Early History

From time immemorial the Celtic race has been eminent for athletic ability and at the present day the many worthy successors of Fionn and the Fianna, Conor Mac Nessa and his red branch knights are upholding the fame of Irish authors as able exponents of many sports. Some of the other games have been lost in revolutionary changes incidental to modern progress, but one of the distinctive sports which still survives is bowling

There is no written evidence as to how or when bowling came to Ireland. One theory is that the sport came with the Dutch soldiers when William of Orange came to Ireland in 1689. (A type of bowling called Moors bowling is very popular in Holland to this day). Another theory is that the sport was brought from Yorkshire by linen workers. Bowling has always been a traditional game of weavers, in particular in the north of England.

Dean Swift makes a reference to the sport in 1728 in a poem called 'A Pastoral Dialogue':

When you saw Taddy at bowling plan.
You sat, and lowd him all the sunshine day.

In 1812, a spectator watching uncles of the Bronte sisters playing in County Down wrote:

Every uncle of elastic force in the great
muscular frame was called into action while playing.

The sports seems to have been quite widespread throughout the country in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but today the stronghold of the game remain in Cork and Armagh and some neighbouring counties.

It is interesting to note that Margery Forester in her book, Michael Collins - The Lost Leader, records the great Corkman's ambition to be a champion bowler. Each evening on his way home from school the young Collins would practice with his cousins, always using the twenty four ounce bowl, insisting that it would help to develop his muscles better for the day when he was big enough to use the full twenty eight ounce bowl. (Sixteen ounce was the weight used by youths in those days.)

Contrasts between Cork and Armagh go back many years but the score between Timmy Delargy (Cork) and Peter 'The Hammerman' Donnelly in Armagh is legendary. This score was played on the Knappagh Road in Armagh on a Sunday in September in 1928. This was the first ever score between players from Armagh and Cork with victory points to the Corkman and Pride of Fair Hill, Timmy Delaney. The score carried a stake of one hundred pounds aside and was attended by a crowd of supporters in excess of ten thousand. The game was played extensively in strongholds on the north side of Cork city in areas such as Fairhill, Dublin Hill and Whitechurch. On the south side of the city Waterfall, Pouladuff, The Black Ash were the popular venues.

The sport had been played in Cork for more than two hundred years and was frowned upon by the authorities of the time resulting in many bowl players being brought before the courts and fined and even threatened with jail. Ballplayers were still being fined in the courts right up to the early 1950s.

It was against the background of the ever present threat of a fine or even jail that bowl playing endured and even thrived, producing many top class players such as Jon 'Buck' McGrath from Blackpool, who was regarded as the best around in 1900. In July 1898 McGrath defeated Ger O'Driscoll in Waterfall. In October the same year he defeated James Barrett followed by wins over John Buckley of Waterfall and Sonny O'Leary (Bandon) over the famous Clancool Road in Bandon, West Cork.

Other famous bowl players from that era included Jack Murphy, Jimmy 'Rocksalt' O'Mahony, George Betson, Lalt Rice, Dan Spriggs, Batna Barrett and Timmy Delaney who is mentioned in the Cork song "The Boys from Fairhill" along with his roadshower, the legendary Jack O'Shea from the Croppy Boy in Fairhill.

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