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Close Encounter With Irish Road Bowling

By: Roger Sheppard
By: Roger Sheppard

Did you ever have one of those experiences that made you wonder whether you'd been "Punk'd" or had just stepped into the "Twilight Zone?"

It happened to me recently in perhaps the most unlikely spot -- the tranquility of a West Virginia State park.

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending a weekend in central West Virginia -- Braxton, Lewis, Gilmer, Webster, and Upshur counties. I was there because I had taken my 16-year-old daughter to Flatwoods, so that she could compete in the Miss West Virginia Teen USA Pageant, which took place over a weekend. (That was weird enough, but not the source of my strange "encounter!")

Having gotten much more into bicycing of late, I took my Trek road bike with me. On Saturday morning and after consulting a map, I decided to drive from Flatwoods over to Holly River State Park to get in some miles. It was a gorgeous morning and the park didn't disappoint me with its smooth, tree-lined roads. I even did a five-mile road climb in search of the falls, only to find that the falls were dried up due to a lack of rain.

I cruised back to the administration building at about noon after putting in about 18 miles, and decided to have lunch in the restaurant. I was the only customer there when I first arrived. The food was good. The staff was friendly. And the price was reasonable. As I was digging into my cobbler dessert, some people came in and sat at one of the other tables. Then, more people came in. And then a few more.

I looked outside and saw that there were actually quite a few people who had seemingly materialized out of nowhere, like zombies from "Night of the Living Dead." As the minutes went by, they eventually numbered about 100 in all!

But unlike the creatures in the George Romero movie, most looked reasonably normal. Most but not all. Some were dressed in outlandish costumes, bringing to mind Mardi Gras or St. Patrick's Day. There was lots of green, but lots of other colors, too.

As I paid my bill and walked outside, I realized that most of these people knew each other. I wondered what kind of gathering this might be. I finally approached one person and asked what was going on. He replied: "Irish Road Bowling."

I wondered. Did he say "Irish Rogue Bowling?" Or perhaps "Irish Rose Bowling?"

"What did you say?" I asked.

He replied slowly, "I-rish RoaD Bowl-ing," with a heavy emphasis on the "d" in Road.

It was at this moment that I fully expected Ashton Kutcher or Rod Serling to emerge from the crowd, to tell me I'd either been the object of a well-organized hoax or that I had stepped into a parallel universe. When that didn't happen, I decided to investigate further. But first, I HAD to get my camera out of my car to prove to outsiders that this was indeed REAL!

As I began to snap pictures, bits and pieces of the sport of Irish Road Bowling began to emerge.

It dates back hundreds of years to the Irish, who had made a sport of rolling cannonballs down roads as a competitive team venture. The idea was to see which team could roll a 28-ounce iron ball down a road the farthest distance, in consecutive turns. I learned that the sport had been imported to West Virginia in the mid-1990s, by some folks with roots in the Lewis County community of Ireland, through which I would drive later that day. I also learned that far from being the first time this sport had been played, I was on hand for the start of the next-to-the-last tournament in a series of events that had been staged all around West Virginia in the preceeding weeks and months.

They even had t-shirts made up, detailing the dates and places that the events had taken place this "season."

I'd like to tell you that I stayed and watched the sport and have now taken it up as my own passion. But I had miles to go and appointments to keep, so before they blocked the only exit road from the park with their boisterous competition, I decided to make my escape.

But as they shrank in my rearview mirror, I couldn't help but wonder if they all started laughing and asking each other "Do you think he really bought that whole 'Irish Road Bowling' thing?"

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For more information about the (alleged) sport of Irish Road Bowling, go to www.wvirishroadbowling.com.


T-shirt which gives upcoming dates and places for Irish Road Bowling events.


This is a 28-ounce iron ball which is used in the ancient sport of Irish Road Bowling.


Participants in a recent Irish Road Bowling event at Holly River State park in Braxton County, WV.


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