Justin Hunter is on a mission to spread Irish Road Bowling to the masses.
More than 14 years ago, while living in West Virginia, he was introduced to this traditional Irish pastime, which involves hurling a 28-ounce cast-iron cannonball down a stretch of clear pavement.
Since 2008 he and a group of dedicated friends have been practicing this throwing sport in hopes of bringing the national championships to Western North Carolina.
“It’s a mix of bowling and golf, but the goal is to get it to the end of the line in the least number of throws,” Hunter says of the weekend workout that he and as many as 50 friends and family members have gathered to play when the weather is right. “You’re outside and it doesn’t cost that much to play once you buy the cannonballs. For me, it’s a great way to keep my friends together and have some fun.”
While Irish road bowling may be new to Western North Carolina, its origins are traced back to the 1600s when, depending which legend you choose to believe, either Dutch soldiers under the command of William of Orange came to Ireland or Irish patriots stole and rolled English cannonballs down a country lane by moonlight to pass the time.
Regardless of its origin, the first major scored match between teams in County Cork Ireland was recorded in September 1928 before 10,000 spectators. The first “All Irelands” national championships were held in 1963 and the first international contest covering Irish Road Bowling and the similar sports of Dutch Moors Bowling and German Lofting took place in the Netherlands in 1969.
The longest throw, however, took place in 2001 during the Irish Spring Festival in West Virginia when someone threw for 422 yards.
“With singles competition you throw to the finish line, usually one to 1.5 miles from where you start, although in West Virginia they go for 2.2 miles,” Hunter explains. “With teams you go in a rotation, but it’s still the same basic game. A singles match takes about an hour depending on the skill level and team matches can last a lot longer.”
While members of the Asheville Irish Road Bowling Association vary in age and size, the most important thing they share is a respect for the game they play.
“We don’t just find a road and start playing, we prefer to practice on private drives with the full permission of all property owners,” Hunter says. “We heavily scout the traffic and always want to play on a road that has no houses nearby and a lot of smooth pavement. We have everyone from 6-year-old children to my pregnant wife and even some senior players come throw with us, so safety is our number one issue. As part of our practice, we make sure no one ever throws without first announcing that they are about to do so, and so far we’ve never had any major injuries other than a few minor bruises.”
Hunter admits that he once took a bullet (the preferred name for the cannonball) in the ankle while trying to stop the projectile in play, and that he and other players have suffered some scrapes and scratches while searching for lost balls in briar-covered brush, but that has not diminished his passion for playing.
“It’s amazing how nice everybody is when they see us out throwing,” says Hunter, between throws in the driveway of Festiva Hospitality Group where he works. “We never try to stop traffic, and after most people stop to ask what’s going on, they want to play too. My ultimate goal would be to get the national championships [held in different place each year] to Asheville, but I’m also glad to just share this with more and more people.”
If you want to try your hand at Irish road bowling, Hunter does have a few pointers.
“You have to read the road and when you throw try to project out rather than throw toward the ground,” he advises. “Also, release from your fingertips, rather than your palm.”
In terms of equipment, several Asheville players wore baseball gloves just to have better control over the cannonball on a chilly winter’s day (though Hunter says the professionals at the regional and national competitions don’t use gloves), and a pair of good running shoes are recommended.
“I’m surprised at the power some people can put behind the bullet,” he says. “If it goes off course, you might have to sprint after it.”