Ireland’s other national game

Handball court, Inis Mór (and me)

IN THE MIDDLE of each of Joey Maher’s soft palms, there is a deep round hollow. “I still have the mark of the ball, there,” he says, turning his big hand upwards to show the circular hole scooped out by decades of hard hits. Joey was a handball player, with three world championship trophies on his mantelpiece. “Maybe it damaged the veins there and the blood won’t go through them or something,” he says. “I don’t know.” He hasn’t played since a stroke several years ago, but still carries the marks of his thirty-year career.

Handball, Ireland’s third national game, has been in decline for the last hundred years or so. “Years ago it was a big thing,” says Maher, who won the first of his thirty All-Ireland titles as a junior in 1956. “Handball was getting bigger headlines in the papers than basketball, camogie and everything. We used to play different places around the country, and the places would be chock-a-block with supporters, they’d have three or four or five hundred at games. Some great memories of games there, now. There was some great courts around the place.” As recently as 1982, Dublin had 39 ball alleys in regular use. Galway had 43.

The distinctive shape of the handball alley – a high back wall or stone or concrete, with two side walls climbing diagonally to meet it – is still a familiar sight in Ireland, along roads and in small towns. But more often than not, its stone or poured concrete is crumbling. Some are gradually being subsumed by woodland; some house bins and gas canisters behind restaurants and supermarkets. Some have been pressed into service as election billboards. (“Vote Comiskey No1”). Most are weedy, their playing surfaces cracked and raised with waste greenery.

The current senior All-Ireland handball champion, Eoin Kennedy, is from a handballing line: his father Eugene was a well-known player. “My dad was from Boyle in county Roscommon,” Kennedy says. “And in Boyle [the alley] would have been one of the focus points – people would all go down after Mass.” Unlike the field sports, anyone could join in. “It was a game you could just go in and play, it wasn’t like football or hurling. There was definitely a social side to it.”

The same laws forbade anyone whose name began with O’ or Mac from being in the English-occupied town between dusk and dawn

Kennedy has a PhD in electronic engineering and, when he isn’t winning handball championships, works on the national electrical grid. I meet him one sunny autumn evening at St Brigid’s GAA in Castleknock, one of the few clubs left in Dublin that still have handball alleys. He pitches in to train young boys and girls at the club. While I watch from the viewing gallery – the handball alley itself is entered via a strange, undersized door beneath a staircase that looks rather like something from Alice in Wonderland – he plays a gentle knockaround with some enthusiastic boys. Even at this level, his grace and power are obvious. (Watching championship handballers hit shots is like seeing bears swat salmon: the ball doesn’t stand a chance.)

Enda Timoney is another trainer at the club. A PE teacher, he also serves on the Handball Council’s coaching team and is a passionate evangelist for the sport – both on its own merits and as a suitable subject for PE lessons. He fills me in on the basics of the game while Kennedy plays. “This here’s the underhand… This here’s the overhand… And this here’s the sidearm,” he says, demonstrating. “It’s all about the midfield. If you want to be controlling your game, you have to control the centre of the court. You play defensive shot, defensive shot until somebody makes a mistake – and then you play an offensive shot. A kill.”

The first written record of handball in this country dates from as far back as 1527, when a town statute in Galway banned the playing of ball games against the city walls. (The same laws, according to historian Tom O’Connor, forbade anyone whose name began with O’ or Mac from being in the English-occupied town between dusk and dawn.) Purpose-built alleys didn’t emerge until the 1700s – but until then, people improvised. Any high wall would do. At the ruined Priory in Kells, Co Kilkenny, OPW surveyors noted that the inscriptions on the flagstones had been worn away by the feet of handball players

Short blue satin breeches above the knee, with a gold stripe down the side, and an open-web jersey

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Ireland’s top players would challenge each other to high-stakes matches with wagers of £100 – something like €50,000 today. Huge crowds would gather to watch. And the players were regarded rather like celebrities. A press report from 1887 relates breathlessly that champion John Lawlor played in a fetching set of “short blue satin breeches above the knee, with a gold stripe down the side, and an open-web jersey.” Swoon.

Áine Ryan, an architect by training, has made it her business to track down all Ireland’s old handball alleys – or the places where alleys once stood – and document them. So far, she has identified some 650 sites around the country. Handball courts, she says, stand alongside round towers and the spirit grocer (pubs that also sell food or hardware) as one of the only examples of uniquely Irish architecture; and as such, are something we should be proud of.

What sparked her interest in the alleys? “There was a handball alley near where I grew up, at the Turn Pike just past Urlingford,” she says. “And I was always fascinated by this particular alley for as long as I can remember. So I tried to find out a bit more about it, and in doing so I discovered that it wasn’t only used as a handball alley. It was also a place where parish dances took place.”

The unroofed handball courts were, she discovered, a sort of community centre for villages. “There are a lot of records of the alleys being used for all sorts of things,” she says. The United Irishmen of 1798 trained and met in handball alleys, as did the armed forces of the Black and Tan era. They were the venues for work fairs – “so people would gather in the handball alleys and wait for employers to come along and hire them” – Hallowe’en bonfires, and, in the 1970s and 80s, discos. They were part of the life of a town. Ryan calls the alleys “secular social spaces”: they were the only place Irish people could congregate that wasn’t the church or the pub.

As a child, Joey Maher spent hour after hour on the alley. “After school we’d rush home, do our exercises and then over to the ball alley,” he says. “Then when the big fellas would come that night, our job would be watching the ball” if it went over the wall. Balls were a valuable commodity then; if they wanted to play football, he said, “we had to make our own. Out of a piece of paper and your mother’s nylon stockings.

And you courting a woman, you could bring her to the pictures in the middle of the week

Even as a teenager he was at the court “every night”, he says. “Every night. Back then, sure there wasn’t much, only the pictures. And the old men all round there, there’d be a dozen of them on the wall every night and we used to entertain them playing each other for a couple of bob. There’d be a dozen or twenty people, all old people with walking sticks and everything, coming to watch the handball.” Well-to-do people in the area would pay a pound – “and that was a lot of money then” – to have Joey play exhibition matches for them and their guests. This had fringe benefits for a good player. “And you courting a woman,” he says, “you could bring her to the pictures in the middle of the week.”

Before the 1960s, the game used a hardball. A hardball has a core of wood wrapped in elastic and stitched in pigskin; it looks anachronistic, like it could be a prop from Braveheart. “That’s the real handball game,” Maher says. “There’s not many have the knack of really hitting the hardball. There’s an art in hitting that ball.” Growing enthusiastic, he levers himself off the armchair to demonstrate, a 76-year-old standing in his small living room packed high with trophies, cups, and photographs. “You serve that one real low, it’s a real hard serve and you’re cutting over the short line and it’s coming at you real low, and the art is getting it back up after a tough serve. It’s very fast, that ball. Oohhh, yeh.”

The game nowadays is mostly played with a so-called “softball”, made of plastic. Maher tells me he can tell good players within seconds of walking into the alley: if they’re up to scratch, you can smell the rubber ball burning.

Around mid-century, handball players were so well-known they were appearing on cigarette cards. Maher reminisces about a former champion coming to a local tournament when he was a child. “I remember Johnny Dwyer coming up. And all the old men were ‘Ah Johnny hit one, hit one’,” he says. “So Johnny took off his coat just to hit a ball, and got a big round of applause.” Today, the children playing football at St Brigid’s GAA do not recognise Eoin Kennedy on the court, though he trains at their club; and the Millmount alley where Maher watched Johnny Dwyer hit the ball is, like many others, now derelict.

The world has moved on, and left the big alleys behind

So what happened to handball? There are competing theories. One of them is that the development of roads and transport in rural Ireland made team sports more attractive. “With the availability of other modes of transport, team sports became popular,” says Áine Ryan. “Because you could assemble a team, and also people could pool up together in cars and get to a game. So you could have spectators and two teams.” Handball, which only needed two players and a ball, suffered as a consequence.

Another idea is that the very nature of the old handball alleys, which were social centres as much as sporting facilities, rendered them redundant as society itself changed. “People went there,” Ryan suggests, “less to engage in a sport than just to meet others.” For the old men on Joey Maher’s alley wall in 1950s Drogheda, there just wasn’t anything else to do. But things are different now. “With transportation and other things, when people could move around and meet people in other places, they just stopped playing. People socialise differently now, they socialise virtually, almost. You can make your community anywhere you want it to be.” The world has moved on, and left the big alleys behind; nowadays, the old men would be pestering their grandchildren on Facebook.

All of which is not to say that handball is dead. It has new leadership in the GAA, a lot of active young players, and big plans. Enda Timoney is enthusiastic about the possibilities of hurling walls – an outdoor training facility which can also be used for handball. “Lots of clubs are building them,” he says. “And if there’s handball being played there, kids might see it – and they’re ‘I want to play that’. It’s only natural. But if you’re in here” – in a closed alley – “nobody sees it.” Some towns, too, have renovated their old alleys, and are using them again. Áine Ryan’s website has photographs of all the ones she has visited, most of which are grey and abandoned – but not all. “There’s a great one of Ballisodare, county Sligo,” says Enda. “It’s a lovely photograph because people are playing in the alley. And it’s alive.”

So there might be hope for the old alleys yet. The game may have a small constituency, but its supporters are passionate. “Handball is a kind of a drug,” Joey Maher says. “I used to get in bad humour, if I hadn’t a game for a couple of days. And I used to wonder what the hell was wrong with me.” He sits surrounded by his trophies, an old hardball sitting on the doily-covered coffee table in front of him. “And it was that. I just hadn’t a game of handball. That’s the kind of a game it is.”

First published in the Sunday Tribune

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