'They’re creating post-coronavirus history': Road bowling leads return of live sport in Cork

No, you were not imagining a disturbance in the Force last night. There was a competitive sports event being held, and your correspondent was in attendance.
'They’re creating post-coronavirus history': Road bowling leads return of live sport in Cork
Shane Dennehy of Bweeng during his match against Donncha Spillane of Ballinagree in the North Cork Boys U16 Road Bowling Championships at Kilcorney. Picture: Sportsfile
Shane Dennehy of Bweeng during his match against Donncha Spillane of Ballinagree in the North Cork Boys U16 Road Bowling Championships at Kilcorney. Picture: Sportsfile

No, you were not imagining a disturbance in the Force last night.

There was a competitive sports event being held, and your correspondent was in attendance.

It was not a fixture in the Bundesliga, nor was it an NBA game. In accordance with government rules, I didn’t even leave my native county to take it in.

Which is not to say that some travel wasn’t involved. Not a natural navigator, I was flummoxed briefly by the crossroads at Nad, and a gent in Lyre out for a stroll had to point me in the right direction, but I got there in the end.

(A bad novelist would have tortured some metaphor involving my cross-country search and applied it to the last three months’ lack of sport, but never mind.)

Just up the slope from the crossroads in Kilcorney, by the now-closed Outback bar, there was an official Ból Chumann na hÉireann fixture: the North Cork U16 championship.

Real sport, as Séamus Ó Tuama of this parish pointed out to me. Not two lads out on a fine evening, intent on making the stroll more interesting, but an official event being held under the aegis of the organising body.

Excuse that extended description, but the novelty of the situation demands it.

“It’s a competitive fixture,” said Ó Tuama. “The winner of the North Cork U16 region progresses in turn to the Munster championship, and from there to the All-Ireland, where Munster play Ulster.

We shut down in March, so this is the very first official score post-lockdown. They’re creating post-corona history.

The players in question were Shane Dennehy of Bweeng (road shower Tom Dennehy) and Donncha Spillane of Ballinagree (road shower David Crowley).

Willie Murphy, Treasurer of the North Cork Region, and uncle of former Cork ladies footballer Juliet Murphy, cleans the bowls with sanitising wipes before the match between Shane Dennehy of Bweeng and Donncha Spillane of Ballinagree. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Willie Murphy, Treasurer of the North Cork Region, and uncle of former Cork ladies footballer Juliet Murphy, cleans the bowls with sanitising wipes before the match between Shane Dennehy of Bweeng and Donncha Spillane of Ballinagree. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

“The plan is to test it out with kids,” said Ó Tuama. “You’re under less pressure because the numbers are smaller.

“If we were holding a senior score here this evening everybody who’s interested in bowling would be here, and how can you say to those people ‘you can’t come’ when it’s on a public road?

“We’ll see how this goes for the next week or two and then hopefully we can ramp up the fixtures if it goes well.”

Normality is still some way off. It’s unlikely many past scores have been held with so many people in attendance wearing surgical gloves, and there was some chuckling about the need to forego handshakes in favour of bumping elbows.

Ból Chumann chairman Michael Brennan showed me the self-declaration questionnaire which the contestants had to fill out -“Do you have any of the following typical COVID-19 symptoms: fever, high temperature, persistent coughing or breathing difficulties/shortness of breath”-.

Yet a few minutes past half seven the score got underway at the Outback, and it did so to a soundtrack familiar to generations of bowling aficionados: a faraway droning tractor, and the occasional caw of an angry bird in the trees along the route.

Dennehy took the lead as the road flattened (signpost: RATHCOOLE 2, MILLSTREET 7), and as we strolled along in the wake of the players and the road showers, the advantages of bowl playing in the post-lockdown environment soon became obvious.

Donncha Spillane of Ballinagree in action. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Donncha Spillane of Ballinagree in action. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Many sports have done a certain amount of leaping up and down to draw attention to their inherent tendency to social distance, with tennis and golf among those making a strong case on that score.

But bowl playing’s playing arena - the quieter back roads and lanes of rural areas - make a two-metre gap eminently achievable.

(And the quieter those back roads are the better, obviously. Reports of “early-seventies traffic levels” in the lockdown were a particularly exquisite torture for bowl players who couldn’t get out to play on those silent roads.)

There aren’t any confined spaces in bowl playing either, and if spectators can maintain a sensible distance the sport is better situation than many others as restrictions on movement begin to ease.

“We’re out in the fresh air, there’s plenty of room,” agreed Ó Tuama.

Bowling is a very sociable sport, particularly for the older generation because people stroll up and down the road to chat as the bowl is thrown - you could end up talking to a hundred people before the score is over.

Clearly this is both selling point and potential problem for bowl playing, and something that all other sports will have to contend with as well.

The general relaxation - in both lockdown regulations and people’s attitudes - has the potential to create problems as sports come back online, because with sports come crowds. Hence the common-sense approach from Ból Chumann na hÉireann to begin with underage fixtures to acclimatise spectators.

But there’s another factor which comes into this equation - one which every sporting organisation has to contend with in the post-lockdown world.

“There’s no income for the organisation,” said Ó Tuama.

“There mightn’t appear to be a huge outlay needed - the competitions are held on the roads, after all - but insurance costs are very high, there are trophies to be paid for . . . it mightn’t seem to be much, but money is still required.

“Take a big competition like the King and Queen of the Road, which is run over an entire weekend. That’s very costly; I’ve helped to run it and it costs thousands of euro.”

Last night's score ended with Shane Dennehy as the winner. Holding the event in the first place might have been the night’s biggest result, though.

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