Why Are Foreigners Still So Captivated By Road Bowling?

Why Are Foreigners Still So Captivated By Road Bowling?
By Donny Mahoney Updated

Before the internet, only two slices of the enriching barnbrack that is Irish sport were known to foreign television audiences.

One was hurling, obviously. Men with sticks will always capture the imagination. The other, bizarrely, was road bowling. I grew up in America thinking road bowling was as popular as rugby or the League of Ireland. As someone who watched an unhealthy amount of sport in my childhood, every year or two, I was treated to one of those five minute packages explaining the bizarre but beautiful sport to the American public.

The videos would inevitably feature the same four or five features:

  • A chubby middle-aged man, generally bald preparing to throw a round rock
  • Toothless locals with caps making bets
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Strange nicknames
  • Confused sheep
  • Huge crowds

British Pathé were likely the first foreign broadcaster to try to get their heads around the sport.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06Dx4KZgktA

The Australian profiled the sport in 2012 and likened it slightly to a 'good walk spoilt'.

The most recent of these dispatches that I can find online features ESPN's Kenny Mayne on assignment in deepest, darkest Cork during the 2014 Croke Park Classic. According to the Balls.ie archives, this is the second road bowling feature that Mayne filmed in his career.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5_GNAWNwSs

The foreign fascination of the sport was, and remains, telling. The idea of the sport is so unsophisticated - roll a ball down the road - it seemed to confirm the innate playful genius of the Irish race. From the most banal idea, inspiration and distraction can be plucked. Later, the endurance of the sport seemed mostly to confirm a distinctly Irish knack for finding a gambling opportunity in the most pointless endeavors, even walking down the road.

Most importantly, it was a sport that could only be played in a place where there were no cars or traffic: the Sahara, outer Mongolia, west Cork.

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But lately I've started to wonder. Is road bowling really a sport? I don't mean is it a sport like soccer or ice hockey. I mean is it actually played or is it just a ruse invented by Irish people to trick (and in some unfortunate cases, possibly rob) unwitting foreign tourists and journalists?

I have lived in Ireland for more years than I care to remember but I have never seen a road bowling match. I have worked in the sports media for years and I have never met anyone who's seen a road bowling match. I've never seen road bowling covered in the national broadcast or print media. I've never heard a radio news dispatch on the All-Ireland road bowling championship. There are no road bowling photos on the Sportsfile archives. I lived in Cork for a few months in 2008 and I never heard of any bowls being thrown.

So I ask you. Road bowling: fact or fiction? The hoards of amateur videos on youtube suggest the sport is real, but I remain dubious. If you have proof that road bowling is actually real, please share it.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjEmWZzQO7A

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