The handball court at Cavan Town in the 1970s.

Time to revive our unique outdoor ball alleys

There are up to 1,000 old handball courts dotting the landscape

There’s a black marble plaque on the exterior wall of the handball alley in Virginia. Engraved in gold letters are the following lines:

“And now the work is well in hand, And thanks are due to every man, That helped to carry out the plan, And gave it their attention.”

The poem was written by Jack Robinson to mark the opening of the ball alley in 1924. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, which begins with the classic verse: “Some time ago ‘twas whispered round, That if we got a piece of ground, We’d spend at least five hundred pound, To build a grand ball alley.”

The court has been standing for almost 100 years and remains one of the truest alleys in the country and a very popular venue for players.

It has been the scene of some ferocious battles. If those four walls could talk…

According to architect Áine Ryan, who has researched extensively on the matter, they would have a hell of a story to tell.

“Throughout its history, handball alleys were associated with large, often day-long, gatherings involving people waiting for a game, those watching, and those engaged in betting and match-making activities,” she has written.

“The introduction of high enclosing walls resulted in such gatherings becoming more formalised and, on occasions, more covert. In addition to its use for Sunday dances, card-playing and as a hiring place for casual and seasonal labour, the handball alley was often used as a meeting place during the 1798 Rebellion, the Black-and-Tan era and the Civil War.

I am fascinated by the old outdoor handball alleys, as many of 1,000 of which dot the Irish landscape. They are regarded as a vernacular building form unique to Ireland.

This area is full of them, indoor and out. A couple of weeks ago, I spotted one I had never even seen before at Meath Hill. A couple of miles one side of it is a beautifully-restored ball alley at Drumconrath; go the other way and you have the world class complex in Kingscourt, which also originated as a standalone, unroofed theatre of stone.

While there is reference to a ball alley in Ballyconnell as far back as 1897 and there were other courts around whose age I don’t know – the alley in Maudabawn, for example, seems very old – it is accepted that Kingscourt was the first properly established club in the county, springing up in the first decade of the last century.

Others followed, so much so that at a meeting of Cavan county board in November, 1920, it was decided to inaugurate a county handball championship, “open to Gaels, two to form a team, entries 2/6”.

“Medals,” this newspaper reported, “will be presented to the handball champions.”

Ball alleys were expensive to build and money was scarce. Some, literally, never got off the ground. There are records in the archive of this newspaper of attempts, down through the years, to build outdoor alleys in Arva, Swanlinbar, Bunnoe and Cootehill, with Cavan County Council coming in for considerable flak for spending funds on a road rather than a ball alley in the latter town.

At Christmas, 1922, there was a fundraiser for the court at Killydoon. In November, 1925, Virginia Handball Club staged a play at the AOH Hall in Killinkere Upper, presumably to raise funds.

And in 1930, The Anglo-Celt reported the results of another draw Virginia Handball Club held. First prize was a fiver, second prize – won by Mr T Clerkin from Murmod – was half a dozen bottles of 10-year-old whiskey. Fifth prize won a bag of flour.

By that stage, there was a club at Lacken, playing out of the picturesque alley at Potahee. We know that because it was reported that Lacken handball club hosted a farewell dance to Peter Leddy on his departure to the USA in 1927.

Within a couple of years, a beautiful court had been constructed at Tullyvin. Somewhere along the line, a three-wall alley was built in Gowna, too and there was a three-wall court at Bawnboy by the mid-1930s; on one occasion, they were granted a licence to hold a dance within its walls.

By the end of that decade, Virginia was hosting Ulster finals; admission to the finals in 1940 between Cavan and Armagh cost sixpence.

In 1944, a challenge was laid down between two old champions, Matt Lynch from Ballyjamesduff defeating Bob Frazer, from the famous court at The Boot pub in Ballymun. Challenges were common – players would place a notice in the local press, asking others to come to their court and play for a prize, usually a silver medal.

As far back as 1902, before handball came into the GAA fold and when there were professional matches, a James Galligan from Cavan Town had posted a challenge to any pair in Cavan and Meath or Longford to play a prize of £2, which was to be deposited for safe-keeping at the offices of this newspaper prior to the big day.

By the mid-1950s, Kingscourt, Tullyvin and Virginia clubs were affiliated. In April 1953, Kingscourt had re-opened their court complete with a gallery, which could accommodate 150 spectators. The facility was described by the President of the Irish Handball Council on the day as “the finest in Ulster”.

In May of 1958, the alley at Mullahoran was officially re-opened; the iconic court at the top of the Barrack Hill in Cavan Town (pictured above) followed soon afterwards.

In 1938, it was announced that a court was to be constructed at Kilnaleck. By 1950, the sod had still not been turned but they got there in the end and a fine court was eventually put in place.

As time has moved on, the game has gone indoors, which was a necessity given our climate. Some courts were roofed and upgraded; others were left behind, to crumble and grow, choked by ivy.

The price of that progress was that it became hidden away. Numbers declined and the alleys’ place at the heart of communities was lost.

The special plaque to honour Thomas Corrigan at the handball alley in Virginia.

I am glad to report that in recent years, activity has picked up. Some of the old outdoor courts have been renovated and are playable again, while some of those which were quiet now see lots of play.

I have been bending the ear of some leading handball officials lately about the need to form a committee to look at promoting outdoor handball again. Okay, so it rains a lot in Ireland but the game itself is only part of the story for these iconic old structures.

Ball alleys are a place where people came together to exercise, meet their friends and have fun in the open air. Lockdown has shown us the importance of these things.

Could we see a resurgence, starting here in Cavan? Let us, as Jack Robinson said, whisper round and see what happens…

Postscript:

A funny tale from the Celt archives in 1946 which I came across while researching the handball court at Virginia.

“In the stomach of a heifer slaughtered by Mr D Soden, victualler, Virginia, Mr W Stephens discovered a gold medal with the name inscribed thereon of Bill Sheridan, the well-known handballer.

“It has transpired that last summer, when Mr Sheridan was bathing in the Rampart, adjoining Mr Soden’s field, a vest, in the pocket of which he carried the medal, disappeared from amongst his clothing. It is now evident that the heifer had eaten the vest and Mr Sheridan is delighted to recover his valuable souvenir.”

I wonder where that medal is now!

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