Friday 20 April 2018

Bowled over by deeds of mighty Mick

Eamonn Sweeney

One of Ireland's most remarkable sporting figures was honoured last week when Cork City Council named a road after him. The road which links the Kinsale Road and the South Link Road will henceforth be known as Mick Barry Road.

Now there's a good chance you may be wondering why you haven't heard of Mick Barry. And the reason is that the sport he bestrode like a colossus for several decades is road bowling, a pursuit largely confined to Cork and Armagh but for my money one of the most fascinating games of all.

Mick Barry bears the same relation to road bowling as Christy Ring did to hurling. He was the undisputed king, the very personification of excellence in his sport, a man who attained the status of a folk hero in his own lifetime. He won eight All-Ireland titles, the last at the age of 56, but this only tells half the story. The first All-Ireland championships were only held in 1963 when Barry was already in his 40s. Prior to that, he had won several Munster titles which were de facto national crowns.

He competed for 60 years, from 1937 to 1997 when he called it a day at the age of 78 after winning an over 70s title. On St Patrick's Day 1955, he drew a crowd of several thousand to see him attempt to loft a bowl over the 90-foot high Chetwynd Railway Viaduct just outside the city. Barry cleared the imposing structure with the 16-ounce bowl, his shot with the 28-ounce bowl struck the top of the viaduct and fell back.

Still going strong at the age of 91, the man from Waterfall, just outside the city, progressed from raking leaves at UCC at the age of 14 to that institution's head gardener. They also had the good sense to give him an honorary degree. And the Council's equally imaginative decision speaks volumes about the esteem in which Barry is held in his native Cork.

It wasn't just his talent and enormous strength which made him stand out. Barry, a non-smoker and teetotaller, was also a by-word for gentlemanly behaviour in the often fraught atmosphere of a bowling score.

And, like Ring, so many stories about his performances sprung up that Mick Barry seemed not just a man of flesh and blood but a kind of archetype, a Matt The Thrasher or Bould Thady Quill in a game which is such a unique and distinctive phenomenon that I think every sports fan in this country owes it to themselves to witness it at first hand.

The bowling community will never stop talking about those lofts at the Viaduct, about the time during an All-Ireland final when Barry lofted the bowl over a pub which was cleared of customers in case the shot crashed through the roof, about the time international competition began and he beat the Dutch at their own speciality of moors bowling.

So if you're ever passing by Mick Barry Road, spare a thought for a man who proves that even a relatively small sport can produce a genuine giant.

As they say in his home county, he's some man for one man.

Sunday Independent

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