Time was that road bowling wasn’t so much a tradition in Cork as a birthright. It’s a sport surviving in changed times and changed lives, but only just. Isn’t there an onus on us all to preserve native tradition and heritage?
A few weeks ago a corner of Twitter was lit up by the quiet lanes of rural Cork.
Some landmarks from Séamus Ó Tuama’s bowling column — the new house, the corner — in this paper were held up on the social media site as a still point in a turning world, comforting and stable in a whirl of uncertainty.
Yet for many, road bowling is no more than a few minutes’ hold-up on a Sunday drive, the car slowing to pass a group of people on the grass verge of a country road. Round the bend and the game vanishes from the rear-view mirror.
What is road bowling?
“The easiest way to explain bowling is to compare it to golf,” says Ó Tuama, the recognised authority on the sport. “People understand how golf works, and it’s the same - getting a ball from one place to another in the fewest number of shots, or throws in the case of bowling.”
But not on manicured greens. Which begs the question: what makes a good bowling road?
“There are big championship roads, ones which are seen as a particular challenge to players. There are novice roads for low-grade players, too.
“A good bowling road is like a good golf course: it can’t be all the same all the way around. There have to be different challenges.
“To see a top senior player really perform you’d want a road that has some decent straights, so he or she can demonstrate speed, but you also want turns and different cambers to see if they can manage those.
“The thing about corners is they bring strategy into it, the player needs to have a plan. And that’s where the road-shower comes into it, to say ‘you need to be at point X in three shots’ or whatever. That plan can be important, because even if you’re behind, if someone says ‘get to X in three shots and you’ll be level, because the other guy can’t get there in two’.
“Instead of getting there in one shot, then, which is probably in your mind, the road-shower is actually saying to you ‘get to here in one shot and here in another, and you’ll be there in three and be fine’.”
The road-shower? The person who shows the road to the bowler, but we’ll get back to that.
What about Ó Tuama’s evocative descriptions, which owe less to the Ordnance Survey than to local folklore?
“What’s interesting is to look at the reports going back the years, and the places on the roads have the same names. In a sense, bowlers have kept alive the history of places that can be lost to the locals. People in an area might not otherwise know the names of certain places.”
So in a report of a score, the new house...?
“Might be there a long time. A very long time. You might refer to one place as Murphy’s Corner, but the Murphys, the original family it was named after, they might be gone a long time. There’s a road in Drinagh in West Cork and one place is called ‘the barking dogs’. I don’t know if there are still barking dogs there or not.
“On that road there’s another spot, the black stick. Up on Dublin Hill another spot was the hare’s gap. Out in Whitechurch, you have the devil’s bend. Places like that, people saw something or something happened, and the name stuck.”
Not everything sticks. Some of the great bowling venues still exist, but modern life means they’re simply not fit for purpose. The route which began at the Long Lane on Dublin Hill and headed for the Boot House is described by Ó Tuama as “bowling’s Croke Park”, but 21st century traffic means it’s lost to the game.
“On the northside of Cork city, there was a time they’d start the score at the North Cathedral and bowl out — start off there on a Sunday morning and head out through Blackpool for Blarney.
“Pouladuff would have been the same, it was the big bowling road on the southside of the city. You can still play there, but where they play now is well past where the original score would have started.
“Waterfall the same: you start nowadays almost at the finish of the original Waterfall course.”
Ó Tuama’s use of golf as an analogy is helpful, because the golfer’s caddie has a clear counterpart in the bowler’s support system.
“The players with long, successful careers always have a good road-shower,” says Ó Tuama. “The guy who’s changing his road-shower regularly - they don’t get on, they’re not building a relationship with the road-shower.
“It’s the same as a caddy in golf. They need to know the way you play but also they need to know you psychologically — what’s going to upset you, what’ll motivate you.
“People don’t think about it this way, but there’s far more pressure bowling than there is playing a team sport. A guy at home used to talk about a local who’d won All-Ireland hurling medals but found it hard to cope with competing in a bowl-playing tournament.
“He was a nervous wreck because the experience was totally different. The dynamic of being in Croke Park with team-mates, the crowd in the stand, as opposed to having people walking all around you and talking to you, having banter with the contestants.
“So what you want with a road-shower is someone to keep you calm if you need to be kept calm, or who’ll psych you up if you need to be psyched up. He also has to know your physical capabilities.
“Most players would have certain attributes in the way they throw a bowl and can’t really adjust those. The top players can do what they want with the bowl, that’s why they’re the top, but most players can’t. Some may have a right-hand pull, or swing, in which the bowl tends to go right eventually.
“Some bowlers will drop the bowl fairly close to them, while others will carry it further out. Some can loft, some can’t — and the road-shower knows all those aspects of his player’s abilities.”
You might consider raw strength as a key ability for a good bowl player. You’d be wrong.
“Bowlers are a bit like baseball players or hurlers — they don’t have to be big brawny guys. Some big people are good bowlers, but not all.
“Flexibility, to me, is the key attribute. The hands are very important, too, in that that helps you to get a spin on the bowl as you release it.
“You’ll see some players who’ll throw the bowl and while it doesn’t seem to go very fast, it’ll spin and spin, and travel on a good while.
“I only saw Mick Barry when he was an old man, well past his prime — he was playing a score and I’d say he was 75, but even then he could throw a bowl better than most 25-year-olds.
“Barry could loft a bowl a huge distance, but it wasn’t just a matter of height. He could put the bowl exactly where he wanted it. The really talented players can do that - David Murphy is the most talented bowler of the current generation and he can do all of that - loft a bowl, drop it close in, spin it left or right. Whatever’s required, he can do it. They need to be mentally strong, too. The best players lose as well, of course, and the psychological pressure can be huge. You can see that as the finish approaches. How players deal with that varies - some are very good finishers, you know if they’re in with a shake as the last shot approaches that they have a very good chance.
“Others rely more on building up a big lead early in the score and hold out that way. There’s a lot involved. It looks simple to most people until they’re given a bowl. They discover then that there’s a lot more to it.”
It’s also a sport with a good record on gender balance: “One interesting thing about bowling is women are probably more integrated into the sport than any other. They’re on a par.
“I know the Cork ladies footballers, say, have a very good profile but at some level are they seen as second-class citizens? I don’t think women bowlers are seen in the same way.
“You’ll see the numbers at the women’s tournaments — there’ll be as many people at the Queen of the Roads final as at the King of the Roads, the same for the senior women’s and men’s finals, by and large. It’s also one of the few sports which has had a female chairperson for a long time.
“In terms of spectators, like all sports, there are more men watching than women, but as participants there are far more women playing now, and they seem totally accepted. Decades ago that wasn’t the case - my own mother cycled in races and rode horses, for instance, but while her brothers and uncles were bowling, she didn’t. Certainly not competitively.”
Why is the game so strong in Cork, though? “There are a lot of theories, and I’d have misgivings about a lot of them. Michael Cusack was a big bowling man, and he wrote a lot about bowling in Dungarvan, for instance, and there’s still bowling in west Waterford.
“There was bowling in Limerick until recent times, and I spoke to a man in Clare last summer who remembered the sport there, and it was quite big in Galway. It’s still played in Mayo.
“You’d find it in most counties. It’s like the GAA — if that hadn’t been founded, would hurling have survived? Probably in small pockets here and there.
“Bowling was part of the GAA initially but drifted out of it, for reasons I can’t find. Would it have been played in more places if it had stayed in the GAA? I’m not sure, but what happened, I think, is if you don’t have organised competitions, or a club room, or a field, you lose a focus. People drift away or emigrate, no-one plays this year, then no-one plays the next year, it’s not played for five years and a sport that’s more organised comes in.”
When the sport was played more widely in the country the bowls themselves were made in local foundries, but that’s not the case now.
“Nowadays they’re all made in India, where they’re specifically made for the purpose, completely spherical, exactly the right weight.
“That was an issue long ago, in that they were made then in two halves, so the two halves mightn’t have fit together exactly, and picking a bowl was a big issue. If it’s used a lot, a bowl can get rough, and some people like a bit of grip on the bowl, others don’t. They get marginally lighter if they’re used a lot, but if they get very light they’re replaced.
“The main adult competitions are all played with a 28 oz bowl. At underage they play with 16 or 24 oz bowls — a 16 oz bowl is very small, an adult would find it hard to throw because it’s so small in the hand. Technically you could probably throw it further but releasing it would be tricky.
“People still pick bowls ahead of a score, though it’s more of a tradition now — there’s a toin coss, and the person who wins the toss has first choice, of bowls and going first or second.”
Ó Tuama is ambivalent about the future. He points out growing up in Lisgoold in East Cork, bowling was an organic part of a child’s life, along with other sports. Changes in the country have made easy adoption of the sport tougher, and general attitudes towards tradition don’t help either.
“I think Ireland is very bad at looking after its heritage in general. We’re talking near Beamish and Crawford, where beer was brewed for over 600 years, but now that space is not even used. We’re not as respectful of our heritage as other countries. I heard someone on the radio saying in her experience the foreign students who come here are more respectful of Irish than Irish students are.
“And it’s like that with bowling. If you go to the Netherlands or Germany, they’re more respectful of this sport than people here are. The Irish Sports Council doesn’t understand the sport and doesn’t take the time to do so, and it should. It’s part of the tapestry of Ireland.
“(Former Minister) Bernard Allen comes from a bowl-playing family and he was a great champion of ours; he was able to put small amounts of money the way of the sport. But there’s no full-time person employed in the sport anywhere in Ireland — no coach, no organiser, no office. It’s all voluntary.
“You can say ‘that’s fantastic’ but when I was a kid you just got a bowl and went out with your buddies playing. You can’t do that now— in any sport — so you have to be organised.
“Kids love bowling but with the traffic on the roads, there aren’t enough volunteers.
“There’s a bit of it in the schools but not enough, and the reality is that it will go the way of the Irish language. If we don’t safeguard it we’ll lose it completely. You’ll still be able to play the game, but not in the same way.
“I mentioned David Murphy — if you ask him when he threw a bowl first, he wouldn’t know because he was doing that since he was tiny. It was natural for him.”
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