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Local Sporting Group Wants Irish Tradition To Roll On03:50
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Competitor Pat Nee launches the bowl down the road on the Milton-Canton border.  As spring returns to Greater Boston, so too does Irish road bowling. (Chris Berdik for WBUR)
Competitor Pat Nee launches the bowl down the road on the Milton-Canton border. As spring returns to Greater Boston, so too does Irish road bowling. (Chris Berdik for WBUR)

On a recent Sunday, in the Blue Hills by the Milton-Canton line, spring could be heard everywhere — song birds, a warm breeze, a lazy stream — and a raucous collection of Irish road bowlers, who began their season.

Road bowling dates back more than three centuries in Ireland. There are no pins to knock down, only distance to cover — a mile or two of blacktop.

"You have a staring line and a finishing line," said Con O’Callaghan, of Dedham. "Whoever goes from the starting line to the finishing line in the least amount of throws, or shots, as we call them, is the winner. If they both go there in the same amount of throws, then whoever goes furthest in the last throw is the winner."

O’Callaghan helped found this club — mostly comprised of Irish immigrants — in 1996, as it became the first American outpost of the Irish Road Bowling League. Once the snow melts, they compete every Sunday.

A caddy of sorts, called a road shower, advises each thrower on the upcoming curve and camber and any obstacles, like mud or downed tree limbs.With a running start and a windmilling arm, bowlers hurl a solid steel ball that is the size of a cue ball, but about five times as heavy. Distance is marked with a chalk line, or tip. A caddy of sorts, called a road shower, advises each thrower on the upcoming curve and camber and any obstacles, like mud or downed tree limbs.

Only about 20 people are following this early-season match, but the competition still gets intense as one competitor, angry at a throw, shouts, "Stop, lads!"

In August, the Boston lads throw in the North American Championships against bowlers from clubs they helped establish in New York and West Virginia. The winners of that tournament represent the United States at the All-Ireland Championships.

Apart from hobbling a spectator, the biggest hazard in road bowling is losing the steel bowl in the underbrush. After all, you can’t buy replacements at the local sporting goods store. At one point, the West Virginians tried to make their own bowls, O’Callaghan recalls.

"To be honest with you, they looked like turnips or a bad looking potato," he said. "But they sufficed and they worked through it."

Actually, they more than "worked through it." Some of those out-of-state upstarts recently bested their Boston mentors, moving on to the All-Irelands.

The "bowl" is 28-ounces of solid steel — or about five times as heavy as a cue ball. (Chris Berdik for WBUR)
The "bowl" is 28-ounces of solid steel — or about five times as heavy as a cue ball. (Chris Berdik for WBUR)

"It’s good to see somebody come so far, you know, who was born in America," O’Callaghan said. "That’s what we are striving to do, to get more young people get involved in the sport. We’re proud of these people that we can go back to Ireland with them and they’re our representatives, and that’s good for the sport."

Indeed, the Boston bowlers are eager for more Americans to try the sport, whether it’s in the newer road bowling clubs sprouting up in New York state, Vermont, Georgia, Seattle and Baltimore — or here in Boston, where the number of Irish-born residents is dwindling.

O’Callaghan would love to recruit a fast-pitch softball pitcher. But he says you don’t have to be a ringer to be welcome up the road.

"The great thing about the sport is that when the day’s over and everybody retires to their favorite watering hole," O’Callaghan said. "There are no grudges carried, they’re all left on the road."

And at the end of this road, the bowlers head off to Maggie Mae’s Pub in Roslindale, where the winners get their prize money — and buy the first round.

This program aired on April 13, 2010.

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