Frank McNally on the byways of North Cork

Grassy Knell

In many ball games, the “middle third” is the part of the pitch where most of the action happens. But on Irish back roads, as I was reminded lately, the middle third is also a grass-covered area, if somewhat less contentious.

In north Cork at the weekend, where July was bustin’ out all over, I passed through boreens where you could have grazed cattle on the crop pushing itself up through the part of the tarmac untouched by wheels.

Only for the risk of them being hit by cars or tractors, some enterprising farmers would be grazing these long acres already.

A lesser local hazard, as a sign near Donoughmore warned, was road bowling. That’s not so much a ball game as a cannonball game, played with a 28-ounce solid iron sphere (known as a “bullet” in Armagh, the only other county where the sport is widespread).

I didn’t see an actual match (or “score”) in progress, alas. But the essence of the game and its intense relationship with local geography is well described by an archived account on the Road Bowling Association’s website.

This describes an epic encounter on July 3rd, 1955, between master bowlers Humphrey O’Leary and Liam O’Keefe, which lasted nearly seven hours, “until the blinds of night had begun to fall over the hills”.

O’Keefe led early on. Then, as the report puts it: “…O’Leary fought back at the ‘creamery’. But O’Keefe held his lead with some lovely playing beyond ‘Cronin’s Gate’ and at Kilmore he still had a nice margin…

“At this point O’Leary got really into his stride. He took the fore bowl at ‘O’Driscoll’s’, lost it again at ‘the forge’, but his marathon throw down to the ‘mutton bridge’, the longest I have ever seen in a score, gave him [a decisive lead]”.

Donoughmore is Thady Quill country, or near it, so called for the legendary Muskerry sportsman, drinker, and lover of women celebrated in ballad.

I use the word “legendary” in its original sense, meaning “mythical”, because the real-life Quill was useless at sport, a teetotaller, and slept in barns, probably limiting his career as a lover.

The song was an affectionate satire by his friend, Johnny Tom Gleeson from Rylane. But thanks to the Clancy Brothers, Quill’s fame as a sporting colossus now straddles the Atlantic.

This part of Cork was also well-known once for dancing, another thing synonymous with Irish country roads. And that could be hazardous too on occasion, hence the notoriety.

In 1934, also in early July, Fianna Fáil supporters attacked an enemy dance at Donoughmore Cross.

After an exchange of stone-throwing, some 35 blue-shirted and blue-bloused dancers had to flee to the asylum of a local Garda station, while a “bus load of Guards and a lorry load of military, in war kit” (The Irish Times) were rushed out from Cork city. Before order was restored, the attackers had also violently decommissioned the dance platform.

Along with its colourful social history, the area is rich too in eccentric placenames, including Nad, Newtwopothouse, and Bweeng, all of which we passed on the way to Mallow.

Mallow is Elizabeth Bowen country. Or at least Bowen’s Court, the mansion she was born into, stood a few miles northeast of the town, where the Rakes of Mallow (a local human sub-species, rather than gardening equipment) and the Anglo-Irish ascendancy in general lived life, in her phrase, “at a high pitch”.

But in her haunting history of the house, Bowens Court (1942), she also described the area as “a country of ruins”, from ancient castles to de-roofed Protestant churches, to big houses burned in the Troubles.

Her own mansion survived the revolution, just. Yet even when it could survive no longer it was fated never to be a ruin.

Bowen’s attempts to maintain it alone after her husband died overwhelmed her. Having suffered a mental breakdown and deep in debt, she sold it in 1959 to a local developer who (she believed) sincerely intended to live there until it overwhelmed him too. He demolished it instead.

“It was a clean end,” she wrote forgivingly in later editions of the memoir, where she chose not to change the present tense in which she had described the rooms because, as she said, the house still existed in her memory.

On the road to Kildorrery last Sunday, we searched for any vestige of the once-great mansion, but in vain. Here, the grass had completely triumphed over stone.

As Bowen wrote in 1963: “The shallow hollow of land, under the mountains, on which Bowen’s Court stood is again empty…Green covers all traces of the foundations. Today, so far as the eye can see, there might never have been a house there.”