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Go Play in the Road

On the Back Ways of Central West Virginia, Irish Road Bowling Rolls -- and Rocks

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page C02

The lane is crooked, bumpy and lined with barbed wire. The gutters are three feet wide and choked with weeds and muddy water.

Who's running this bowling alley, anyway?

An Irish road bowler during a recent match in West Virginia. The sport, in which players roll a ball over a two-mile stretch of road in the least possible number of rolls, is catching on. (John Bright For The Washington Post)

Welcome to Irish road bowling, an outdoor sport that enjoys roots 400 years deep in Ireland, where it's still widely played, as well as a growing popularity in the United States. The sport has become a regular feature in Boston and New York as well as at many of the small festivals that liven up weekends in central West Virginia.

Naturally, one of those places is Ireland, W.Va., where it's part of the tiny village's Irish Spring Festival and marks the start of the annual Irish road bowling season organized by the West Virginia Irish Road Bowling Association. The 2005 schedule includes 13 tournaments through November.

So while others were celebrating the weekend after St. Patrick's Day by lining up at parades and knocking back pitchers of mossy beer, my boyfriend, Wade, and I decided to join the good folks of Ireland and hoist a few cannonballs instead.

Many of the 50 or so road bowlers who showed up for the Sunday afternoon match already knew how to play, and teams came together quickly, even among strangers. The second-day matches are usually much more relaxed than the Saturday competition, said David Powell of Washington, founder of the West Virginia Irish Road Bowling Association, who is now the group's membership and publicity chairman. They're also smaller; Saturday attendance had been about 170.

Powell took a few minutes to explain to the newbies how the game is played.

First, find a nice, winding stretch of country road. A typical course is a mile to two miles long. (Our course stretched 2.2 miles, the longest of the West Virginia tour.) The road is not closed during the match and you won't have the protection of any police escorts, so it's important to stay alert for cars. As a precaution, Powell puts up signs along the course to warn drivers to watch out for the players and the black iron they're hurling.

The "bowl" itself is small, black and dense, about the size of a baseball but six times as heavy, weighing 1 pound 12 ounces. You're allowed to throw it however you see fit, but the most common approach is basically an underhand fast-pitch softball throw, with a running start.

Scoring is similar to that of golf, and what qualifies as a good score varies by difficulty of the course. The idea is to get the ball to the finish line in as few throws as possible. (The record for the Ireland course stands at 31 shots, set by a local team in 2003.)

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