Irish road bowling picks up speed on W.Va.'s curvy byways
BRUCETON MILLS, W.Va. -- 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.
In some circles, though, 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 roads 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 about 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, although only 25 to 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." The tone was "extremely serious," though, when teams from Boston, New York and North Carolina turned out in early August for the North American Region Finals at Coopers Rock State Forest.
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."
Some throws are as long as 300 yards, a distance determined by where the bowl comes to rest, not where it leaves the road -- and it almost always leaves the road.
In West Virginia, the longest shot on record is a 422-yard roll at the 2001 Irish Spring Festival.
The state association launched a competitive-singles league last year, and interest has been growing among spectators and players. The next competition is Aug. 18 at the Doddridge County Fair in West Union, and events are scheduled through Nov. 4, when the season wraps up at Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, Lewis County.
"Anyone who lives in the state of West Virginia can get to one of our events in about an hour," Powell says. The biggest are the Irish Spring Festival in March and an October tournament at Holly River State Park.
Carl George of Buckhannon says road bowling is harder than it looks, but anyone can do it.
"It's a lot of fun, a lot of exercise, and it doesn't cost much," he says. "It's really a good time."