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

 

THANK YOU!

Thank you to all of the generous individuals who shared stories with us and connected us with their communities during IN YOUR WORDS… We are extremely fortunate to have met and spoken with so many fantastic contributors and local figures and to have had a unique insight into the Irish handball alley and what it has meant, throughout the decades, to so many families and communities alike.

As the IN THE MAGIC HOUR run has come to an end, so too does our research and our active gathering of handball alley tales. If you have found your way to this website and would like to read more in the vein of local oral history, find below some links and resources that we came across during the project and that proved hugely helpful in shaping IN YOUR WORDS…

IRISHHANDBALLALLEY.IE
LISTOWEL CONNECTION
VANISHING IRELAND
THE GAA | ORAL HISTORY PROJECT

IrishHandballAlley.ie in particular has hugely informed both IN THE MAGIC HOUR and IN YOUR WORDS… If you have photographs or information on a handball alley near you, you can email irishhandballalley@gmail.com

See a testimony below from creator of IrishHandballAlley.ie Áine Ryan on how she came to be fascinated by these uniquely Irish structures…

ÁINE RYAN | JUNE 2020

I wondered about the handball alley building type long before I began to document it. We would drive past a particular alley on family journeys to visit relatives in Wexford and Dublin. Located on a section of the N8 near the turn-off for Thurles now bypassed by the M8 motorway,  passing this alley signalled that we had left the territory of my usual childhood world and that two long hours of back-seat squabbling with my siblings lay ahead. As a teenager, I wondered why it was located there seemingly in the middle of nowhere on the side of a national road, why a simple-sounding game like handball required a dedicated space that must have taken effort to build,  and whether it was used at all anymore?

As an architecture student, I passed this handball alley travelling by bus from Dublin to visit my family. I now knew that it was the bare aesthetic and geometric form of the alley set between the landscape rising behind and road passing in front that made the alley so striking to me as a child. However, I could not answer the questions that still niggled at me. Almost every mention of the handball alley led to someone making reference to architectural historian Maurice Craig who wrote that the handball alley was one of three building types indigenous to Ireland, but that seemed to be the full extent of professional knowledge about them. The name of the place – Turn Pike – suggested it might have been a place where traffic and people once stopped to pay tolls and rest, and perhaps then fall into playing handball. 

Some years later, as a practicing architect eventually travelling this route in my own car, I sometimes stopped to look at the architecture of the alley and to experience the space inside the alley; a large and entirely empty space open to the sky, contained by high and long walls without any openings except for the entrance. Another alley in Johnstown village further along this route towards Dublin appeared to be steading falling into disrepair although it was on the main street and possibly used even more that the Turn Pike, I thought. Then it was gone without a trace. I regretted having never made the time to seek out the answers to all the questions I had about this building type. 

After establishing that there was almost no scholarship and only a small number of popular studies, I made an application for a research grant to the Heritage Council of Ireland, proposing to list all the remaining alleys I could find in Ireland and collect as much information from as many local communities as I could reach. My aim was to make information about their architectural and cultural value readily accessible to those faced with the decision as to whether to keep or demolish them, as well as to the professional community of interested architects and academics. That was 2007. The documentation project is still running. It became and remains a collective endeavour defined by a sharing of many forms of information about the past sporting, political and social dimensions of this once central place in Irish life.

 

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.

MICHAEL ENRIGHT

 

 

A brother of mine, Tom, Tom Enright – he played. Dermot Buckley, Junior – they’re all gone now…

…As I said, Caoimhe, the biggest problem we had was it was a three wall alley. All the modern alleys and the ones that qualify to have competitions have to have 4 walls or else you can’t play….I lost track of it for a number of years and I lived in Sutton, in Bayside, and a friend of mine played it and he lived near me and he said “Ah sure come in!” So I did on one day, I went into Croke Park and I was hooked. I must say I love the game and I still miss it…

…I remember the gatherings on a Sunday morning after mass, you know, we all went down there. And all the seniors had the alley, us – we’d no choice of a game there you know. So yeah it was a big event, yeah…We had to adapt the actual side of it – I don’t know if you heard this or not – but we had to adapt a grassy area on the side of it and played there against the side wall…

There’s the problem too, you mentioned, of the river. Of the ball going in there…In those days a handball was expensive, it cost quite a bit of money to us then. So if you lost the ball you had to climb a wall, cross the road, climb down the other road and run around the bank of the River Feale and you hoped to find a bit of dead water and the ball was there. Such great times!…I just loved it, and I didn’t know how much I missed it until I had to leave it – so I stopped playing at about 55 I suppose, you know, and I really missed it…

…Well you’d just go down there as a kid and start playing – you just learned the hard way I suppose…Did Junior mention that it’s also a sort of social gathering of people who didn’t play handball, you know – like card-sharks. Cards, pitch and toss and stuff like that. There was a whole lot of people that didn’t play handball that was down there as well, on Sunday morning…

…It was a meeting place for people.

NOEL ROCHE

I have to say the Ball Alley was a huge part of my childhood. It was not uncommon to see twenty or more kids waiting to play. We also use to play a game called Rocky which was an elimination game so up to twenty could start the game and went on until there was only one player left. Monday afternoon was when the big boys came to play (most places closed for half day Monday and we got to watch players like Junior Griffin (Bridge Rd), John Keane (The Avenue) and Tom Enright (Bridge Rd) play. They were some of the top players I remember. Among my age group the top players were Joe Moriarty, Denny Connor and Eddie Brouder, all from O’Connells ave. Countless hours were spent in the Ball Alley for me as a kid and it will always hold precious memories.

CLIONA COGAN

The wedding was 20th May 2017.
The photographer was Shane Turner.
 
The reason we wanted to go to the ball alley was twofold, one was due to the beautiful colour of the paintings. The almost distressed look was a nice contrast to us inour fine clothing. Secondly and more importantly for me was because the ball alley was a place I really consider to be quintessentially Listowel and part of my childhood.
 
 

*BOTTOM ROW OF PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF ÉAMON AND BREANDÁN Ó MURCHÚ:
Bottom left: Junior Griffin being presented with Shield – shown are John Keane, Breandán Ó Murchú, Junior Griffin, Mr Fitzgibbon, Johnny Halloran and Seamus Browne.
Middle left: Framed Photograph of Breandán receiving Shield, having won Town League on 17 November 1961 – with congratulatory note from Bryan MacMahon.
Middle right: Photograph of Breandán being presented with Lee Strand Cup. John Fitzgerald on left and John Joe Kenny on right.
Bottom right: Press Cutting from “The Kerryman”, Friday, May 14, 1976, about Breandán Ó Murchú and Michael Enright. Other handball players from Listowel mentioned – Joe James, Junior Griffin, Tom Enright, Johnny Halloran, John Keane, John Joe Kenny, Kevin Sheehy and Fr. Keran O’Shea.

 

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.