Áine Ryan (Berlin): The Irish Handball Alley. Pastime and Past Material Time

The handball alley was a type of ball court where the pastime of handball was played. It also functioned as central social space in rural Ireland for over two hundred years. Today, most handball alleys have fallen into a ruined state, beyond the reach of living memory as the last generation to use them in the 1960s passes away.

This research tries to understand the emergence and diffusion of this building type. A historical-chronological classification would date them by their immediate contexts to certain settlement and landscape developments that followed three historical events: the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169, the Cromwellian conquest of 1649-52, and the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922. However, an alternative approach is pursued in this research. The handball alley is examined as a material feature of the unplanned landscape produced by the unconscious socio-spatial practices of a pre-literate Gaelic society. Theory on everyday landscape informs the interpretation of an alternative chronological pattern from the material evidence of 570 handball alleys; based on the endurance of social practices and on the inherently associative and ephemeral connections to place and the past formed through pre-reflective experience. This approach to studying a heritage object lies closer to archaeology than to history. The materiality of the object is the means to uncover and propose, largely independently of written historical accounts (in the case of the handball alley, there are no written sources). Examining the handball alley in this way has uncovered the characteristics of a societal spatial-understanding passed on from generation to generation, and it proposes the material-time of built features as a way to measure the past of the everyday Irish landscape.