I was driving on the outskirts of Newtown’ one Sunday afternoon recently when for the first time I encountered a Bullets match.
The group of affable and enthusiastic young men were solicitous to direct my oncoming car safely through, but I quickly pulled in to the grass verge and got out, to signify my interest in the game in hand. With military regimen the contest resumed.
It didn’t look that expert to me, the thrower veering wildly and in a seemingly gauche manner as he made his approach and unleashed the ‘bullet’. It skidded and skidaddled along the tarmac but the throw was long and the metal ball, towards the end of its impetus, negotiated half of the bend up ahead.
‘Aye, he makes it luk aesy,’ says the Butt Man to me. ‘He’s the best in Ireland at the moment.’
My car was on the verge along the line of fire but he only smiled condescendingly when I pointed this out. ‘Safe as a row of houses, man,’ he smiled, and so it proved.
Road Bowls or ‘Bullets’ is played now only in Armagh and Cork/Kerry. There was a time when it was the most popular outdoor game in Ireland.
In Newry, the Windmill Road was once known [still is, with some old folks] as the Bullet Road on account of the fact that this game was played along its length. You can see why, with its hills and dips, its nooks and crannys, and the difficult varied road surface along its one and a half kilometre length.
The idea was to cover the length in a lesser number of throws than one’s opponent. Much money would be won or lost among the large following, each punter having his favourite. When a bullet went astray, or failed to negotiate a corner, there were special men there with sickles and scythes, to hoke away the weeds and bracken until the 28 oz, 4 inch diameter ball was uncovered and the game resumed.
The road would be closed to vehicular traffic [what little there then was] for the duration and the course would occasional over-reach Courtenay Hill and extend into Barley Lane as far as the Quarry where the Red Row begins. The game often lasted all day and the craic on street corners for the post-mortem would last well into the night.
Some Bullet terms:
Behind this Six: I’m betting six shillings that the thrower’s bullet won’t reach the point at which I’m standing.
Butt Man: man appointed to ensure thrower doesn’t over-reach the butt [starting point] before releasing the ball.
Crig a stone: strike a loose stone.
Cush: a cannon off a kerb or raised road margin.
Dig the bullet: to release so low, the bullet digs into the surface.
Kitter-paw: left-handed thrower.
Mark a bullet: throw a handful of grass where bullet came to rest.
Open up the road: clear the way for play to begin
Show the road: place a man some distance ahead with feet apart as a guide to player as to where to direct his bullet.
Spin a bullet: add spin by directed motion of thumb on release, to help bullet negotiate corner.
Threepenny Man: one who shines in a game of no importance but fades on the big occasion
Trindle a bullet: release with little force to allow bullet to slide downhill and negotiate corner on the way.