Road Bowling

All you need is a bowl and an available road

The game of road bowling in Northern Ireland can track its roots back to ancient Ulster at Eamain Maca near Armagh, which was the historic home of the High Kings of Ireland. Usually referred to by participants simply as ‘Bowls’ – which rhymes with ‘howls’ – it is played on public roads, usually on a Sunday. It is concentrated in rural areas in Counties Tyrone and Armagh, gathering large and enthusiastic crowds of spectators.
The game in its present form began to emerge in the 17th and 18th centuries. Stone and iron bowls were used during this period. The famous Irish authors Somerville and Ross refer to both themselves ‘Bowling an iron ball along a road’ and ‘a gathering of young men rolling a heavy round stone along the roads’, the common objective being to cover a certain distance in a given amount of throws.
The use of the modern cast iron bowl was developed from a plentiful supply available from the British military establishments of the day. The military influence can to this day be seen in parts of Armagh where the game of bowling is still known as ‘Bullets’ or ‘Long Bullets’.
Since 1954, the game has been organised under an All Ireland controlling body, Ból Chumann na hÉireann. 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 being the person or team who reaches the end in the least number of throws.
The bowls themselves vary in weight, adults play with a 28oz bowl while youths use a 14oz 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 skilful, 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.
Bowling is a sport enjoyed by men and women, young and old, and is truly a family sport. 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!
© Cathal Coyle 2005

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Supported by EU Programme for Peace & Reconciliation & RDC