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‘Road bowling’ connects Irish emigrants to their roots

How a renegade sport — the more obscure, the better — can bring you home

By John Fox

Photos by Gretchen Ertl

The small iron spheres look identical to my untrained eye. But 56-year-old Florie O’Mahony rolls them around in his calloused hands like a seasoned baseball pitcher, testing each for grip and feel. He selects his weapon of choice and walks five or so yards up the road past the chalk mark that reads “START.” Florie’s 21-year-old son, Sean, is posted 50 yards down the road, carefully surveying the asphalt’s camber and pitch. “Keep to the inside!” he shouts to his dad, marking his target with a pile of wet leaves.

Florie takes a few deep breaths and breaks into a trot. When he reaches the starting line, he takes flight, snapping his arm in an underhand windmill movement and firing the ball down the road with ferocious speed. Spectators scatter as it rockets past them for 100-plus yards before being swallowed up by the surrounding brush. “Good bowl!” says one. “Not much dirt on it.”

Sean OʼMahony shows off his road bowling form. Top photo: Darren OʼDonovan makes his throw

This is road bowling, a little-known sport played mostly in two far-flung parts of Ireland — County Cork in the south and County Armagh in Northern Ireland (where it’s referred to as “bullets”). Played in one-on-one competition, the object of road bowling is simple and comparable to golf: to get a 28-ounce solid steel ball — called a “bowl” (pronounced like “foul”) — down a paved road to a predetermined finish line in as few shots as possible. Bowlers alternate shots, and wherever a bowl stops, or goes “dead,” is marked as the starting line for the next shot.

The otherwise obscure sport enjoys a fanatic following in its Irish heartland, where it’s not uncommon to encounter country lanes closed to traffic and packed with rowdy spectators. An official association governs the sport and organizes regular competitions for men, women, and youth of all ages. Unofficially, it attracts a lively gambling trade, with spectators betting on individual bowlers like prize cocks. Thanks to the Irish diaspora, road bowling has found its way over the years to several parts of the United Kingdom and to scattered parts of the U.S., especially West Virginia, New York, and Boston.

Like other games — from Gaelic football to bocce to mah jongg — road bowling serves as a kind of cultural glue, connecting far-flung emigrants and their children to their roots. Sports, it turns out, are particularly good at doing this. They’re structured around rules that are grounded in deep-seated cultural values like fair play and mastery. They have a language and terminology of their own that instantly separates insiders from outsiders. Like with any good ritual, when people play sports, they throw their whole selves into it: mind, body, and spirit. And the more obscure and unpopular the sport, the better it is at reinforcing tribal identity.

Chinese-manufactured steel balls designed for fence posts are the exact size and weight of league-sanctioned Irish bowls.

I meet Con O’Callaghan, the ringleader of the Boston road bowling chapter, in the parking lot of a state park just south of the city. It’s a hot June day and families are pouring out of minivans for a day of swimming, bike rides, and picnics. Con — a ruddy-faced 60-year-old sheet worker — pulls up in a pickup truck filled with construction debris and tells me to follow him in my car.

After trailing Con for several twisting miles deeper and deeper into the forest, we finally arrive at his bowling Brigadoon: a quiet mile-long loop of country road, free of traffic except for the occasional bewildered cyclist. “Hidden away!” he declares with the thick sing-song brogue he’s held onto after 30 years in the U.S. Several more trucks and work vans line the road, most of them emblazoned with logos of painters, electricians, and other contractors.

Con, like most of the other “lads” in his club, came to the U.S. from a small farming village in County Cork where road bowling has been the local pastime as long as anyone can remember. “It would be like baseball for you,” he explains. “Our parents bowled and our grandparents before them. We just grew up with it.”

Now they’re passing the baton to their American-born children and a surprising number are taking it up. A few years ago, Florie’s son, Sean, was the first Irish-American player ever to win in the All-Ireland championships. Like other children of immigrants, he was naturally drawn to the sports of his peers — softball, in his case. But he grew up spending Sundays bowling with his dad and the sport got under his skin. (It didn’t hurt that road bowling proves to be phenomenal training for fast-pitch softball.)

Most historic references to road bowling are from legal tracts limiting or prohibiting its play. Road bowlers have had the law at their heels since the sport’s inception.

Road bowling’s roots in the Emerald Isle run deep, stretching back to at least the early 1700s. Much to the dismay of some staunch Gaelic nationalists, however, historian Fintan Lane believes it originated in the north of England and Scotland, where accounts trace it to as early as the 15th century. Scottish textile workers brought it to Ireland’s north, according to Lane, and it spread to other parts of the island from there.

Then it kept heading west. Centuries before Con and his countrymen re-introduced their childhood game to America’s shores, road bowling enjoyed a brief burst of popularity in the early colonies, played by revolutionary soldiers at Valley Forge and on the cow paths of colonial Boston.

Most historic references to the sport are from legal tracts limiting or prohibiting its play. Road bowlers have had the law at their heels since the sport’s inception. In the early 19th century, as English and Scottish roads got busier with industrialization, town after town declared the sport a nuisance and shut it down. It didn’t help that bowling was played mostly by working-class laborers. Authorities viewed most working-class sports — including football — as unruly gatherings that threatened property and public order, especially when they involved gambling and drinking (which they often did).

America was no more welcoming. Boston issued a bylaw as early as 1723 prohibiting bowling on town roads. Maryland issued bans in the early 1800s and other states followed suit from there. By the late 19th century, bowling had been purged from most towns and roads, surviving only in the back roads of the Irish hinterlands.

Lyndon Kiely, a one-time rugby player, “was practically born with a bowl in hand.”

If there’s a modern embodiment of road bowling’s outlaw past, it might be Lyndon Kiely. The 40-year-old excavator would blend in nicely on the set of “Game of Thrones,” with his barrel chest, jet-black beard, and exotic tattoos. The one-time rugby player, who “was practically born with a bowl in hand,” is vying today for a coveted spot at the U.S. playoffs in upstate New York. The top bowlers from Boston go up against players from New York and West Virginia (who, Con says, “bowl with a bottle of moonshine in the other hand”). The winners — whose ranks will include Sean O’Mahony — will head over to the All-Ireland competition to represent the U.S.

At the moment, Lyndon finds himself halfway down the road and in a dead heat with the elder Florie, a five-time All-Ireland champion who — when he’s not hurling iron — “does a bit of construction.” It seems to be a classic battle of brains versus brawn, though I don’t dare suggest it within earshot of either. Lyndon is on a tight curve with limited choices. He can’t loft his shot over the curve due to trees overhead, but it’s hard to see how he can find an inside track that won’t leave him dead in the rough. Darren, his chain-smoking “road shower,” an adviser similar to a golf caddy, approaches to consult. He carries a piece of sheet rock which he uses like chalk to mark the road. “Straight out now, no messin’,” he encourages Lyndon as he walks down the road, spreads his legs, and forms a human target. “This bowl has to fuckin’ fly!”

Fly it does — deep into the woods. A big fellow, brandishing a golf club with a magnet fashioned on the end, heads into a muddy ditch to lead the search party. Players hate to lose bowls, as they’re not easy to replace. After years purchasing official bowls from Ireland, American road-bowlers came upon a more affordable source: China. Turns out Chinese-manufactured steel balls designed for fence posts are the exact size and weight of league-sanctioned bowls.

Top right, a piece of sheet rock is used to chalk the ball. Bottom, Barry Curran, also known as “the ball finder” searches the woods for an errant throw.

After 10 minutes scouring the underbrush, the search is called off. Lyndon has to forfeit a shot, which puts him behind by one. Florie is in a strong position now, with the finish line in sight. His road-shower son marks a track with leaves — which they call the “sop” (a Gaelic word for a small pile of straw). “Watch my van, will you?” yells a spectator with a laugh, pointing way down the road to his parked van.

A family of hikers appears down the road. “Open up!” shouts a spotter, stationed there to prevent bodily harm to unsuspecting bystanders. Play is paused and the crowd parts to let the bewildered family through.

Florie squats like a pro-circuit golfer, eyes every angle, and switches sides of the road. Then winds up and nails his leafy target dead on to win the score.

“Split the sop!” calls out Sean.

“Ah, he’s a fox, all right,” says Con with a wink.

The men shake hands and we all stroll back to our cars replaying, and prosecuting, the final shots of the score. It’s mid-afternoon, but there’s still talk of a quick pub stop.

Over pints of Guinness, in a pub surrounded by Red Sox and Patriots banners, I ask Con why he and the rest of the fellows give up a hard-earned day off to play a game in the woods that no one’s ever heard of. He takes a sip and thinks.

“It’s a nice walk, I suppose,” Con says. He takes another sip. “And the camaraderie. In the end, you get beaten or you win. You go for a few pints. And what happens on the road stays on the road.”

Florie OʼMahony watches the path of his bowl.

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John Fox is a Boston-based writer and author of “The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game.”

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