Bowling on the byways

Long associated with Co Cork, the sport of road bowling, or 'long bullets' has followers all over Ireland, writes Barry Roche…

Long associated with Co Cork, the sport of road bowling, or 'long bullets' has followers all over Ireland, writes Barry Roche

It's a familiar sight in the height of the summer, and to the uninitiated it can be somewhat unnerving. Driving along some country road only to be suddenly confronted by a man frantically flagging you to a halt as an iron ball comes hurtling along the road towards you.

Just what visitors make of it isn't always clear, while for many Irish people it may still come as a surprise as road bowling (it rhymes with fouling) or road bullets is very much a localised activity confined to Cos Cork and Armagh and a handful of pockets around the country.

Not that it was always so geographically contained, as Cork-born historian Fintan Lane amply demonstrates in his recently published authoritative study of the game, Long Bullets - a History of Road Bowling in Ireland.


But before looking at where bowl playing originated in Ireland and where it has waxed and waned around the country, it's perhaps best to borrow from Lane's book and describe, for those unfamiliar with the sport, what precisely bowl playing entails. The game usually involves two players who throw an iron bowl, usually 28oz (794g), along a designated course of usually two to three miles along a public roadway, with the winner being the person who covers the distance in the fewest throws.

It sounds simple and, like all great sports, it is. All you require to play is a bowl and a roadway but just as with other sports, to excel as a bowl player requires great skill with timing, strength and technique all playing their part in the forging of champions.

A game is called a score (because historically, according to Lane, matches involved 20 throws) with each bowl player bringing their own entourage of road showers to mark the road and give them a good line for a shot, particularly if trying to negotiate a bend.

The technique of throwing can vary from the Cork style, where the player uses a windmill type swing to loft the bowl high in the air and over bends, to the underarm throw favoured in Co Armagh where players throw the bowl low but put spin on it to round bends.

The road is marked with a sop of grass (a training video on the sport is called Splitting the Sop) while a score invariably involves a stake with backers of both players contributing matching sums to the pot. Gambling on scores is not unknown.

Not surprisingly, as a historian, Lane is good on the theories behind the origin and spread of the sport here - that it was at ancient Celtic game, that it was brought in by Dutch soldiers in the army of William of Orange or that it came in with an influx of British weavers.

In the end, he comes down in favour of the last named theory as the most plausible explanation after tracing references to road bowling or long bullets in West Yorkshire and East Lancashire as well as among mining communities in Northumberland.

Lane also finds evidence of the game in Scotland and in the US among the revolutionary army of George Washington, but he attributes its arrival in Ireland to the influx of weavers of Scottish and English descent into Ulster and their subsequent migration around the country.

Played primarily by these settlers, members of the Presbyterian and Anglican faiths, bowl playing spread throughout Cos Antrim and Armagh as well as parts of Cos Derry, Down and Tyrone while it was adopted by Catholics in Belfast and Co Armagh.

The spread southwards to its heartland in Co Cork and elsewhere in Munster was due, he posits, to the movement of weavers and the cultivation of flax and the weaving of linen which developed throughout Co Cork in the 1730s.

While the game is now concentrated in Cos Cork and Armagh with bowling pockets in Co Tyrone, around Westport in Co Mayo, west Waterford, Clonroche in Co Wexford, Drogheda in Co Louth and Fedamore in Co Limerick, it has been played elsewhere in the country at other times.

Michael Cusack, a founding member of the GAA, saw the game being played around Lough Cutra near Gort in south Co Galway in the 1860s and 1870s while Lane has also uncovered evidence of bowl-playing in Cos Carlow and Cavan as well as in Co Kerry.

In Ulster, the game was primarily a proletarian game while in Cork city, the game was historically played by young working class men while in the county, and in particular west Cork, it was primarily the preserve of small farmers.

But to every rule there's an exception and Lane offers a fascinating example from east Cork, courtesy of a painting by Daniel McDonald from 1842 entitled Bowling match at Castlemary, Cloyne which currently hangs in the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery in Cork.

"It is a remarkable painting of a mid-19th century bowling match, but what is interesting is that the bowlers depicted are Abraham Morris, a leading Cork businessman, conservative and Orangeman and Montiford Longfield, likewise an Orangeman and conservative." The involvement of such establishment figures in bowling in the 19th century is certainly surprising as bowl players frequently found themselves in conflict with the authorities who viewed the game as dangerous and disruptive on the public highways.

Lane has unearthed reports of three fatalities at three separate scores in Cork at the end of the 18th century, while he has a report from 1913 when four players appeared in court in Cork and the magistrate described the sport as "a most dangerous practice". The efforts of the constabulary to eradicate bowl-playing from the public roadways didn't always meet with success and may have actually helped increase its popularity. Author and artist, Robert Gibbings recalled how one attempt to stop the game backfired on a policeman. "There was a policeman and he was forever fining the boys; every evening he'd be out taking away their bowls and getting convictions. So one day they went along to the forge on the hill and they reddened a bowl in the smith's fire."

"When they got the word that the policeman was coming along, they carried the bowl out on a shovel and sent it rolling down the hill. When the policeman seen it coming, he stopped it under his boot and he picked it up to put it in his pocket. Well, if he was quick to pick it up, he was quicker to drop it. I tell you, 'twas some time before he interfered again," observed Gibbings in his highly popular account of life on Leeside, Sweet Cork of Thee, published in 1951.

Although the game had retreated to its heartlands of Cos Cork and Armagh by the start of the 20th century, the 1920s and 1930s saw the game begin to flourish again with some epic encounters between exponents from both counties.

A chance encounter between some Cork-born Christian Brothers based in Co Armagh with the local bowl-playing fraternity led to a challenge match in 1928 between Armagh's top exponent, Peter "The Hammerman" Donnelly and Cork's famed Tim Delaney. Delaney won but the victory was well taken by the Armagh men and contacts were established which led to more challenges right through the 1930s and although it waned through the war years, contact and co-operation increased in the 1950s.

In 1954, Cork's legendary bowl player, Mick Barry, who was later to loft a 16oz bowl over the Viaduct in Cork, travelled north to play Armagh's Joe McVeigh and defeated the Ulster champion only for McVeigh to travel south two years later and reverse the result. New friendships were forged, and in the following decades scores between the Cork and Armagh bowlers attracted huge crowds with some 15,000 turning up in 1964 to see Mick Barry take on Danny McParland at Dublin Hill on the outskirts of Cork city.

In more recent times, the governing association, Ból Chumann na hÉireann, has developed contacts with moor bowling associations in Holland and Germany and more recently with Italian bowlers from the Adriatic coast who play boccetta, which is very similar to Irish bowls.

In 1985, a German bowler, Hans Georg Bohlken conquered bowling's Mount Everest when he lofted the 90-foot high Viaduct with a 28 ozbowl while that same year saw Corkman, Bill Daly win the inaugural World Road Bowling Championship in Whitechurch.

While the tarring of roads in the 1940s brought about a huge change in bowling, the past decade with increasing urbanisation and car populations has brought new pressures for bowl players.

Many traditional bowling venues, for example the many arterial routes into Cork city, have been all but lost with bowlers from the city being forced farther out the country to play and players throughout the county having to learn to live with more competition from cars.

Although many of the traditional bowling roads have been lost and bowls are no longer manufactured in Ireland but imported from India, the sport is perhaps better organised now than it ever was and its popularity remains strong throughout Cos Cork and Armagh.

As for the future, international contacts remain strong but perhaps it's best to go local and leave the last word with the bowling Bishop of Cork and Ross, Dr John Buckley, whose view of the sport suggests it's so deeply ingrained in Corkonians at least, that its future is secure. "Bowling is bred in our bones," says Dr Buckley. "It is part of the texture of life in Cork city and country and attracts thousands of people . . . it is more than a sport, it is a subculture with its own language and traditions."

Long Bullets: A history of road bowling in Ireland by Fintan Lane is published by Galley Head Press, €19.95