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Bowling for Cork
Tripe+Drisheen meets the men, women and children from Ardcahan, Ballygurteen, Toe Cross, Drimoleague, Bandon, and Clonakilty who are keeping one of Ireland's oldest sports alive on the byroads of Cork
Time spent in West Cork may not feel complete without, at some point, happening across one of the many road bowls tournaments that regularly fill the county's countryside roads. The fixtures occur regularly, so it may not be surprising to learn that there are in fact 21 championship road bowling events held in Cork city and county each year.
Come rain, hail or shine, ladies, and gents from across the categories of junior, under 18s, all the adult tiers and categories, and the over 65’s, or ‘vintage’ as it’s known, will play somewhere between 3,500 - 4,000 games of road bowls on the byways of the county.
Road bowling, which is said to be over two hundred years old, has been a staple in the Cork sporting calendar since Ból Chumann na hEireann (The National Association for Road Bowls in Ireland) was formed in Enniskeane in 1954.
Prior to that, the game had reasonable popularity across Ireland, but for one reason or another, it began to die away. Akin to being guardians of tradition, it's the bowlers of Cork and Armagh who have preserved the game most over the last couple of centuries. These counties are the two main strongholds of road bowling, which is a fully recognised sport by Sport Ireland. Elsewhere in the country, counties Waterford, Mayo, Limerick, and Wexford are seeing healthy numbers of clubs crop up in recent times.
However, even though the game is essentially sixty-odd years older than Gaelic football and hurling, we don't really hear much about it. It's unlikely that we’ll ever see live broadcasts with punditry by household names being beamed into our living rooms. The game survives on tradition, community, word of mouth, and camaraderie.
To learn a bit more about road bowling, for Tripe + Drisheen I visited two “scores” last July, bringing with me my curiosity and camera.
As an uninitiated observer of the game, witnessing spectators lining the roads and egging on opponents as they thrash it out to see who can throw a metal ball farther than the other, sparks a question: what's going on exactly? How come such a big crowd is allowed to gather on a public road
The first of these was the West Cork novice-A final between bowlers from Dunmanway and Toe Cross which took place in Ardcahan near Dunmanway on July 15. The second: the intermediate Munster final between bowlers from Bantry and Bandon was staged in Ballygurteen on Saturday July 22.
Christy ‘The Bowler’ O’Donovan from Dunmanway was my point of contact for the novice A final. Christy, a former road bowler himself, was there to implement health and safety measures. He explained that the goal of road bowls is to reach the finish line in the fewest number of shots possible. Whichever contestant achieves this goal wins the game. “It's a bit like golf that way,” he explained.
At the West Cork novice A final, Brian O’Driscoll from Drimoleague, faced his first cousin Chris Cronin from Toe Cross. O’Driscoll made it to the finish line in 14 throws, over Cronin’s 15, O’Driscoll held off his cousin to take the tournament and win by one bowl.
One week later, about 12 kilometres northwest of Clonakilty, the cars lined the roads of Ballygurteen. Some 1,000 spectators came from far and wide, the city and county, first gathering at the yard of Tots Bar before lining up to witness the showdown between Bryan Wilmot from Bandon and Donal Ó Riordan from Bantry in the Intermediate Munster Final 2023.
It was the Bandon man who went on to take the Munster Title, making it to the finish line in 14 throws over Ó Riordan’s 17. Neither Wilmot nor Ó Riordan are strangers to bowling at big events. Dónal Ó Riordan took gold in the U18s European Championships when Cork hosted the games on Carrigohane straight in 1992.
Bryan Wilmot won the Intermediate Munsters in 2011 and that same year, he went on to win the Jim O'Driscoll Cup, an event run in support of the King of the Roads championship in East Cork. Following his Munster final win, Wilmot will go on to the All-Ireland Intermediate Finals in Tyrone where he will meet Armagh's Ethan Rafferty who is also senior footballer for Co Armagh.
The novice A Final at Ardcahan
At road bowling matches, or ‘scores’ as they are also known, once a game is completed, a ‘pick up’ will take place. This is where two non-competing bowlers ‘bowl back’ in the opposite direction to the original game, and have a friendly score. It's seen as an opportunity for bowlers to practice (and to not let the return walk go to waste!).
After the final at Ardcahan, Paul Kingston from Dunmanway and David Horgan from Toe Cross had a ‘pick up’.
A quick word with almost any bystander at a score and you a sense that road bowling is serious business in county Cork. Its culture runs deep here. For most people involved, they have grown up around the game, and in one way or another, they have stayed connected to the road bowling community.
Road bowls are 28 ounces in weight and usually last about two years. In Cork, the bowls are supplied by Cronins of Derrynacaheragh in Dunmanway. Bowls are sometimes referred to as ‘bullets’. This term perhaps relates back to innings of the game over 200 years ago, when it is reputed that when soldiers found themselves with little to do, they would see who could throw a cannonball the farthest along a road.
At Ballygurteen, my guide was Pat Mccarthy from Keamnabricka. He’s the spokesperson for Ból Chumann na hÉireann. He told me that Road Bowling is fully recognised by Sport Ireland, and said “road bowling has held its own in Cork, despite young people contending with GAA, Rowing, Soccer, and everything else. It's very vibrant here.”
Supporting the bowlers at the novice final was Former All-Ireland Road Bowls Champion 1993, Sharon Russell, with her daughter Marie. Like her mom, Marie is already an accomplished road bowler. She is presently climbing the ranks of road bowling, having already won a number of junior titles. Watch this space.
The Intermediate Munster Final 2023 in Ballygurteen
“Road Bowls is an ancient sport with cultural significance with safety measures permitted by authorities” says Pat McCarthy, PRO of Ból Chumann na hEireann.
By scraping the bowl against the road allows a little tar to gather on the bowl, making it less likely to veer off course once it hits the ground.
When Bryan goes to Eglish, Co. Tyrone for the All-Ireland Finals this weekend, he will have the support of Cork’s Geraldine Curtin who last Friday qualified for the Ladies All Ireland Final which also runs on the same weekend. In the final Geraldine will meet Kelly Mallon, who is also a senior footballer for county Armagh.
In early July, the All-Ireland senior final took place on the roads of Ballincurrig, which saw Armagh man Thomas Mackle retain his title over Cork's David Murphy.