Heritage Week in Maynooth

                                                HERITAGE WEEK 2012, IN MAYNOOTH

On Sunday the 19th August 2012 Declan O’Connor, a Member of Maynooth Local History Group (MLHG) led a “Walk and Talk” to an intact surviving example of a traditional three-wall Handball Alley in the grounds of St. Patrick’s College Maynooth. Maynooth, being an Estate Town, was mapped in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The 1781 and 1821 maps showed the existence of a Handball Court in Maynooth Castle, where the Castle Wall provided the single wall that was then used. This Handball Alley had disappeared when the 1837 map was prepared, but this map showed Handball Courts on the exact same site at today in the then Royal College of St. Patrick (RCSP). Latterly, there was a Handball Alley in the corner of the Harbour Field which used the wall structure of Mullen Bridge as the “front wall”. This Alley had fallen into disuse by the 1970’s and disappeared entirely when the Bridge and overhead road system were realigned in the 1990’s.

Moving from the Castle the “Walk and Talk” proceeded by the window of the so-called “Ghost Room” to the location of the three-wall Handball Alley. This was constructed of mass concrete, probably in the 1920’s, and had the traditional dimensions of 60ft by 30ft. Àine Ryan, an Architect, has been commissioned by the Heritage Council to do an Inventory of Handball Alley’s in Ireland, surviving or otherwise. A figure of 650 examples has been recorded to date. The traditional Irish Handball Alley is unique to Ireland and is as iconic as an Irish Round Tower or an Irish Spirits-Store (where hardware and/or food was also sold alongside the Publican’s business, like some in Dingle).

The traditional three-wall Handball Alley began to be constructed in the latter part of the 19th Century and by the mid-20th Century a fourth or back-wall was added, sometimes with a viewing gallery. From the 1960’s onwards, many such Alleys were “internalised” by having a roof built on. In about 1969 the first American-style Alley was built in Ireland which measures 40ft x 20ft. That is the norm now for international competition.

Group in the Handball Alley

Traditionally a Handball Alley served as a Community Centre of sorts where dances were held, romances conducted, cards played and where hiring fairs and bonfires took place. There was also a political dimension in that prior to 1798 and from 1919-1921 the United Irishmen and the Volunteers respectively often drilled and trained in Handball Alleys. The traditional Alley was often built on common or community ground and it provided a place where people could meet without direct supervision at a time when they only met at weekly Church Services.

Institutions like Seminaries, Schools, Police Stations, Fire Stations, Hospitals nearly always had a purpose-built Handball Alley, and many examples can still be seen.

Declan told the story of how a notorious 18th Century Dublin Character called “Buck Whaley” won a £25,000 bet from the Duke of Leinster by riding his horse to Jerusalem and back inside of a year. On his return, Whaley boasted of having played Handball against the Walls of the Temple in Jerusalem. Many people are familiar with the phrase “right up your alley” and there are the particularly Irish insults, like “you have a head on you like a Handball Alley” and the one used in the “Cyclops” Chapter of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” – “she had a back like a Ball Alley”.

Handball was adopted in the 1884 GAA Charter and formalised by it in 1923.

It is fair to say that each Maynooth example is a “hidden gem” of vernacular architecture.

The “Walk and Talk” concluded with a short visit to the College Cemetery to view the unique “Celtic Church” Mausoleum of Fr. Eoghan O’Growney.

Fr.Eoghan O'Growney "Celtic Church" Mausoleum


MLHG wish to acknowledge the kind assistance of Monsignor Hugh Connolly, President of St. Patrick’s College Maynooth in granting permission for this Heritage Week event.

These “Hidden Gems” are in every locality and need to be reported. It is worthwhile checking out this site which is a terrific project.

MLHG holds it’s monthly meeting on the last Thursday of each month at the Maynooth Community Council Offices beside Maynooth Post Office.