Think Ring, think Pele, think Kyle, think Nicklau — it is in this pantheon of greats that Mick Barry rightfully belongs. The greatest road bowler in the history of the sport died at the weekend after a debilitating illness. The Waterfall man was 95.
Like those I’ve just mentioned, Mick Barry was a class apart. He dominated his sport like no other. Over his long and illustrious career all the superlatives have been used and all have been fully justified. He truly was the ‘King of the road’.
In all sport, you’ll get arguments when it comes to nominating “the greatest” —was Muhammad Ali greater than Joe Louis? Would Roger Federer have beaten Rod Laver? Was Juan Manuel Fangio the greatest ever Formula One driver, or should that accolade go to Michael Schumacher, who won more world titles? With some sportsmen, however, there is simply no room for argument. Through a combination of natural gifts, consistent application of those gifts and incredible dedication and self-belief, a handful of sportsmen belong in a category of their own. Christy Ring was one such sportsman, Mick Barry was another.
Strangely enough, it was his brother Ned who contested the first ever All-Ireland Senior Road Bowling Championships, losing in 1954 to Liam O’Keeffe. This was after a historic meeting in Enniskeane in West Cork earlier that year, a meeting that saw the formation of Bol Chumann na hEireann (All-Ireland Road Bowling Association).
That same year, Barry travelled north to play the Northern champion, Joe McVeigh, in Armagh. It was September 12, and this how Brian Toal described the outcome in his excellent history of the sport, Road Bowling in Ireland: “Thousands watched the event as Barry proceeded to set up a new record for the course, at that time, scoring the finishing line with his 23rd shot.”
It was the first of many triumphs in the North for Barry, described by Toal as the “Cork phenomenon”. It took a further meeting, held in Bandon onApril 14, 1963, Easter Sunday, to bring the northern and southern branches of the sport together.
Now the championships truly had an All-Ireland dimension. I first saw Barry in the 1964 final when, sensationally, he was beaten at Dublin Hill by Danny McParland of Armagh. The following year, Barry had an opportunity to avenge that shock 1964 defeat, again being matched with McParland in the final, this time on the latter’s home patch in Armagh.
The report in the Armagh Observer for August 7, 1975, tells the story: “Mick Barry, with one of the finest performances of his long career, won his first All-Ireland senior bowls title on Sunday when beating the reigning champion Danny McParland with almost three shots to spare after leading from start to finish. Barry was in magnificent form showing fantastic speed and unerring accuracy which had McParland in trouble from the first throw.”
A pattern had been established and many more titles were to follow, making of Barry a champion nonpareil. For those of us privileged to have seen him in his prime, the memories of his extraordinary prowess will long linger.
My own special memory is of a moment in a Mick Barry-Denny Murphy score in Dublin Hill, when Barry, in a colossal feat, lofted over Mary Anne’s pub at White’s Cross. The thousands present who had watched in a great hush, suddenly burst into spontaneous applause, the first occasion I ever witnessed such applause at a score.
A line from Shakespeare’s Henry V always suggested itself: “Gentlemen... shall think themselves accursed they were not there” on that never to be forgotten day in Dublin Hill.
Such was the mighty Mick Barry. May he rest in peace.
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