John Daly: 'Silver bullets bowl us over with delight'
On the boreens of west Cork, silver bullets fly fast and low. And if you happen to take a wrong turn along those leafy lanes, be quick about ducking the path of these deadly missiles.
Thankfully though, this is not another Béal na mBláth ambush, only the brawny men of that scenic Rebel County dominion twisting their limbs in homage to an art form as old as time. With the arrival of glorious sun and blue skies last week, errant sectors of the workforce - yours truly included - grabbed the moment to skive off toward the beaches and hills of our gorgeous country in celebration of winter's early exit.
An unofficial rite of spring allowed us island dwellers - emerging from months of grey skies and dreary evenings - the idea of a jolly jaunt to Baltimore that was as appealing as it was brazen.
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Packing the car with only good vibes and the price of a decent lunch, we hurtled into those idyllic townlands where April up close frames a pastoral image no Nikon will ever properly capture. And then, somewhere just beyond Timoleague, our dreamy vibe was rudely interrupted by the sound of steel ricocheting off concrete - a signal to pull in and tread warily.
There, amidst the cherry blossoms and wild rhododendrons blooming from every hedgerow, dozens of men stood perched along ditches and roadsides - all frozen in expectation upon the imminent flight of a 28-ounce steel ball. Then, in a blur of speed, a pair of legs leap three feet off the ground, a back-breaking twist of the torso, a grinding snap of the wrist - the ball is released, hurtling and bouncing on the ancient asphalt.
The range is measured, a grab of straw marks the bowl's full extent, and a howl of primal joy erupts from a hundred throats. Road bowling, or 'scores' and 'long bullets' in local parlance, are similar to funerals, they say - one person being buried and the rest present for the social dimension of the occasion.
Like many hazy cultural hinges, the sport's exact origins have blurred over time, leaving just Cork and Armagh as the remaining strongholds.
Joining the watching throng on that stunning day, the Baltimore plans were happily tossed to the wind as our eyes and ears were opened to the rhythm of an exertion whose technical demands match anything seen on the precious sward of Croke Park.
Falling into step alongside Timmy, a local fisherman, we learned about the legendary Mick Barry of Waterfall, whose sporting career spanned 60 years and will forever be remembered for conquering the bowler's Everest - the Chetwynd Viaduct - on St Patrick's Day, 1955. A gigantic structure on the road west from Cork - 100 feet high and 20 feet wide - the always modest Mick lofted the bowl clean over it, a feat virtually defying the laws of physics.
A gardener in UCC for 50 years, his retirement citation was an echo of an almost forgotten Ireland and the kind of people who made it: "He was a man among men, an extraordinary presence who took people as he found them. In victory or defeat he was never known to lose his dignity even under the most extreme pressure that comes with gladiatorial combat for the highest stakes.
"A monumental presence not unlike his only true rival, the Chetwynd Viaduct, and one he finally conquered with that mighty loft."
Cruising homewards that evening, the parting words of my new mate Timmy echoed in my head: "Remember that the best score roads will always have a good pub at the end of them." And what could be better than a pleasant walk in good company, sterling displays of superior skill, and the prospect of a cooling glass at the end of it? A stunning logic that defies argument.