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