Irish Road Bowling is a sport mainly played in West Cork, although there are small pockets of enthusiasts all over Ireland and the game is also popular in Armagh.
Usually referred to by participants simply as ‘Bowls’ – which rhymes with ‘howls’ – it is played on public roads, usually on a Sunday, all over the West Cork area gathering large and enthusiastic crowds of spectators.
Road bowling is an old game, played for centuries and at one time far more widespread in Ireland, but since 1954 it has been organised under a national controlling body, Bol Chumann na hEireann.
How the Game is Played
First off: this is nothing at all like either 10 pin bowling or the type of bowling played on manicured greens!
The basic rules are simple. A bowl – a heavy cast iron ball – is thrown from a start point to a predetermined end point, usually 1-2 miles away. The winner is the person or team that reaches the end with the fewest throws. That’s basically it.
The bowls themselves vary in weight, adults play with a 28oz bowl while youths use a 14 oz one. Taking part requires nothing in the way of specialised clothing or equipment – just a bowl and an available road.
In spite of its simple rules the best players are truly skillful. Their ability to deal with bends and undulations in the road and to keep the bowl rolling onward after it lands on different road surfaces is honed by years of experience.
Where and When to See Road Bowling
Large crowds gather to watch the matches and they are real family affairs. Visitors are welcome but don’t expect any fancy facilities: dress warmly, be prepared to walk a few miles while following the matches and to keep yourself out of the way of flying bowls and road traffic!
You can find out about some upcoming fixtures on the Irish Road Bowling website, but this isn’t an exhaustive list, so if you are in West Cork, ask in pubs or shops if there are any scheduled locally.
Here is a lovely short documentary about the place of road bowling in West Cork:
You can also watch the game in the USA, the West Virginia Irish Road Bowling Association is active and growing and holds a number of tournaments throughout the year.