The venue for the sport is an otherwise peaceful spot along Launders Lane, between the A13 and Upminster Road, three miles from the Ford motor works at Dagenham. Across a hedge on one side, a glimpse may be had of sandpit workings, quiet on a Sunday.
Beyond a wall on the other side, white gravestones stretch across the East London Jewish Cemetery, also subdued on the Christian Sabbath. But by mid-afternoon, the roars and cries of the road bowlers and their attendants are almost loud enough to raise the dead.
Last Sunday, the Irishmen - women have their own games, played with a 16oz ball; they are discouraged from watching the lads at play - competed for the junior finals. The aim is to hurl the ball, underarm, as far up Launders Lane as one can, then pick it up and hurl it again. The process continues for a mile, after which the bowlers repeat it back the way they came.
Bookmakers were in attendance.
Before the first game started, between Denis Burke, a crane-driver from West Cork, and Francis Coyle, a Sligo sub-contractor, one bookie was waving a thick wad of pounds 50 notes.
By the time Mr Burke had won, lowing cattle in a nearby field had been cowed into silence, birdsong had ceased, a blue Vauxhall had been dented, a spectator named Tony had broken his wrist, and a terrible fight between Mr Coyle and the referee, Pat Sullivan, had been averted (though only just).
Like Mr Coyle, about half the following are travellers. The rest are referred to as 'county men' - possibly because, being less peripatetic, county origin is more important. Other subtle differences may be noted: the travellers, casually dressed, tended to arrive in gleaming Mercedes and BMW cars. Most of the county men, in their Sunday-best, arrived in old bangers or on buses. Mr Coyle bowled in a misshapen sport shirt, jeans and trainers, while Mr Burke was dapper in a neat cotton shirt, smart blue trousers and polished brown shoes.
At first, strangers are eyed suspiciously, even asked for identification. Gradually, as bets are taken (noted on the backs of envelopes), and the bowlers warm up with a few throws, typical Irish hospitality takes over and the secrets of the game revealed.
'There's a bowler in the Novice B Class called Hitler O'Reagan,' I was informed outside the Jewish cemetery gates. 'He's from West Cork, and he was called Hitler by his mammy because he was born during the war. People look up when they hear his name.'
Road bowling has four competitive levels: novice,junior, intermediate and senior (all divided into classes A, B and C). Some players prefer to linger in, say, junior B, where they have a greater chance of victory, than enter a higher class.
'Now, these fellows today,' John O'Driscoll predicted (accurately as it turned out), 'it'll take them 12 to 13 shots to get down the road. That's because they're juniors. A good bowler could do it in eight shots.'
Front teeth missing, Mr O'Driscoll, 29, shouted to three acquaintances downing Budweisers. 'If someone has too much to drink we don't let him play. . .too dangerous,' he explained. At this point, a practice bowl smacks into the blue Vauxhall parked against a hedge. Dust rises; eyebrows don't.
'The oldest player was Mick Barry from Cork,' one of the crowd said. 'He's 73 and still playing today. No, he's not here - he's in Cork, the best player in Ireland.'
Mr O'Driscoll pushed his face into mine. 'Listen,' he said, 'John-John O'Driscoll, who's 63, beat Mick Barry last year in the All-Ireland.' He was speaking of his father. His voice broke slightly as he added: 'And there was one man who died. . .Christy O'Driscoll . . .and he was the greatest bowler who ever played. He could make a bowl talk to you.'
I asked how Christy had died, imagining a 28oz dent to the head. 'Don't ask,' Mr O'Driscoll said, his voice shaking. When he had gone, someone whispered: 'He was stabbed, or shot.'
Road bowling, it seems, originated in Holland where the flat thoroughfares presented ideal conditions. Dutch weavers introduced it briefly to England, where it never caught on. At the end of the 17th century, according to Jerome Casey, an expert on the subject, it reached Cork. There are 2,000 road bowlers in Cork. The other main centre in Ireland is Armagh, north of the border. But clubs have begun to appear in Limerick, Mayo, Waterford and Meath, all belonging to Bol Cumann nah Eireann (Irish Bowling League). The senior league final was won in Armagh three weeks ago by Finchey Dooley, a Cork-born member of the Dagenham club. One man who bet on the outcome won pounds 6,000.
As the Dutch continue to play and the Germans are also devotees (sometimes using wooden bowls with a leaden core), the sport has gone international. The last international road bowling event was won by Germany in 1992. The next one will be held in 1996. Melbourne, Australia and Boston, Massachusetts are said to be addicted.
How did it come to be played in Launders Lane exclusively by Irishmen, the majority of whom are from County Cork? Answer: Henry Ford, the late American motor magnate.
'Henry Ford was from a Cork family,' a county man explained as we strolled a safe distance behind the bowlers. 'He built a tractor plant in Cork 80 years or so ago. The skilled workers were great road bowlers. In 1941, the plant was closed and moved to Dagenham.
'A lot of the Cork people were taken on here, but they'd only come if Ford laid on a bowling road. With the help of the local police, Launders Lane was set aside for us. But less than half of the 200 membership work at Ford.'
A good knowledge of the grain and camber of Tarmacadam is required.
At sharp corners, bowlers sometimes choose to lob the bowl over the
verdure, hoping it will land on the road beyond. 'These two players know their Tarmacadam,' I was told. Mr Coyle makes his living from it, while Mr Burke works for John Murphy Ltd.
'There are some tricky corners,' my companion said. At one of these, there was a thud of steel on bone, followed by a cry. The bowl had bounced off a stone and connected with Tony, a traveller. 'That's a broken rib, I'd say,' my companion observed. Tony, however, was clasping his wrist, now swelling fast. 'It's hard to know,' he said. 'I once broke my leg in three places and didn't know it 'til the next morning. I was drunk.'
As Mr Coyle launched his seventh shot, clipping a corner, the referee called a no-throw on the grounds that the bowler had overstepped the mark (a line of chalk drawn with a lump of ceiling plaster). Mr Coyle addressed him roundly: 'You're not going to blackguard me]'
'Back five metres,' Pat Sullivan insisted, naming the penalty.
'Have you read the rule book?' roared Mr Coyle, face red and knuckles white.
'I've read the rule book. Rules are rules.'
Some of the crowd were close to apoplexy. Mr O'Driscoll, a Coyle backer, pushed towards Mr Sullivan. 'Have you the book of rules in your pocket?' he hissed through his absent teeth. 'No? Book of shit, eejit]'
Then, as suddenly as umbrage can be taken, umbrage took off. With much money at stake, Mr Burke and Mr Coyle rubbed their hands in roadside dust and picked up their bowls again.
(Photographs omitted)Reuse content