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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Guest blog: Dr. Eoin Ryan on Handball, Ireland's international sport


Handball -

Ireland's International Sport

This week I am delighted to welcome a guest blog from a former colleague of mine, the multi-talented Dr. Eoin Ryan. I've never played the game, but I've always been aware of the importance of Handball in our own parish and its importance as an Irish game. I've also always been a bit confused about the American version and how it relates to the Irish.

Eoin is an All-Ireland winning handballer and in his blog he provides a wonderful overview of the history and evolution of the game from its parish based origins in this country and how it has spread throughout the world, making it Ireland's international sport. 


Dr. Eoin Ryan is a GP trainee from Co. Kilkenny, but currently living in Limerick. 

Eoin is also an accomplished musician, a writer and a lover of literature.

He began playing handball at a young age with his club Windgap and went on to represent both Windgap and Kilkenny in underage competitions, ultimately achieving All-Ireland success.

You can follow Eoin on Twitter @eoin89ryan

@GAA_Handball @US_Handball @FIPVOficial @WindgapGAA @windgap_ie


Just down the road from where I grew up, there is an odd structure. At a cross road with a pub, just off the road, there stands a wall in the middle of a field. I say ‘odd’ to communicate the fact that a free standing wall in a field appears to be an architectural oddity, rather than to mean ‘rare’, you understand, as these walls are far from uncommon. In my parish of Windgap, Co. Kilkenny there are at least two, and possible others. The same goes, I am sure, for every parish the length and breadth of this island.

RIC Barracks and Handball Alley, Ahenna, Co. Kilkenny

This particular structure takes on the appearance of many dotted around the country. A wall standing 27 feet in the air (although I will freely admit that I didn’t measure it), buttressed by sloping walls on either side, connecting it to a smooth finished concrete floor. Well, it would once have been smooth and it would have measured 60 feet in length and 30 feet in width - now of course significantly shortened by nature - so much so if is difficult to say with precision where the floor stops and the field begins. These walls, as you will likely have guessed, are handball alleys. This alley stands out, as the story goes, as the site of one of the first ‘official’ handball matches in the country. There are a few issues with this story of course.

Firstly, much like the wall itself, it is buttressed with the line ‘as the story goes’ as there are no official records on which this claim is staked. Secondly, the story is that it was ‘ONE of the first’. So probably not the first at all, which makes it less than noteworthy. Do we know who the third person to reach Australia was, or the sixth man to walk on the moon, or the fourth woman to fly solo across the Atlantic? And on top of this, the sport of handball has been played long before this concrete structure was ever erected at all.

My guess is people like their localit to be linked with posterity or history, so what’s the harm perpetuating a little myth that is likely no more than a fairytale?

Slate Quarry Handball Club, Co. Kilkenny , 1925 

(since disbanded, but handball in the area lives on through Windgap Handball Club) 

The handball alley at Grange Road, Ballina, Co. Tipperary - home to Ballina Handball Club, one of the most successful clubs in Tipperary

 Handball alley in Ogonelloe, Co. Clare


 Lahorna handball alley, Co. Tipperary

So why then mention it at all?

Heres why:

Dormant handball alleys like this, lie all around the country. These were once a village focal point. It is worth chatting to a few of the auld lads in the pub or after mass or wherever you might find them and ask ‘did you ever play handball?’ I have done this (in the pub, not after mass of course!) and have found up to very recently these alleys were a hive of activities. Sunday mornings, crowds would gather to play. Two players would start - one serving one receiving with the rule that winner stays on and the pretenders would line up waiting for their chance to usurp the champion.

The handball alley in Tuamgraney, Co. Clare - site of Eoin's All-Ireland triumph

So what happened? Why doesn’t this happen any more? Has handball died out?

Simply put, the answer is no. Handball hasn’t died, it has evolved.

Most Irish people know about handball. Well, they know about the ‘ball alleys’ - and not always from playing the sport. They have been used as ‘multi-purpose entertainment venues’ (I am being flippant here, you will no doubt have guessed). A lot of people know the ball alley as a place to go ‘ditch drinking’ - the national sport of Irish teenagers (obviously a misnomer in this instance) or a grand quiet place for the shift. There's one in every town and most villages and even in unpopulated townlands - the vast majority not used for their primary purpose.

But what is handball?

As so often when looking at history, we need to go back to ancient Egypt. As usual, they were the first - in this instance to play handball or at the very least, something recognisable as similar to handball. But it wasn’t just the ancient Egyptians. Handball crops up in various forms in a variety of civilisations throughout history.

My suspicion is that the handball of the ancient Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks or the pre-Columbus civilisations of Central and South America are no more related to each other than they are to Irish handball. It is more likely that they arouse spontaneously and separately and have been retrospectively linked together due to certain similarities.

Handball is a brilliantly simple game. One player bounces the ball and then swings with their hand to smack the ball against the wall. It bounces off the front wall, then off the floor, before the receiver tries to smack it back against the wall, and on it goes. The aim is to have your opponent miss and in that manner clock up a score. Simplicity itself. Almost natural. All you need is a ball, a wall and a friend. If you have said ingredients and some free time, handball, in some size or shape seems to be the only natural outcome.

And of course those outcomes vary slightly. Sometimes there are 2 players, sometimes there are 10. Sometimes there are marks on the wall as targets, sometimes not. Sometimes you hit the ball back with your hand, or maybe you try using a bat or a stick or a club...but ultimately, you are all playing a version of the same game.

In Ireland, the traditional game is called 60x30, pronounced ‘sixty by thirty', referring to the size of the court in feet. This is the game of yesteryear, played in all those now deserted alleys.

Generally played as singles or doubles in the manner described above, doubtless, there was varying rules in different parishes; that is until it came under the auspices of the GAA and the rules were set.

The popularity of this game, as we have seen, has died out. That is not to say handball is dead - it simply evolved.

Now, the game most popular, also under the auspices of the GAA is 40x20 - a modern, more sleek, sexier version. ‘The American game’, as it is known. Picture it like this, or this is how I picture it at least - 60x30, while still played, seems to be the game our grandfathers played, wearing britches and rolled up shirt sleeves, using great mite that only men of years gone by seemed to possess to continuously ‘flake’ a ball against the wall. Compare this with its American cousin. Athletes in sports wear, runners with more technology than in the first Apollo, bright lights, slick moves. A faster game, requiring skill, fitness, precision. A modern game. Enclosed in an alley where side walls, back wall and the roof come into play, setting it apart from its older cousin, resulting in furiously fast games with balls whizzing around corners. (This is probably unfair to those athletes who play ‘the big alley’, and that is why I started with ‘in my mind’, but it does serve the purpose of highlighting the differences). I have often wondered why this new version’ is called the American game.

 ‘The American Game’- alley 40 feet in length x 20 feet wide with front wall 20 feet high

Competitive 40x20 handball, Kingscourt, Co Cavan

It seems Irish handball in various forms was brought to the USA in the mid to late 1800s, as well as to the UK, Australia and South Africa. Again, the simplicity of the game seems to have been its greatest ally here, making it ideal to transport. Irish missionary priests in South Africa, Navvys in the UK and Wales and emigrants all over the USA helped in spreading this game across the globe. Reports from the 1930s describes people in New York City playing with a bald tennis ball on walls in parks, beaches and urban areas. Not exactly courts of 60x30 feet, but a version of the game no doubt.

Handball in the USA seems to have split into 2 distinct games - with both remaining popular.

40x20 (the aforementioned ‘American game’) held its first national championship in the USA in 1919. Since then it has spread across the country and now the United States Handball Association host more than 100 tournaments a year for its more than 6,000 members. Ireland have been competing against the USA in international handball matches since as early as 1885, when New York's Phil Casey was awarded the title World Champion and 1,000 Dollars for his efforts.

The other variety has become known as ‘One Wall’. As the name would suggest, this uses one wall - no side walls, no roof, no back wall. Straight forward. A square is marked on the ground and a corresponding one marked on the wall. The ball must bounce within the quadrilaterals, although the players are not so confined. This game became popular in urban areas - easily played in city parks and urban alleys. There are at least 2,000 courts (as alley seems less apt here) in New York City alone. The popularity of this game seems to rest in urban areas, and particularly those with large Irish populations - New York and Chicago being the hotbeds of this version. Now the ‘Mecca’ for New York Handball- the ‘best handball in the word’, according to a recent New York Times article is Coney Island- the show ground for ‘ultracompetitive handball…. with outsized egos, colourful nicknames and quirky personalities’


 One wall handball, played on the streets of New York

Both of these games are now played in Ireland too, with 40x20 being far and a way the most popular.

While there may have been varieties of the game played in the UK and US prior to the arrival of Irish Immigrants, there is no doubt that the game was influenced at the very least, but altogether more likely based on the Irish game.

This is considerably less likely for its Basque cousin - Pelota. Again, so similar to handball you would be excused for confusing the two, Pelota comes in a variety of forms - some using hands, others bats or rackets. There are theories floating about that this game, played by our all but forgotten Celtic relations, the Basque people, as being the inspiration for Irish handball. This assertion is often backed up by the historic trading network between Galway where the first recorded game of handball was played in 1527 and ports in Spain. While there is no doubt about the historic connections between these two areas (the Spanish Arch in Galway city and Spanish Point, Co. Clare to name but two), the notion of the game being brought over seems less likely. More conceivably, the two games arouse spontaneously and separately, and with the 20-20 vision that comes with hindsight, got cobbled together as being one and the same given how similar they are. Not an insignificant factor in this melange, is the desire of oft-trampled Celtic nations to assert their shared history and common cultural threads. In fact, the word Pelota is probably Latin in origin and came to the region from a form of the game played in ancient Greece. The chances that that stowed away, to pop up in the west of Ireland in a different format, in my opinion at least, are slim.

Whatever about the origins or who started it first, the fact remains that both games are strikingly similar! So similar in fact that since 1932, there has been an international handball series, blending the rules of both games to find an international variation, not unlike the blended Aussie Rules/Gaelic Football series - games which are more likely  to be a set in which one is based on the other.

Pelota (using bats here) being played in the Basque region

American handball, as so often happens with travel and the migration of peoples, has come home to roost. 40x20 is now the most popular form of the game played here in Ireland. While the purist may mourn the loss of the traditional, the opportunist sees the potential. In addition to the blended Pelota format, Irish players now compete on the international stage. And not just against American and Basque players. From its new home in the US, handball has travelled even further afield. The World Handball Championship held every 3 years now sees competitors from Canada, USA, Ireland, UK, Japan, India, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Ecuador and Australia to name just a few.

And the Irish have done well. Not only do Irish handballers compete for All Ireland glory but, as the likes of Paul Brady, Aisling Reilly, ‘Duxie’ Walsh, Fiona Shannon and Killian Carroll have shown, they can compete for World Titles - and not just compete, but win.

So you see, while the old traditional game may have fizzled from memory, with only its concrete carcasses dotting in the landscape to remind us of its former glory, handball has mutated and evolved and has become a modern game played all over the world. It has spawned new cultural trends among the streets of New York, found its way as far as Japan, adapted enough to help boost Basque cultural identity and aid the Pan-Celtic movement. It gives Irish athletes the opportunity to compete on the world stage. 

It has truly become Ireland's international sport.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant piece. There's an abandoned alley cut into the bog up the back of Ogonnelloe that speaks to how popular the game was in times past.