PAUL ROUSE: Where does handball go from here?

Last week was an extraordinary one for Irish sport. The rugby Grand Slam and Rory McIlroy winning in America followed a Cheltenham Festival where the Irish dominated the English in race after race, writes Paul Rouse.

There must be serious doubts whether the horses are conscious of their great good fortune to be born Irish – how much do they know about the great history of their people?

And what of their religion? Back in 1907 (when the British Empire was at its zenith and any Irish success over England or in England was seized upon and celebrated with zeal), ‘Orby’ became the first Irish-trained horse to win the Derby at Epsom.

His return by boat to Ireland was greeted with bonfires and his owner Richard ‘Boss’ Croker was voted a freeman of Dublin.

As the celebrations continued, a Dublin woman who was thrilled with the victory expressed her joy to Croker but asked whether ‘Orby’ was a Catholic.

In the tangled identity politics of modern Ireland, it was a great question but, again, the horse was in no position to offer clarity.

Amid all the focus on rugby and golf and horse racing, a truly unique Irish sporting event was run off in Kingscourt, Co Cavan – the All-Ireland Handball Championships.

The passion of these finals, the brilliance on display, the way in which a new generation has taken the game and remade it deserves more attention.

For example, the ladies handball final which saw Martina McMahon defeat Catriona Casey is acknowledged as a genuine classic.

And yet the way the sport has shifted over the last five decades has reduced its position in Irish life. This is a shift that is impossible to deny; it is visible in the decay of outdoor handball alleys in every county in Ireland and extends from crossroads in rural areas to the backstreets of city centres.

The demise of the dedicated handball alley is something that appears unstoppable.

These are often places where the game of handball long pre-dates the building of purpose-built alleys. It was played anywhere a suitable wall could be found in towns or against mill-walls or lime-kilns, for example.

The last 50 years has seen the game move indoors. Handball alleys have been incorporated into the building of GAA social centres or into other multi-purpose sports centres around Ireland.

That handball is one of the GAA’s four officially-recognised games (alongside hurling, Gaelic football and rounders) offers it protection of a sort, even if it is clearly nowhere on the GAA list of priorities.

But while the game will survive – and may even enjoy one of its occasional flourishes of expansion – the state of the iconic handball alleys that stand abandoned on the Irish landscape will surely deteriorate.

This is despite the fact that purpose-built handball alleys are a type of building considered a uniquely Irish contribution to modern architecture (allowing for the existence of ball alleys in the Basque Country).

This point is well-made in the excellent history of such alleys that Áine Ryan has published in a chapter on ‘The Architecture of Recreation and Public Resort’ that can be found in the recently published Art and Architecture of Ireland, Vol. IV.

It says much for the architectural significance of the handball alley that it is the only sporting structure that warrants an individual entry in the book.

Ryan records how the earliest known handball alley constructed in Ireland dates from around the 1790s and was located at Carnew, Co. Wicklow.

The building of handball alleys continued across almost 200 years. Some were gifted or part-funded by local elites, others were built using the voluntary labour of local people who financed the alley themselves.

They became a focal point of social life in countryside and town. Great matches drew crowds and tournaments ran all day, against a backdrop of gambling and courtship and general revelry.

As the journalist and historian Paul Fitzpatrick has written, there was a great building spree in the early decades of the new Free State. A court was built at Belcoo (on the Fermanagh-Cavan border) in 1939 to meet “a long-felt want as there is no alley within a radius of 12 miles”. Alleys were also built at a range of education, health or other institutions. In places such as the Mental Hospital at Grangegorman alleys were built side-by-side. And there was also the building of handball alleys around pubs.

There was no one type of alley. In the west it was common for alleys to have short side-walls in order to enfold adjoining road space into the playing area.

In short, the many variations of alleys were shaped by local circumstance and this was readily apparent in the more than 800 handball alleys standing across Ireland in the early years of the new millennium.

Their unique architecture tells only part of the story.

They thrived as sites of popular recreation, places where people could gather and play or watch. Or just sit. The image of the ball alley with dozens of bikes scattered around its perimeter waiting to be reclaimed by their owners is one of the great iconic images of mid-20th century Ireland.

But then, as Fitzpatrick explained, “the local interest that spurred committees to go to the trouble, in straitened times, to gather up the money to buy materials, find a site and construct an alley was very significant, but somewhere along the line, that light was dimmed.”

And now, however, (although there are alleys that have been roofed and modernised) what remains are usually merely shells, reeking of urine and bespoiled by litter. It is as if they have been dropped in from another world.

THE idea that the handball alley should serve as the focal point of communities all across Ireland is long dead. It is a death that has left handball alleys abandoned on the landscape without obvious purpose.

What remains of them offers insight into the past – and into what has been left behind. Buildings relating to sport do not simply meet the functional requirements of a sport. Instead they do much else. They can be used to reflect the social significance of a sport and the social standing of the membership.

As Hugh Campbell has written, such places range from “the determinedly grand or exuberant, to the studiedly informal”.

The best handball alleys carry a certain grandeur — albeit one that is relatively simple. More than that, they stand as historical monuments to aspirations of another era and the idea of a thriving local community coming together in a place that was not defined by alcohol or by any commercial interest.

Perhaps their greatest, defining attribute is that they were free to use. They were almost invariably available for people to just walk in and hit a ball. Perhaps the thing that cost them their centrality is that they did not offer an opportunity to make money, aside from the bets that were sometimes laid.

Either way, handball remains an important sport in the lives of those who love it — the regret must be that it is not loved by more.

It is true that there are corners of Ireland which remain deeply committed to the game, places where the love of handball is vivid and transcends generations.

These devotees of handball will ensure that the game continues to thrive in those geographical pockets.

It is true also that the development of one-wall handball in recent years offers further possibilities for growth.

The question is whether there is an appetite to commit to the development of a sport which is elemental to human play across millennia.


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