To overseas visitors, the humble handball alleys dotted around rural Ireland must be one of our most peculiar building types. Alleys are freestanding structures, often by the side of the road, but they were also built in schools, psychiatric hospitals, fire stations, military barracks and other institutions. One alley in Athenry even adapted the gable end of a ruined abbey. Perhaps their defining attribute was that they were free to use, indeed some still are, available for people to just walk in and play.

In Ireland, the earliest written record of a handball game is in the town statutes of Galway in 1527, which forbade the playing of ball games against the walls of the town (info via Handball: A Brief History by Tom O'Connor).

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

The GAA wrote the first rules for the modern game of handball and it was included in the GAA Charter of 1884 as one of the sports to be promoted by the new Association. In 1924, Comhairle Liathróid Láimhe na hÉireann (the Irish Handball Council) was established to promote, develop and organise the sport. In the same year, the Irish Amateur Handball Association was founded. It held its inaugural meeting on 27 January 1924 in Croke Park.

The game involves players hitting a ball with a hand or fist against a wall to make a shot the opposition cannot return. Originally, an alley measuring 60 by 30 feet (18.3 by 9.1 m) was used with a 30-foot (9.1 m) front wall, against which the ball must be struck. A smaller alley was also introduced, measuring 40 by 20 feet (12.2 by 6.1 m) with a front wall 20 feet (6.1 m) high. The first of the latter size was built in Ireland in 1969. This size is now the standard in the international version of the game, but both alleys are still used in the Gaelic game, with two separate championships run by the GAA.

The Bawn Handball Club first met in an alley in Lisinisky, Bawn, County Monaghan in June 1931. To raise funds for the building of the alley, the Club held several dances. By August 1932, aided by many volunteers, the work of building the alley and stand was completed at a total cost of £198. The result, a functional structure with no additional decoration, became a gathering point for a dispersed rural community.

A rear view of the handball alley in Bawn

It is a freestanding three-walled alley with a higher wall to the north end, sloped east and west walls, and a lower wall at the south end. The walls are finished with roughcast render and the floor of the court is concrete. Netting is fixed to the verge of the walls to catch any wayward balls. Spectators take a mass concrete staircase up to a viewing platform above the south wall.

Players enter the alley through a sheet metal door on the west side (next to the road). The interior is smoothly rendered, with white markings painted on walls and floor.

The latter decades of the twentieth century saw the game move indoors. Alleys have been incorporated into GAA social centres or other multi-purpose sports centres. Easily overlooked in rural landscapes, the more than eight hundred alleys still standing today are all unique, one of Ireland’s few vernacular modern architectures, shaped by local circumstances and topographies, and performing as an essential and hugely popular social glue. The game survives, but the alleys are now little more than abandoned shells, exposed to the weather.