If you just happen to be driving along the road from Rathcormac to Midleton via Ballincurrig and Lisgoold tomorrow and next weekend (14th-16th October) please be VERY careful. You may have to dodge a flying bullet or two! And, no, these ‘bullets’ are not measly little thing expelled by an propellant from a firearm – we’re not talking a gangland or wild west scenario here. The ‘bullets’ are in fact cast iron cannonballs cast along the road by men and women to see who would walk away with the coveted title of King or Queen of the Roads.
Other countries may play genteel games of lawn bowling or boules, but the Irish sport of road bowling is akin to nine pin bowling, without the pins, using an actual cannonball and played on a public road. While out for a stroll today on the Gearagh road linking Ballinacurra to Ladysbridge, I noted some neat and precise lines drawn in chalk right across the road – the start and finish of a road bowling course. These lines reminded me that the annual King and Queen of the Roads contest was due to take place in Ballincurrig this month. Clearly some locals in Ballinacurra were hoping to make the grade with a local contest. At this point it should be noted that road bowling isn’t just a casual affair – it has rules, and is nationally regulated by Bol Cumann na hEireann (Irish Road Bowling Association).
So what is road bowling? Take a stretch of road (it can be ‘straight’ – there’s an Irish oxymoron!- or winding) and mark out your start line and finish line. Then get the competitors to ‘cast’ or throw an iron ball (bullet) from one end of the course to the other. The winner is the one who gets over the finish line in the fewest throws. (This is why a winding road is so much more exciting than a straight road – if you could even find a straight country road in Ireland!) The missile is a cast iron ball of 3 inches (6.5 centimetres) in diameter weighing 26 ounces (794 grammes). Given the uneven surface on Irish country roads, the sport is much more technical than it might first appear – imagine a golfer setting up for a delicate putt into a hole but on a green with hidden undulations. Road bowling is entirely like this but is played on a hard road surface.
Road bowling is concentrated in Counties Cork and Armagh but also has pockets of followers in the counties of Limerick, Louth, Mayo, Monaghan and Waterford. More recently it has gained followers in the counties of Tyrone and Wexford. However the game may not have been of Irish origin. Until the nineteenth century it was played in Scotland and the north of England too. Astonishingly it was also played in North America – but not because of Irish immigrant influence. The game may have originated with bored Dutch artillerymen in King William of Orange’s armies in the War of the Three Kings in 1689-1691. There is a similar game played today in the Netherlands (klootschieten) and in the neighbouring areas of North West Germany. So there will be an international dimension to the competition in Ballincurrig with Dutch and German competitors contesting the title with Irish competitors.
Along with hurling, camogie (hurling for the ladies), Gaelic football and Irish handball, road bowling is one of the national sports in Ireland, albeit on a very local basis. There you have it. Dodging ‘bullets’ will be the order of the day in Ballincurrig for the next two weekends.