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Getway with John Hagan
Bowling Along
Special Contribution
By John Hagan
The Rock Road Club members

I am a little bit early, but already they are gathering. I park the car at the roadside and introduce myself. "Great to see you," says Oliver. "Have you done this before?" he inquires. I admit I haven't, but undeterred he presses the bullet into my hand and urges me to "Give it a go."

Don' get me wrong, I'm not about to shoot anyone, - there isn't a firearm in sight. I am here in Northern Ireland, on a quiet road just outside the historic Ecclesiastical City of Armagh, to participate in the quirky, archaic, Irish sport of road bowling.

The Rock Road Club is holding its usual Sunday morning competition, only today there are fewer members than usual present. As Club President Tony explains, "We just came back from playing in Boston [USA] yesterday, so some of the lads are having a lie in." Nevertheless, about twenty of the forty members turn up, with today's prize being a turkey. It's a pairs competition and I am fortunate enough to have Oliver, a former Irish championship finalist, as my partner.

The 'bullet' (or road bowl) is an 800 gram solid metal ball, and the rules of the sport are incredibly simple. The winning combination is the pair (or in the case of singles the individual) completing the course between designated points in the least number of throws. In former days the course was along the public road between two villages. Today's competition is thankfully short — about three kilometres. "It should take us about 20 throws," enthuses Oliver, despite not having clearly assessed my ability, or lack of it!

He takes the first throw racing up to the 'break-off' line and with an underhand fling, lofts the ball into the air before it cracks down on the bitumen road some forty metres further on. It cannons off the kerb, making a left turn around the corner, running up a slight hill for another thirty metres, before eventually coming to rest against a telegraph pole. Some of the other initial throwers are not so skilled (lucky?), and one bullet ends up over a hedge amongst a rather startled herd of cattle. It occurs to me, prior to my throw, that the laws of physics seem obsolete when trying to judge the camber, curves and idiosyncrasies of Irish roads. I decide on a safety first approach, banning any loft and merely underarming my shot along the tarmac. "Wayhhey," is the cry from other competitors, as the bowl thunks and clunks over the surface. Just when I think it is going to do serious damage to a newly painted farmhouse wall, a 'roader' appears, minimising the impact by placing his coat against the wall. I heave a sigh of relief.

Oliver explains that 'roaders' serve the same function as caddies in golf. They advise the thrower about the road ahead, give advice on the best line to take, and the type of shot to make. As this is only a 'fun' competition, 'roaders' are not acting in their traditional role, and I can't say I blame them for refusing to stand in front of a rank amateur like myself. Today they have another function — to warn oncoming traffic and pedestrians that a competition is in progress, thus minimising car panel-beating costs and maimed personages. I cast the term 'road-kill' from my mind.

It is believed that the game of road bowls originated in Holland — where the highways are as flat as a Kerry man's cap — and was brought to Ireland by the soldiers of William of Orange in 1689. Originally the sport was popular throughout Ireland, but today it is confined to the Counties of Armagh (in Northern Ireland) and Cork (Republic of Ireland) where there still exists a thriving club structure and fervent following. Championship events attract large crowds, with substantial sums of money wagered on the final outcome, as well as each individual shot.

Oliver tells me that the top bowlers have managers, "to hold bets and take care of the financial side of the game." Each year, generally in May, the World Championships take place in either Cork or Armagh, attracting competitors from the USA, Germany, Holland, Italy and Poland as well as Ireland. While traditionally a male-dominated sport, I am informed, an increasing number of women are now participating.

And so we weave and meander our way, like a happy funeral procession, the length of the Rock Road, chattering and swapping yarns between shots. The older members recall the feats of the great champions like Mick Barry who once lofted his bowl over a farmhouse to rejoin the road on the other side, and Danny McParland who threw a 'bullet' 500 metres. There is talk of champion Paddy Hennessy who was invited to try his hand at cricket at Glamorgan County Cricket Club. While holding himself back, lest he might injure a batsman, he is reputed to have bowled underarm at 130km/h, twice scattering the stumps of a current English test player.

Today, for me there is no such success; no turkey to take home for tea. Oliver and I are soundly defeated, thanks to my short, erratic and highly inaccurate game. But it's been fun — pleasant exercise, good company, great craic, and thankfully no lost bullets or maimed livestock!

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board provided John Hagan with assistance while in Ireland.

The Rock Road Club plays along the Rock Road, Armagh on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. To view, and perhaps participate, in road bowling, visit the City of Armagh website www.armagh.gov.uk/leisure for details of where and when all local clubs meet.

Further information on the sport of road bowling is available at www.roadbowls.8m.com

For comprehensive tourist information on Northern Ireland visit www.discovernorthernireland.com



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