Ahead of the European Champions, Conor Power meets bowlers on the senior Irish road bowling team practicing on Inchydoney Beach
At 8am on a blustery Sunday morning at Inchydoney Beach outside Clonakilty, a crowd of dedicated sports men and women are assembling on the sand; some are measuring out lengths and putting down markers. Others are warming up in tracksuits. They’re braving the elements while most of the guests in the Inchydoney Island Lodge Hotel overlooking them are probably turning over in their warm beds, contemplating what to have for breakfast.
These are some of Ireland’s top road bowlers. They’re here in preparation for the upcoming European Road Bowling Championships, taking place in Holland from May 5-8.
“We come here to Inchydoney for our Moors training,” says senior ladies team member and under-18 ladies team coach Geraldine Daly. “We’re practising on the beach at the moment because our pitches are too wet to use.” Just like the more famous soccer tournament being played in France in June, the European Road Bowling tournament is one that comes around every four years. Teams from Holland, Germany and Italy will be doing battle with the Irish for European glory. Each national team plays in all three variations of what is essentially the same objective — to make a small heavy ball go as far as you can.
Dutch Moors bowling is played with a timber lead-impregnated ball on a dry level grass surface but the objective is the same as the Irish version — to throw it and let it run as far as possible. The German “lofting” game is a little different as it measures distance to where the ball lands, rather than where it stops.
Road bowling — our version — may be something of mystery to the majority of people in Ireland, but it’s a sport at least 200 years older than gaelic football. In an era where multi-million-euro exclusive deals with British broadcasters have become normalised, it could be argued that road bowling is the only truly traditional amateur sport still left in Ireland.
“Bowling is a real working man’s game,” says West Cork club secretary Donal O’Mahony. “You have all kinds of people playing from every walk of life, including farmers, guards and travellers.”
Sometimes the ancient sport and the modern traffic exigencies don’t always fit and it’s not unknown for drivers to get frustrated at a crowd of bowling fans taking over stretches of road, seemingly oblivious to the needs of the motorist.
“The only way I can explain it is that if you are at a football match, you’re totally engrossed in what’s happening on the pitch,” says Geraldine. “You don’t care what’s going on around you because your eyes are on the pitch. So if you place that scenario on the road, you don’t tend to think about the poor person driving through.. People are usually patient. We can understand how frustrating it can be. I’ve been in the situation myself.”
Road bowling is still a niche sport. All the teams are predominantly made up of players from Armagh and West Cork — the sport’s two main regions. Outside of that, the game is played in pockets of Wexford, Clare and Waterford.
Like most bowlers, Geraldine has grown up with the tradition. Her late father played it and she has been a bowler since the age of 15.
“I actually didn’t tell him that I was going bowling until the evening of my first score (or match), because he’d have been too excited.”
18-year-old Emma Hickey from Durrus is another senior lady bowler brought up in the tradition and been bowling since the age of 12.
She captained the women’s under-18 team at the last European Championships in Italy four years ago – when she was 14 years of age: “It was an amazing experience. We won team gold in the road bowling and team bronze in the Dutch Moors event.” “Women’s bowling is at its peak at the moment,” says Geraldine. “The last time, Carmel Ryan beat all records in the road bowling. She achieved shots that were close to 2,000 metres, which is phenomenal. We just hope that we can go out and justify ourselves there and maybe come back with a gold. We’re the current champions on the road in boys under-age, girls, senior men and senior women.”
James O’Driscoll, who was president of the International Bowls Association in 2012, was in charge of organising the last European Bowling Tournament in Pesaro in Italy: “Bowling is great… You’re meeting your friends and your neighbours. There’s a strong social aspect to it and then, you’re witnessing great competitiveness as well.” “It’s a great sport,” adds Geraldine. “There’s no badness in the people that play it. It’s all for the love of the game. That’s why we’re all this morning on the beach, with everybody having got out of their beds probably since 6:30 on a Sunday morning. It’s brilliant.”
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