School (1876)

From the 1880s to the 1970s handball remained a popular sport in military and religious institutions with most barracks, fire stations, Garda Síochána stations, hospitals, schools and seminaries typically boasting multiple alleys.  These tended to be built back-to-back, side-by-side, or in rows, of which those at Gormanston College, County Meath (fig. 5), and Newport, County Tipperary (fig. 6), are particularly fine examples.

Attitudes towards handball alleys have changed in recent years with the decline in the status of the sport as a focal point of rural community life resulting, in many instances, in demolition: elsewhere, handball alleys have been adapted as animal pens, garages, or dumping grounds.  Handball is now primarily an indoor sport and those examples still in good repair are used mainly by the Traveller Community, if at all.  Nevertheless, the handball alley continues to be regarded as an important vernacular building form unique to Ireland.

Irish Handball Alley 07 - Courtown, Wexford 

Figure 7: A view of Tara Hall (1914), Courtown, County Wexford, a dance hall reconstructed by a Mr. Redmond repurposing the shell of a later nineteenth-century handball alley erected by the Earl of Courtown

My research on the evolution of the physical form of the handball alley involves surveying surviving examples and documenting those that have been lost.  In carrying out this research I have identified a possible correlation with the eighteenth-century lime kiln, at least in terms of location and possibly also in terms of dimensions.  It is expected that the continuing survey process will highlight further local, regional, and international influences on the form of the Irish handball alley.

This research is being undertaken by Áine Ryan, co-director of make use: buildings places situations, and has been kindly assisted by a Research Grant from the Heritage Council.  It commenced in June 2008 and, to date, over 550 examples have been identified with photographs of approximately 160 handball alleys displayed on the project website: www.irishhandballalley.blogspot.com.  Correspondence is welcomed by contacting Áine at irishhandballalley@gmail.com.

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