Archery and I

Peter McCaughan finds that taking up a new hobby is the perfect way to stave off the January blues – and he learns a thing or two about military history

I’m generally not fond of New Year’s resolutions. I subscribe to the school of thought that says that January, being cold and miserable, and generally a lean month financially, is perhaps not the best time of year to exercise one's will power – or, for that matter, to attempt any kind of exercise at all.

But January is not a complete write off, providing you focus on a positive. Do something fun, find a happy distraction and work to stave off the January blues. It's the perfect time of year to take up a new hobby.

Arthur Halligey is the coach (or target master) of a six week archery course currently being run at Newtownards Leisure Centre. I enrol for two reasons: both to satiate my desire to take up a new hobby, and, admittedly, to mimic the archers of the fantasy novels and historical battles that I am so very obsessed with.

As well as teaching the course, Halligey is an avid archery historian. Talking with him after our first class, he informs me of just how ancient a practice it is. Unless you love The Wheel of Time and Hannibal's exploits as much as I do, you can only imagine my excitement.

‘There are caves in the south of France, as well as Spain and North Africa, that contain Neolithic paintings of people hunting game and fighting with bows,' Halligey informs his avid new pupils. 'These have been tentatively dated at around 15,000 to 30,000 years old. Indeed, one of the oldest complete bows found in Europe is the Ballybog bow, found here in Ireland and dated around 5,000 years old.'

Although the archery scene in Northern Ireland is currently relatively small, with about 800 people registered in 40 clubs around the country, Halligey’s club (the Lough Cuan Bowmen) have been instrumental in bringing important events here, such as the All British Field Archery Championship.

Furthermore, says Halligey, bowmen have played a major part in the progression of Irish history. That heritage is celebrated annually by various societies and associations and at various events, such as the British Longbow Society’s annual Celtic match between Scotland and Northern Ireland, due to be held in June this year.

‘The match is going to be in Greyabbey, in the grounds of Rosemount, which holds real cultural significance’, explains Halligey. ‘With the longshot field there, laid out in 1606, we will be shooting on quite historical grounds. This, of course, ties in with Ulster-Scots heritage.

'In terms of Irish heritage, the use of the bow really began when Strongbow came over to Ireland in about 1170. The Irish previously preferred to throw spears or darts. If you go to the Ulster Museum, or the National Museum in Dublin, you’ll find that there are various artifacts connected with archery.’

The actual practice of archery, as I quickly discover, is easy enough to pick up, but ferociously difficult to master. Despite being a highly technical sport, any true bowman's success relies his ability to remain still, concentrate and visualise where he or she wants the arrow to go.

After several of my attempts go awry, Halligey advises me to approach the act of drawing the bow with a Zen stillness, letting it ‘flow like a waterfall’. And, by Jove, it works! Far from being a frustrating sport, therefore, I find that archery – invariably an outdoors sport – can help one to relax in nature.

Halligey agrees. ‘Of the 800 or so members of clubs here,' he says, 'only about 20% of these people take part in competitions, so they are what we call recreational archers – simply doing it because they enjoy doing it.

'So archery is definitely a great way to relax, but there are fantastic tournaments as well, in both target and field archery. The former is just as it sounds: firing at targets. Field archery is similar – again firing at targets – the difference being that it can be up hills, over rivers, through forests. It’s really exciting stuff.’

Two sessions in, and I’m already hooked. Halligey peppers his lessons with interesting titbits of information about the history of archery, and I can't get enough. For instance, I was not aware that the ‘two finger salute’ hand gesture has its origins in the Hundred Year’s War, when the French would cut off the index and forefingers of their English captives, and taunt their opponents by brandishing their unscathed mits.

Of course, it’s not just a history lesson. First and foremost, Halligey tutors us in the practice of archery, as well as advising on equipment, terminology and relevant safety issues. Halligey has been practising archery for 18 years, and teaching for six. Having started out by accompanying his son to an archery course, he encourages anybody with a passing interest to give it a go.

‘The Grand National Archery Society insurance allows for people to be taken onto a course for six weeks without being a member of any club,' he explains. 'Some people may find that it is not suitable to them, in which case there is no commitment and you haven’t bought any expensive equipment.

'If you are interested you can join a local club, however, and they will almost always have bows suitable for beginners, until such time you are prepared to buy your own equipment.’

While I won’t be attempting any William Tell-style antics anytime soon, taking up archery is certainly highly recommended – a fun, affordable pastime, and the perfect hobby for history nerds like me!