Architecture: Handball alleys

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Volume 17

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 real or royal tennis, palla, pelota and Eton fives. While royal tennis was played in purpose-built courts from the early 1500s, handball, like pelota (Basque region) and palla (Tuscany), was predominantly played in appropriated spaces, such as religious ruins, vacant RIC barracks, walls of bridges and walls of hillside limekilns, until the early twentieth century.

1Purpose-built handball alleys first emerged in the late 1700s, although these seem to have remained the exception for at least a further century. Comprising two short side walls on 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 50 years. The now demolished 1950s handball alley at Johnstown, Co. Kilkenny (top), is a typical example. 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, such as the alleys to the right and left at Newport, Co. Tipperary (above). 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.
Throughout its history handball was associated with large, often day-long, gatherings involving people waiting for a game, those watching, 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 its use for Sunday dances, card-playing 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.

2From the 1880s to the 1970s handball was a popular sport in religious and military institutions, with most seminaries, secondary schools, psychiatric hospitals, RIC barracks (and later Garda stations), army barracks and fire stations typically containing multiple alleys. These tended to be built side by side, back to back or in rows, like the one at Newport (above).
Attitudes towards handball alleys have changed in recent years, with the decline in the status of the sport as a focus of rural community life resulting, in many instances, in demolition: elsewhere, handball alleys have been adapted as garages, animal pens or dumping grounds. Handball is now mainly an indoor sport and those examples still in good repair are used for playing handball primarily by the Traveller community, if at all. Nevertheless, the handball alley continues to be regarded as a vernacular building form unique to Ireland. HI

Áine Ryan is co-director of Make Use: Buildings, Places, Situations, www.irishhandballalley.blogspot.com. Series based on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage’s ‘building of the month’,
www.buildingsofireland.ie.

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