Bowled over in Ire­land

It doesn’t take long to learn the rules of this quirky Ir­ish road game

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - JOHN HA­GAN

I AM a lit­tle bit early, but al­ready they are gath­er­ing. I park the car at the road­side and in­tro­duce my­self.

‘‘Great to see you,’’ says Oliver. ‘‘Have you done this be­fore?’’ I ad­mit I haven’t, but un­de­terred he presses the bul­let into my hand, urg­ing me to give it a go.

I am not about to shoot any­one — there isn’t even a firearm in sight. I am in North­ern Ire­land, on a quiet road just out­side the his­toric ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal city of Ar­magh to par­tic­i­pate in the quirky and ar­chaic Ir­ish sport of road bowl­ing.

The Rock Road Club is hold­ing its usual Sun­day com­pe­ti­tion but this morn­ing only about 20 of the 40 regulars are in at­ten­dance. It’s a pairs com­pe­ti­tion, with the prize be­ing a tur­key. As I am for­tu­nate enough to be teamed with Oliver, a for­mer Ir­ish cham­pi­onship fi­nal­ist, I’m op­ti­mistic about my chances of not fin­ish­ing last.

The bul­let, or road bowl, is a 793.8gm solid metal ball with a cir­cum­fer­ence of about 18cm. The rules of the sport are in­cred­i­bly sim­ple. The win­ner is the in­di­vid­ual — or to­day, pair — com­plet­ing the course be­tween des­ig­nated points in the least num­ber of throws. It’s a bit like scor­ing in golf.

When it is our turn to start, Oliver de­liv­ers the first shot. Rac­ing up to the break-off line he shouts ‘‘ Fag an bealach!’’ (Clear the way!) and with an un­der­hand fling, lofts the ball into the air be­fore it cracks down on the bi­tu­men about 50m ahead.

It canons off the kerb, mak­ing a

left turn around the cor­ner, run­ning up a slight hill for an­other 40m be­fore even­tu­ally com­ing to rest against a tele­graph pole.

Some of the other throw­ers are not so skilled (or lucky, per­haps) and one bul­let ends up over a hedge among a rather star­tled herd of cat­tle. It oc­curs to me, be­fore my throw, that the laws of physics seem in­con­se­quen­tial when try­ing to de­ter­mine the cam­ber, curves and idio­syn­cra­sies of the Ir­ish road.

I de­cide on a safety-first ap­proach, and un­der-arm my shot along the tar­mac. ‘‘Whay hey!’’ comes the cry from other com­peti­tors, as the bowl thunks and clunks over the sur­face. Just when I think my bul­let is go­ing to do se­ri­ous dam­age to a freshly painted farm­house wall, a so-called roader for­tu­nately ap­pears to min­imise the im­pact by plac­ing his coat against the wall. I heave a sigh of re­lief.

Oliver ex­plains that road­ers serve the same func­tion as

MICHAEL HADE cad­dies in golf. To­day, the road­ers have an­other func­tion: to warn on­com­ing traf­fic and pedes­tri­ans that a com­pe­ti­tion is in progress, thus min­imis­ing car panel-beat­ing costs and maimed pedes­tri­ans. I cast the term road-kill from my mind.

And so we weave and me­an­der our way, like some happy funeral pro­ces­sion along the length of the Rock Road, chat­ter­ing and swap­ping yarns be­tween shots. What a great way to see the coun­try­side and meet the lo­cals.

I re­call that Mark Twain con­sid­ered golf was a good walk spoiled, and I pon­der what he might have said about road bowl­ing. Two cars, a trac­tor and a parish pri­est cruise past, and I am re­galed by some older mem­bers re­count­ing the feats of great cham­pi­ons such as the leg­endary Mick Barry, who once lofted his bowl over a farm­house to re­join the road on the other side, and Danny McPar­land, who threw a bul­let about 460m.

Jim Mack­lin, a cel­e­brated Ar­magh bowler dur­ing the 1870s, is said to have trained for the fi­nal leap, be­fore toss­ing his bul­let, by jump­ing over two carthorses.

Alas, for me there is to be no tro­phy, no tur­key to take home for tea. Oliver and I are soundly de­feated, thanks to myshort, er­ratic and highly in­ac­cu­rate game. But it’s been fun — pleas­ant ex­er­cise, good com­pany, great craic and, thank­fully, no lost bullets, maimed livestock, dented cars or injured by­standers.

A road bowler de­liv­ers his bul­let near the city of Ar­magh in North­ern Ire­land

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