The strange beauty of sport and concrete

Moving back to inner city Dublin in the 1970s as a 9-year old, one of the many exotic bits of rediscovered heritage were the grey concrete bunkers, writes John O'Reilly

Often located beside playgrounds marked out for football, they were handball courts, a game not unlike squash but without the expense of racquets - just concrete, rubber ball and fingerless gloves.

These handball 'alleys' originally measured 60ft x 30ft with a front wall of 30ft, in the late 1960s a smaller court was introduced measuring 40ft x 20ft and a front wall of 20ft.

(William Murphy, Flickr. Handball alley, Green Street Dublin. Main Wall and Side Walls date from 1920. Back Wall dates from 2007)

Aine Ryan, now teaching on the Habitat Unit in the School of Architecture at the Technische Universität Berlin, writes on History Ireland that, "Throughout its history handball was associated [in Ireland] with large, often day-long, gatherings involving people waiting for a game, those watching, and those engaged in betting and match-making activities. 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."

As Ireland has become more prosperous these brutalist playpens have fallen into disrepair, and handball has moved to plush indoor courts, the concrete bunkers have becoming dumping grounds, "the handball alley," writes Aine Ryan, "continues to be regarded as a vernacular building form unique to Ireland."

My father's stories of playing handball as a teenager mixed sporting heroism, punishing surfaces and torn flesh. This film portait by Oliver Würffell pictures world champion Gaelic handball player Ashley Prendiville in a handball bunker on the west coast of Ireland. Its location captures that unforgiving beauty of concrete and sporting desire.

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