Bowling down the lanes of Armagh: Alan Murdoch joins fans of a sport said to have started with rolling cannon balls

UNDER an incongruous 'No Shooting' sign two intense young men from opposite sides of the Irish border are gearing up to launch small solid metal balls over two miles of lush Co Armagh lanes.

Road bowling is flourishing as never before in Ireland despite a curious ancestry - some maintain it arrived with William of Orange's Dutch troops, who played it with cannon balls. This has not stopped it being fiercely popular in what was once called 'rebel' Cork and nationalist parts of Armagh. Now the game is played as far afield as Louth, Monaghan and Sligo.

There are no comparisons with village square boules, the sedate short-range French game for people with weak arms. Here the winner in the head-to-head contest is the man completing the lengthy course in the shortest number of throws.

In this All-Ireland junior final tension is etched into the faces of the two young competitors. Though the prize is only pounds 100 and a coveted trophy, committed friends are backing them to the tune of pounds 750 each. Smaller sums of pounds 30 are gambled in side bets on each shot.

Before throwing, Armagh's Brian Kinchin kneels and scratches the ball on the tarmac. White-coated stewards with CB radios warn of imminent play and hold up the traffic.

As he starts his 20-yard run-up, cacophonous shouts of encouragement come from fans. His twisting, jerking swing seems set to pull his arm off as the ball hurtles towards the crowd and the hundreds watching leap clear.

There is a pause, then partisan followers erupt in raucous cheers, jab umbrellas in the air and jump up and down. 'It's a flyer' one bellows. 'Bonus score]' others yell. There is an element of psychological warfare. Yelling intimidates the opponent and boosts your own man if he is flagging. Disparaging shouts - 'Too slack' or 'It's no use' - are aimed at puncturing morale.

The wiry Corkman Michael Gould's face is contorted with concentration as a deep bellow of 'C'mon ya boy ya]' comes improbably from a pencil-thin young man dressed in the Irish barman's uniform of tight black trousers and plain white shirt.

Gould's throw ends with a curious jerk that lifts the ball a couple of feet. This is the Cork style; Armagh men keep theirs low and straight.

Between shots pipes are lit, chat- up lines exchanged and ice cream and chips devoured by huge ruddy- faced farmers in their Sunday best.

As the Armagh man pulls ahead, life-long fans describe great moments of the game, pointing out the plaque commemorating the course record of 22 shots set by Joe McVeigh in 1955. In 1985, 12,000 spectators gathered to see if anyone could loft their ball over a 90ft Cork viaduct. A German won IR pounds 5,000 ( pounds 4,800) put up by the brewer, Murphy's, for his effort.

Technically the game is illegal as it obstructs roads. It nevertheless has tacit police approval. The 1985 All-Ireland winner was one Bill Daly of Glanmire, Co Cork (occupation: policeman).

(Photographs omitted)

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