Ian O’Riordan: Zen and the art of competitive axe throwing

The Wicklow Axe Throwers, a recent world champion among them, want recognition as a proper, competitive sport

I ran into Ashley Glover at the Wicklow Wolf brewery one of the days last week and he cornered me outside, with my bimonthly supply, wanting to know if something on his axe throwing club might ever appear on the sports pages. Good question, actually.

We go back to my days living on the Luggala estate and that time we both understood the importance of having a good axe to help see you through the long winter months.

Not the Fender Telecaster type, as comforting as those soft warm tones can be, but the wood-chopping type and preferably freshly sharpened to ensure the least amount of competitive resistance. Especially when the result is your only source of home heating.

Glover has since co-founded the Wicklow Axe Throwers club, in December 2016, and there have been a few write-ups over the years, only things have moved on considerably.


At the end of August, at the World Axe Throwing Championships in Barrington, Nova Scotia, he was part of Irish men’s team which placed third overall – a first for Irish axe throwers anywhere – and better still club member Ceola McGowan then won the women’s competition outright. Unquestionably a good result.

Before that, Glover says, Ireland was viewed as the sort of Jamaican bobsleigh team of international timber sports; there for the craic, with no chance of winning.

Now he wants to help grow axe throwing as a properly competitive sport for men and women of all ages and indeed sizes, not just for the odd assemble of outsiders so far mostly portrayed, possibly leaving some people to think there’s an axe murderer somewhere among them.

Why would anyone need to know how to throw an axe in the first place?

Most people who join a sporting club these days will tell you they are primarily motivated by health and fitness, only that isn’t always true. For all the increasingly cheap thrills at our fingertips these days, including on our phones, most of us lead pretty dull lives and, bored with our daily routines, set out to find something a little less ordinary.

The golf course might still be all right for some, others have a different adrenaline path in mind. Not everyone can or wants to row their way across the Atlantic, or indeed row their way back again, and there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to know the why part. Except to say whatever works for them.

To find out exactly what works for the Wicklow Axe Throwers, Glover invited me to their latest training session on Thursday evening, down a country lane somewhere on the outskirts of Newtownmountkennedy – the club house being an old barn kindly made available free of charge from a local farmer. No overheads here simply because they cannot afford any, a lesson too in how starting up any new sport in this country is no easy feat.

Glover greets me with a can of Larkin’s Curious Society Night Tide, a suitably unusual cold-brew coffee oatmeal stout, courtesy of another nearby Wicklow microbrewery, one of their few sponsors.

“The coverage so far has been two steps forward, one step back,” Glover says. “It doesn’t position us as a sport, it positions us as a novelty. We’re looking to bid for events, looking for some funding, and have talked to Sport Ireland about this, for some recognition, and we’re looking at six or seven years.

“It’s a long way down the road, we know, unless we’re somehow part of a boxing club, something like that. Which we’re clearly not. It’s not golf either. It’s much more fun.

“But we’re not just a lifestyle, Sunday supplement magazine type of thing. ‘They show up, throw an axe, eventually hit a target. And that’s basically it.’ No! This is a proper competitive sport, that’s the message we’re trying to get out there.”

Unlike say the Irish Cheer Sport Association, or indeed the Irish Baton Twirling Association, who by their own right are established as national federations, axe throwing as a competitive sport in Ireland is still in its primitive days. Still that doesn’t detract from its value.

The club now has 30 members, men and women, who don’t pay any membership fee other than a contribution to insurance costs.

The playing rules are well established too, thanks in part to the global axe commission, the axes thrown at an archery-like target, a cross section of a tree trunk five feet off the ground, from a distance of 21 feet; hitting the two-inch bullseye is worth five points, with four, three, two and one point for the remaining outer rings. After one warm-up, scores are accumulated over six successive throws.

Not be confused with hatchet throwing, axe throwing is also marked by the distinct and more traditional double-bit axe, considered the heritage side of the sport, which until recently were only available in Ireland as a special import. The Wicklow Axe Throwers have already gone about changing that.

Oonagh McMorrow joined the club towards the end of 2018, and talks me through her first throws with a proper evangelical zeal.

“It hits you here,” she says, pointing to the core of her body. “It’s that primal gut feeling, It’s great for stress as well. When I started I thought I’d be too light, too small, but it became something we all did, our three kids started competing too.

“Of course there are safety rules as well, You throw together, you collect together. You never raise your axe until everyone is on the line. There’s a line behind the throwers as well, you know never to go there when there’s someone in the throwing area.”

My axe freshly unsheathed, those first throws strike me as a sort of Wim Hof ice water immersion moment of complete clarity, wiping out all other thoughts for better or for worse – and certainly more legit than anything in the sport of boxing these days, so-called amateur or professional.

For McGowan, surely Ireland’s least known world champion in any sport, it’s competitive and addictive, the 31-year-old, originally from Grange in Sligo, not yet four years in the sport.

“It is quite zen-like, connecting to the moment, and one of the hardest things is to not overthink,” she says.

“I learned mostly from observing other competitors, if I tried this, or that. Now, when I throw, it’s using the elbows as a hinge, I take my aim, lock it in, the axe comes straight back over the head . . .

“And will actually sit there, on top of my head, for a couple of seconds, almost charging up, before launching forward. Of course when you get competitive, it takes it to another level, the buzz and adrenaline starts coming then.”

Just as if the result is your only source of home heating all over again.