This handball is no racquet

 

The decrepit state of many handball alleys is a reflection of the neglect of this sport, yet it's ideal for urban areas, writes Eoin Butler

A CHILL HAS entered the air. The morning commute takes half an hour longer than it did a fortnight ago. Before we know it, ruddy-faced children will be picking conkers and furtively rolling tyres away from unsupervised yards. That's right, September is here. For Irish sports fans, this means crunch time. Two weeks ago, Kilkenny provided a hurling masterclass when trouncing Waterford in the Liam McCarthy Cup. Tomorrow, the footballers of Kerry and Tyrone will contest the Sam Maguire. But amid all the hype and excitement that surrounds these fixtures, the All-Ireland Handball Championship Finals are passing virtually unnoticed.

60x30 handball (the name comes from the dimensions of a handball alley) is a uniquely Irish sport, the history of which goes back at least five centuries. Architect Áine Ryan is currently undertaking a major study on handball for the Heritage Council. She traces its popularity back as far as 1527, when the Statutes of Galway forbade the playing of ball games against walls in the town. By the 19th century, there were upwards of 2,000 handball alleys across the country. Only a few hundred survive today. Some of these are used to store turf. Others have hosted art installations and even opera. But most, Ryan admits, are now "truly abandoned".

Handball enjoyed its last surge of popularity here in the 1970s, when matches were broadcast live from Croke Park. Since then it has been in steady decline: ignored and unloved, not just by the public, but (some would argue) by the very association charged with its promotion. All Ireland Masters champion Frank Semple is in no doubt on that last point. "The GAA is standing idly by while handball alleys fall into disrepair," he complains. "If that's not neglect, then what is? It's like having a beautiful garden and doing nothing with it. But [ the GAA] is on a commercial trip now, and luckily handball isn't like that yet."

On a quiet Sunday morning at Green Street alley in Dublin city centre, Semple gives me a quick sketch of the rules. (The restoration carried out here last year, Semple stresses, was funded by Dublin City Council "and not the GAA".) The object, in short, is to win a rally by serving or returning the ball until your opponent is no longer able to keep it in play. When a player has 21 points, he or she has won the game. The first player to win two games is the winner. It's quite a similar game to squash then, I innocently observe . . .

"No, no, no . . ." Semple shakes his head in exasperation. "Squash is played with a racquet. There's no racquet in handball."

His expression suggests that he doesn't rate my intelligence too highly. But I persist.

Racquet aside? I venture.

"Well, maybe . . ." he concedes. "Racquet aside, there are probably a few similarities."

Handball's neglect in Ireland is surprising when you consider that, alone among GAA games, it boasts a genuinely international participation. Irish emigrants in the 19th century brought the game to the US (where it is popular to this day in urban areas and prisons). The US army brought it to mainland Europe in the aftermath of the second World War. Today, 40x20 handball has a keen amateur following in the US, Canada, Australia, Mexico and in France and elsewhere in Europe.

So what are the odds of a revival in the country of its birth? Ryan admits that her own fascination is with the unique aesthetic of the old handball alleys, rather than with the sport itself. Nonetheless, she has noticed possible signs of grassroots resurgence. "Many people are concerned for the future of their local alleys," she says. "Some are even talking about a capital fund being set up to repair and clean up the alleys, because for the most part they're in very good nick and are even playable."

Semple agrees. The low costs and small spatial requirement make handball an ideal urban sport. "This work that Áine is doing is probably the best thing to happen to handball here in a while. Because its a great sport, with fabulous skills. All it needs is that spark to get it going again."

HANDBALL FACTS

- Indigenous to Ireland, the 60ft by 30 ft "big alley" was typically built on common land by volunteer local labour. Others were gifted by landlords or large employers.

- The "big alleys" were built until the introduction of the international 40x20 indoor standard in 1969.

- For more information see http://irishhandballalley.blogspot.com/http://irishhandballalley.blogspot.com/ or e-mail irishhandballalley@ gmail.com