It’s called a ‘bowl’ in County Cork, but in County Armagh fans call it a ‘bullet’. The road bowler tries to move the bullet from the start to the finish of a pre-determined course in as few drives or throws as possible.
Today road bowling is a popular competitive sport where it is played, but the most vigorous competitions are in two Irish Counties: Armagh and Cork.
30th and 31st July this year sees the All Ireland Finals being held in Madden, around seven miles from Armagh City. This will feature Intermediate, Junior, underage and ladies winners from their respective Counties compete for All Ireland Honours. Having completed my induction as an Armagh Ambassador I thought I would share with you the knowledge I gained from a visit to The Cardinal Thomas O’ Fiach Memorial Library & Archive.
Irish Road Bowling can be traced back to the 1600s. One story is that Dutch soldiers brought it when William of Orange came to Ireland in 1689. Another legend says that Irish patriots robbed English cannonballs and rolled them down a country lane by the light of a full moon.
County Armagh in the north and County Cork in the south became strongholds of this rural sport, each independently developing their own distinctive hurling style. The first noted “score” (match) between Cork and Armagh was the Sept. 1928 meeting on the Knappagh Road, Armagh, between winner Timmy Delaney, Cork and Peter “The Hammerman ” Donnelley, Armagh, before 10,000 spectators.
After hundreds of years of localized bowling, Bol Chumann na hEireann (Road bowling of Ireland), today’s governing organization, was formed in County Cork in 1954. The first “All Irelands” (national championships) between Armagh in the north and Cork in the south were held in 1963. Over 20,000 spectators filled the 3 mile Moy Road course, Armagh, to see Danny McPartland of Armagh win over Derry Kenny, Cork, on the final shot by just 11 yards.
In 1969, the first international championships were held in Losser, the Netherlands, in three disciplines – Irish Road Bowling, Dutch Moors Bowling and German Lofting.
West Virginia Irish Road Bowling and the American Civil War 1861-1865
Irish troops marched over rugged hills and into deep hollers, cutting their way through vast rhododendron thickets, all over what is now West Virginia during the Civil War, 1861-1865.
West Virginia is the only state born out of the whirlwind of the American Civil War.
In those days, Ireland, WV, was a place of divided loyalties. Stonewall Jackson, with Robert E. Lee the Confederacy’s two greatest generals, grew up just to the north of Ireland, WV, at Jackson’s Mill. But two miles south of Ireland was Fort Pickens, a Union army fort and muster field. All about these parts it really became friend against friend, even brother against brother.
In West Virginia battles were different than on the flatland, fought often in huge nearly impassible tangles of rhododendrons on a mountaintop, or even worse, on the side of a mountain. Smaller but powerful mountain howitzers, which could be hauled up the mountainside by only two mules, blasted away through dense woods at close range.
In 1861, the 10th Ohio, formed in Cincinnati from Irish militia, with Captain T.J. Kelly, fought at the battle of Carnifex Ferry Landing near Keslers Cross Lanes. The 23d Illinois, Colonel James A. Mulligan’s Irish Brigade, built and lived in Fort Mulligan near Petersburg for several months. In 1863, 80 Irishmen from Mulligan’s Brigade, defending Greenland Gap, Hardy County, held a farmhouse for twelve hours against superior Confederate forces, until it was set afire and the roof caved in on them.
This sport was already old, over 100 years old, when the American Civil War began. It was first mentioned in public records in late 1600s and was widely known in Ireland by the early 1700s.
For the North, the 23rd Illinois Infantry, Mulligan’s Irish Brigade, mostly policemen and firemen from Chicago, built Fort Mulligan overlooking Petersburg, and stayed there for many months guarding the railroad. For their health and safety, they probably played more on the roads to the North. While protecting Clarksburg and Parkersburg from Confederate troops under Imboden and Jones, the 23rd Illinois marched over our bowling road, Old Rt. 50, near West Union.
For the South, the 33rd Virginia Infantry, Company E, the Emerald Guard, Irish laborers and farmers from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, was part of Stonewall Jackson’s famous Stonewall Brigade and skedaddled Yankees in what is now West Virginia’s eastern panhandle.
In 2004, Dan Harvey, Commandant Curator of the Military Museum, Collins Barracks, County Cork, wrote that, “YES, it is highly likely, even probable that Union and Confederate troops of Irish origin played road bowling as diversion between battle during the American Civil War – as they did worldwide on service with many foreign armies.”
We did not start a new sport in 1995 in West Virginia, we just restored one that had vanished. As we throw small cannonballs down the road this weekend, let’s keep in mind’s eye all young men, including big-hearted Irish soldiers, North and South, who played here in days gone by.