Curated by Caoimhe Coburn Gray

JUNE 2021

 

Handball Alleys are magical places.  Honest, natural and unadorned, they pepper the length and breadth of Ireland, their location and condition embracing the geographical diversity of the nation.  Firmly embedded in the Irish psyche, they are fascinating structures with stories that go beyond sport – spaces for everything from matchmaking to card playing – where people have gathered to dance, to chat, to meet, to play…

For this reason they were chosen as the presentation spaces for IN THE MAGIC HOUR by David Bolger and Christopher Ash and IN YOUR WORDS is a collection of inspiring moments and living histories gathered as we researched the project. We have been humbled by the generosity of those who maintain and use these spaces in sharing their passion and stories with us – thank you!

 

DESCRIBE THE HANDBALL ALLEY IN (approximately) 1 WORD…

PUBLIC SPACE

– Áine Ryan

COMMUNITY or HERITAGE

– Eugene Kennedy

PLAY

– Enda Timoney

ESCAPE

– Junior Griffin

LIFELINE

– Charlie Nolan

A FOCUS

– Ned Griffin

OPEN or FREE

– Robbie Brown

A BIG PART OF MY LIFE

– Michael Enright

 

LISTOWEL, KERRY

JUNIOR GRIFFIN

 

 

For those down there it really got us out of harms way and it kept us out of harms way you know? But I’ll tell you now I can remember when I was young, I think I might have told you that, but when I was young on a Sunday morning it was absolutely packed. Packed…An old penny, where would we get an old penny – we got it somewhere. And we’d go to Woodford and Mrs Dowling and we’d buy the apples and come in and sell the apples in the alley and our aim was 4 pence. If we got 4 of the old pence, that’s what we wanted – 2 pence for the matinee and 2 pence for the…Cleeve’s slab toffee I think it was d’you know, and our week was made.

Players down there well if they wanted a game when we were finished our game they’d go in and some of us would go in but we might have to wait 4 or 5 games before we’d actually get to, you know, but he’d say who was next and there’d be a few chancers who’d say “oh it’s my turn…”

A lot of the lads would hate to see Johnny come down to play handball, and more than likely on a Sunday morning, because he played with the fist and (there’s) no control with the fist and Johnny’d over the wall and into the river.

The boys in the different houses along, most of them played handball.

I suppose the word ‘escape’ might come into it. It was our kind of escape. It was our escape from home, jobs and all that kind of stuff.

A verse I had now: “No more do young men sally, to toss the ball against the wall, of my beloved alley.”

CHARLIE NOLAN

 

 

To play handball you had to have gloves and we couldn’t afford the gloves, in the 80’s, and what happened then was your hand would swell up and I had the ring on my finger, the wedding ring, and you couldn’t see that- you never thought of it like we were so interested in playing and competition and when I came home we had it in water for hours and hours and hours, it took ages!

But this place, it was vibrant at that time like. There was always somebody in here with a handball.

Everybody didn’t own a handball because they were too dear. And 9 times out of 10 if it went over that it’d go down into Toddy Buckley’s so you’d go up the wall and you’d climb down the far side but he used to have cross dogs and you’d have to make it very fast. Now if it went on the road it’d roll all the way down to the bridge road to the hollow so you’ve a chance of getting it. But if it went into the river and there was any drop of water it was gone, that was it like.

We used to be sitting on the bench watching Junior and the four senior guys as we’d call them, and we’d just be watching what they were doing.

No well sometimes we’d stone them from up above. But in all fairness to them like, see what the rule was and we didn’t understand it at the time, the rule was they were all working. And in the evening, that was their time, and Sundays. Sunday was their big day like I’d say because they were all off so and when they’d come in then we just had to get out like. It was proper like. We were young at the time we didn’t understand.

No it was different times like. It is a pity.

*Photograph of Junior Griffin being presented with Shield courtesy of Éamon and Breandán Ó Murchú – in photograph are John Keane, Breandán Ó Murchú, Junior Griffin, Mr Fitzgibbon, Johnny Halloran and Seamus Browne

 

BROADFORD, LIMERICK

TOM O’BRIEN

Handball was first played here in the late 1800’s in the old court, it was a 2 wall court. First played by the RIC – there was a barracks and there’d be barracks in most villages down through the years. It was a 2 wall court and it would have probably been an earthen floor as well – I mean there was no concrete in those days. And it started from there…

…In those days of course there was probably a social outlet for people as well, they had no place to go, very few people had cars in the 50’s and 60’s and I remember in the alley on Saturdays and especially on Sundays the gallery would be packed…People would wait their turn to go in. A lot of us, I remember…we used to play pitch and toss – it’s a very old game. You put a stone down on the ground and you stand back maybe 6 or 7 feet and you used to toss pennies and the nearest penny to the stone…we used to play all those games down through the years.

…A big crack appeared in one of the walls so the Council deemed it a dangerous building…and then a few of us got together and decided we’d build…We had 5 acres here so we decided to build a big court first – that was 1980. And it was voluntary labour, you wouldn’t do it now with health and safety but we actually built the court ourselves over about 2 or 3 years..we spent our Saturdays here and we were – how should I say it – as bricklayers we were nearly qualified by the time it was finished! …The fun we had there, building it.

 

KILLEIGH, OFFALY

 

John: In Joe’s time handball was a big game, a big sport here – like and Joe growing up, you know. But then I came along in the 50’s and by the time I was
         10 like, you know what I mean you were always in the alley in the morning – playing after mass, we’d get to go to the alley so we would and in
         the afternoon, the boys play.

 

Joe: I was playing here in the 50’s up through the 80’s and on a Sunday all the good guys…you could wait 2 hours to get a game, you know.

       …Even bets of 6 pence, pretty heavy – Paddy Power wouldn’t be interested. Or a shilling again, it got very serious – a lot of arguments. 

John: It was and another thing is this much, as young fellas we were younger we’d be outside maybe playing at the pump – there was a pump out there,
        and the ball’d come over – throw it back. In. Because it used to go through the little wire up there on the top. But the one good thing about it
        was – when the lads were finished, you might get a 6 pence or a thrupence to go to the shop for an ice-cream. Oh by God they did, yes, I’ll
        have to say that, yes. And we used to look forward to that too, and probably if on the Sunday we didn’t get it we mightn’t peg it in on the next
        Sunday you know!

Joe: Now you’d want a 50 euro voucher for Tesco!

John: …That was a little treat for us for throwing back in the ball.

Joe: Whoever won the match won money and would have a few-

John: A few bob you know what I mean

 

Joe: There was also another dual purpose for the alley when I was young, it wasn’t heavy stuff now at that time ‘courting couples’ – if you saw a girl
       and “I’ll see you in the ball alley at half 9” – that was like winning the lotto! It wasn’t x-rated or anything now, it was nice.

John: …Yeah because you had the carnival here. See we had a carnival at that time here at the back – up there. And all the top bands played here.

        …That’s what life was then.

Joe: It was. And a peck on the cheek was the heavy stuff!

 

John: When we’d come from mass we knew that we’d get – well what did you get – there was no toasters at that time, you just held a fork in front
         of the fire in the winter time and it browned up and that was it, bit of butter and a mug of tea, into the ball alley. But then the older lads played
         in the evening time, in the afternoon. And we enjoyed watching them and then when they were gone we’d go back into the alley again. There was
         never rows about who should be in it. It was just recognised that, you just turned up and played.

        …I mean if you were good enough to get in to play in front of Joe’s house, you were good enough to go anywhere, so you were, or that’s the way I
       looked at it you know. You could take tea with anyone. 

        …I will say this much, one of the best men I ever played in front of or that played behind me was this man here.

Joe: Have you a plastic bucket there ‘til I get sick! 

 

BALLISODARE, SLIGO

THOMAS HEALY

Former Mayor of Sligo, Thomas Healy, kindly shared with me his memory of President Michael D. Higgins visiting Ballisodare and being hosted in the handball alley…

As you probably know yourself, the handball alley, there’s a lot of history with it. W.B. Yeats was meant to have written one or two of his poems from there…Where I came in on it was there was a volunteer called Martin Savage who originated from Streamstown and as you know, Martin Savage was involved in the 1916 Rising in Dublin…I ran a campaign to see about getting the bridge there in Ballisodare called after volunteer Martin Savage for the reason that his last trip was across that bridge, when he got on the train to go to Dublin. 

So how it came about was in 2016 I had the honour of being the Mayor of Sligo and Michael D. was down at the time, around the launch of the Fleadh…So we got talking about that, then he was telling me about himself and his father and the IRA and I said: 
“Well I’ll tell ya what we’re trying to do now at the moment – ‘Martin Savage’”. 
Well I just said ‘Martin Savage’ but he went into the history of Martin Savage and the whole lot. And I explained, well look we’re seeing if we can get the bridge named in the town and he said, 
“Keep me informed on that” and he said “It’ll go through all the different groups but let me know.” 

AND THEY DID LET HIM KNOW. AFTER GATHERING A PETITION OF OVER 500 SIGNATURES, GAINING SUPPORT OF LOCAL COUNCILLORS, APPLYING TO THE PLACE NAMES COMMITTEE – FINALLY, VIA SLIGO COUNTY COUNCIL…

…We invited him down. As I said we were blessed with the day we had, he came down and he met every different group in the village of Ballisodare. He was given a fish by the fishery board, the local soccer club made a presentation to him and I work with the office of public works so I got two stonemasons to cut a stone for him. The stone is cut as if it’s himself standing at the handball alley looking into the river and looking at the bridge. 

And that’s where it was…The reason why we wanted to keep the site as the ball alley was that it’d be right next to the bridge and we had to think of security for the President. When you look back at it I mean there was only a handful of people that were behind it, but to turn it all about and to have had the reception that we had – I had the Child of Grace left out for a few days before so we’d get a good day!…It was in the handball alley – he was big into W.B. Yeats so we were able to tell him the whole reason of it. And from there then we walked across the bridge and we chatted. He was delighted with the success that it was and the amount of people and young people that were excited to meet him. And that was the president’s first time in Ballisodare…

…Back in the early I think it was 40’s or 50’s every town and village had a handball alley and it was a meeting spot for a lot of people and handball was a big thing at that time. And as I said, it was a center point and we didn’t want to go into a pub and we didn’t want to go into a hotel – we got a marquee…My wife is a baker and she made a cake for him on the day because his birthday was, I think it was 2 days before his birthday or 2 days after his birthday. So we had a big sing song for the president as well ‘Happy Birthday Mr Rresident!’

…It was in there in the handball alley…I was delighted with the way it turned out, it was young and old everyone came together. We were all there for the right reasons.

…As I said to the people at the time, it’s not every town or village that gets the President coming. And not every town or village that has the president come to honour one of their own…From here on in, down the line people will remember that the President of Ireland came to Ballisodare and that’ll live in the memory for a long time. 

John McLoughlin

Around about 1997 we were asked to host a competition here based on an American outdoor handball standard, okay? So it’s called ‘One Wall’ or ‘Wall Ball’ you can take your pick from these two…Now that game originated in America probably in the 20’s or 30’s I would say. Almost certainly was something that the Irish immigrants came up with because a lot of handballers back then, a lot of Irish, emigrated in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s including my own family. And if they emigrated to cities, particularly New York and that, they found that they had these huge big warehouse buildings with these huge big high walls – which were usually cement everywhere of course! And they decided okay, well we’ve a lot of youngsters around here with nothing to do, let’s try handball. So that’s where it originated….So we were chosen for the first, or well technically the 3rd event. The original event, the very first one, was in Roscommon in 1997 and then the next one was in Kells in 1998 and the call was made then by Croke Park – was anybody at all interested in taking it, and the Sligo Handball Board said look it yes we have a lovely handball alley here already…So basically the first year in 1999…we had reasonable numbers – 2,000 or more and we took it for five or six years and it grew and grew and grew…

…If you go around the country in areas where you have a reasonably good alley like that, you will find that some of them will be marked out specifically with this red paint – apparently the colour must be red. It’s post-office red, that’s what we were told we had to get so that’s what it is! And it’s grown and grown and grown ever since and it’s hugely popular in the summer…Some of these alleys, some of them, got a bit of a lease of life, a new lease of life because of an American handball game that was imported here having been previously exported by the Irish…

…As I was saying before, if someone said ‘Ballisodare alley’ anybody involved in handball in Ireland over the age of 20 I’d say, if you said ‘Ballisodare alley’, they’d say “Oh yeah Ballisodare – that’s where the One Wall is!” because it became synonymous with One Wall handball…

…We would always like to think that we in Ballisodare were the ones who stepped up and said yeah, we are going to try this and the good news is that it has grown and become very popular since, as a summer time sport. 

*Photo of stone-carving presented to President Michael D. Higgins courtesy of Thomas Healy

 

 

QUERRIN, CLARE

ROBERT BROWN

 

 

Yes I tried to play handball, but I – my part in the handball alley in Querrin was the fact that right beside it was my grandparents’ farm so I used to come from Limerick – Easter holidays, Summer holidays. And it was in the summer mainly that handball was played. So as a youngster I tried to play but we used to use rackets, my brothers and sisters, and that was great fun as well but whenever a group came to play handball we respectfully moved off because it was their space and we knew that. But we’d often watch games, doubles and singles, and it was quite intense. I mean these guys were gruntin’ and shovin’ and with the pier, whoever would lose would generally strip off and dive into the sea in frustration. So on a Sunday afternoon it was really the place to be in the area, definitely…

…In 1945 the handball alley at that point was on the boundary of the land sticking out on to the pier so they gave some land so it could be brought back – so the pier could be used more by the fishermen without the handball interfering…Well the handball alley as far as I’m concerned was used for lots of other things – we used to have a net and you’d drag the net in and around and you’d get shelter while you cleaned it. If you wanted to paint the boat you’d bring it in there. Nowadays the people use it on stormy nights if they come in a camper van – they back in there. So it’s got lots of uses. There’s been a few little musical sessions in there. And of course, some nights it ends up – the following morning you find a lot of Carlsberg bottles and tins as a kind of a party place. So it’s got many uses but it is a well-loved part of the local life…

…As the years went by coming down to when I left school in ‘72 – by that stage it was almost dying out because unfortunately all the people who were the good players, as they got better and better, they had to emigrate. Most of them went to America or England. That’s just the reality of those times. So nowadays you don’t see anyone playing handball, it’s all rackets. Hopefully it may come back at some stage…Yes, one or two of the locals would show you. Because unless you had the handball – which was a different ball to the one we’d use for the rackets – so they would try to get you involved. Especially if they, as you said, if they came on their own they’d give you an odd lesson or two. It’s not that we didn’t try, but we were just small – we were just too small. By the time we got big enough, the people weren’t there anymore. 

NED GRIFFIN

 

 

It was the place we all went to, you know. And on Sunday there’d be a crowd of adults – there’d be maybe, there could be 30 or 40 there waiting, queuing up for a game. So we’d go down on a Sunday especially, we’d go down around 12 o’clock to get a game ourselves and then the big fellas’d come shortly after and they’d take the alley for the day and we’d go in and pick up the ball…

…They hired a local man, Tommy Power, he was a stonemason, to supervise it. The rest then I’d say was voluntary labour. So of course the raw materials were within, as you know, they took the gravel off the beach – you couldn’t do it nowadays. That’s how it was done. And also the sand from outside the pier there. And Robert’s uncle, Bill – and he’s still with us happily, he lives in England now – he was a young fella at that time and Robert says he was the water-boy. He took the water up from the sea so it was mixed with sea-water. All the ingredients, he said, except for the cement came from 50 yards away. And the concrete – I know myself, I’ve been here all my life but there lately we put wire on the top of it and there was a low spot on the floor so I thought I’d drill a hole out through the side of it just to let the water drain and I – next to impossible it was so hard. So it’s not gonna fall down, that’s for sure…

…I haven’t seen anybody play handball there in a long time no, but they play squash – don’t mind as long as it’s being used…Well the biggest problem was the ball going into the wood. But then, sometimes you’d – as soon as t’would go over the top, somebody would run out to the side to see if they could see where it went…More times you’d have trouble finding it. All the lads then would go out like the Guards doing a forensic search, all lined up together and you’d walk along slowly and gasp if you’d find it…

…The amount of enjoyment it has brought to the area over the years – it’s immense. Just from a simple thing. And the crowd that decided to do it, you know that was a big effort in 1945 to do that – it was just after the war and money was scarce too. To put the effort in and do it and then a lot of things are done and they become derelict and that’s still used today. Eighty years later almost, so it was a good investment. 

TOMMY MCINERNEY

 

 

It wasn’t organised as such, but it was the main – you really had nothing else to do…You actually picked it up from watching the older ones play…Especially a Sunday. If you didn’t have your name up there by 1 o’clock of a Sunday you probably wouldn’t get a game before 6 o’clock in the evening…

HOW WOULD YOU GET A GAME?

Well there was a little slate thing on the wall and you’d put your initials on it…

…Older locals or we used to occasionally get visitors with tennis rackets and that but the older locals would nearly throw them over the pier rather than see them in there with that. Oh that was – rackets were banned in there

OH REALLY? I MEAN, ROBBIE WAS SAYING HE PLAYED WITH RACKETS

Yeah he did but…

BUT MAYBE WAS THAT A BIT AFTER?

That would have been many years after, originally it was handball only and if you wanted anything else you could go some place else.

…We didn’t really have anything else to do around here…Oh yeah, every free moment – you could probably be down there 7 evenings of the week…depended on whether (your parents) they wanted something doing and having to find you…” 

 

CASTLEKNOCK, DUBLIN

(WITH REFERENCES T