State embraces ancient sport of Irish road bowling

By Vicki Smith
Associated Press

BRUCETON MILLS, W.Va. (AP) — It sounds as if it ought to be a drinking game: Grown men and women hurl a 2-pound cannonball as far as they can down a paved country road, each aiming to finish the 1.5-mile, chalk line “course” with the fewest throws.

But in some circles, Irish road bowling is serious business.

Players and coaches — or players who think they’re coaches — stand in the road as a competitor pauses, studying the slope and the curves before taking a few running steps and pitching the ball underhand, releasing it just before his velocity carries him across the starting line. The ball rolls and the crowd parts, screaming, leaning, gesturing and otherwise willing the iron and steel sphere to stick to the pavement.

When the roll is good, they pump their fists and bellow cheers that echo through the forest. When it’s bad, the hurler hears silence or a few noticeably lower-volume words of encouragement.
“Irish road bowling is the greatest sport you haven’t heard of,” says Dave Powell, membership director and spokesman for the West Virginia Irish Road Bowling Association.

Road bowling is one of the oldest sports in the world, and one of the easiest and cheapest to get into. It requires no uniform and no gear, save for a 28-ounce cannonball, or “bowl,” that the West Virginia group will rent for $5 per day. Play occurs on paved road but seldom stops traffic. The action merely resumes after vehicles pass. Only during the largest competitions are roads closed to motorists.

The sport originated in Ireland and is played primarily in five counties there — Cork, Armagh, Louth, Mayo and Wexford — where it’s known as “Irish Long Bullets.” Crowds of spectators can number in the thousands, the masses filling the road but parting magically as the bowl begins to roll. There, the game is played every night of the week and provides regular entertainment and income for gamblers, with tens of thousands of dollars routinely and legally changing hands.

Janet O’Mahoney, 42, of Boston, is the wife of two-time All-Ireland champion Florrie O’Mahoney. She’s traveled to his home country more than 20 times to watch some 150 matches, called “scores.”

The biggest counties have the best players “because they’re at it constantly,” she says, but even children under 12 compete.

“Here, obviously it’s a lot smaller and there are less people,” she says, “but as sportsmanship goes, it’s the same.”

In West Virginia, road bowling was first taken up by the Lewis County town of Ireland during the 1995 Irish Spring Festival. The state association has been holding tournaments ever since, mainly at festivals and fairs. Last year, about 1,000 people played, though only 25-30 are what Powell calls “hard-core” regular competitors.

Powell, a photo and film researcher who grew up near Salem and now lives in Washington, D.C., says road bowling can be “a real fun roll-and-stroll for families,” but the tone was “extremely serious” when teams from Boston, New York and North Carolina turned out for the early August North American Region Finals at Coopers Rock State Forest in West Virginia.

Winners in some classes advance to the All-Ireland finals, or world championships, this September.

Unlike the Boston club, whose members live within an hour of each other and can play twice a week, the West Virginia players are far-flung and have far less time to play together and practice.

“Road bowling really requires a combination of coordination and speed,” Powell says. “If you’re beautifully accurate but you don’t have the speed, you’re not going to be able to excel. If you’re really strong and fast, and you don’t have the accuracy, you’re going to be in the ditch too quickly.”

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