It is the perceived notion that handball, exported so successfully to America, made little impact in Britain. In truth, the game did take off in Britain and very successfully too but little contact was kept with the sport in Ireland.
The earliest reference to Irish handball was made by the essayist Hazlitt in his book "Indian Jugglers" in which he compared the skill of the game to that of the famous Bengali jugglers. He wrote an obituary for John Cavanagh from Cork whom he said was the top player in England and could take on any pair of players on his own and scarcely give them an ace. In Wales many of the emigrants from Ireland came to work in the mines and brought the game of handball with them. Keith Richards of Swansea told me that handball was played as a street game all over the city up to the 1960s. The small village of Nelson in mid Glamorgan still has the original three-walled court built in the 1860s, the scene of the Annual Welsh Championships and this year the venue for the first European One-Wall Games.
After Catholic Emancipation in the early 1800s, religious orders, banned until then, returned to set up schools and colleges in England. Ushaw College in Durham was founded by monks from the English College in Douai, France and they brougnt the game of handball back with them. How the game got to France is another story involving Irish soldiers in Napoleon's army. The buildings at Ushaw were designed by Pugin but he is unlikely to have been responsible for the large stark and functional three-walled court that still survives and was played in up to 10 years ago. Of dimensions 45' x 90' with side walls running halfway down the court it incorporated a small hut or penthouse (obviously as a shelter for the players). The penthouse forms part of the court for the purpose of play and a winning shot can be made to the base of its wall. Tony Murphy from Scarborough told me that the court (and a few smaller versions, doubling as storehouses, with play allowed off the curved ceiling) was in constant use during his schooldays in the 1950s. The College Library yielded up a wealth of information about the early days of the game including a set of revised rules dated 1835. These rules have much in common with our rules as presently constituted but there are a number of interesting differences (many of these differences were part of the old Irish game).
1. The game involved four on a side with each player keeping his own quarter in the handball 'place' as the court was called.
2. Short balls could be played but if missed the ball had to be served again.
3. Two shorts were allowed and a tell board a few inches up the wall prevented 'kill shots'.
4. Two aces were awarded for the first winning serve and there was a loss of two aces or two hands for any side putting the ball over the front wall.
5. Player must call game ball at twenty or he was out.
6. A player may play a hindered ball but if he misses it the point is replayed.
The game spread to many of the nearby mining villages and was played against gable walls up to the 1960s. Other schools in England, especially Catholic schools and seminaries, played the game including Ampleforth College and the King's School in Bruton, Somerset.
There must be many more areas where handball was played place but its place of origin forgotten. If we find traces of this handball activity in any other land we should do our best to encourage it so that the great Irish game can become truly international. The Fives associations in britain have only recently become aware of the `Irish connection' and many of their members are enthusiatic to establish links with our sport. They see the simple form of handball, "one-wall", as a game playable by exponents of all the handball codes and one that can unite all in the "wonderful world of hand played ball games".