The neighbors have lost their marbles, or more likely their cannon balls. Pick any summer weekend in bucolic West Virginia and you are likely to find the locals wandering the picturesque laneways, thrashing through shrubland, shuffling in the woods, and rifling through the long grass. A large sign sits by the road asking motorists to slow down as the ancient art of Irish road bowling is under way. Men, women, and children sprint along the tarmac and with a underswing that would put the Big Lebowski to shame, fling a 28-ounce metal ball along the road to their team members up ahead. They shout “bowling” to warn the innocent that a heavy metal projectile is in motion. The idea is to throw the ball as far as possible with the least amount of strokes over a course that varies between 1 and 2 miles in length. Each team member picks up where the previous thrower landed the ball and any stray must be hunted down in the thickets, hedges and rolling pastures this rural state is famous for.
When John Denver sang of West Virginia’s pastoral rural highways, he probably never imagined those same roadways loitered with ball hurlers. In fact, road bowling goes way back before the 1970’s radio hit. Back to the civil war, in fact, when a union troop of Irish soldiers called Mulligan’s Brigade fought the many battles that took place in this southern state that is not quite southern. Between skirmishes they picked up any spare cannonballs that lay around and took some R & R by indulging in some road bowling. The rolling green hills of West Virginia must have struck them as very similar to their own country where road bowling can be traced back to the 17th century.
One townland looks so much like Ireland it was called after it, and now Ireland, West Virginia, is the nucleus of a sport that is gaining in popularity and has events in places as far off as Chicago and New York. This small rural village is 90 miles (145km) north east of the state capital Charleston and home to the West Virginia Irish Road Bowling Association.
As one aficionado put it, “All you need is a $5 ball, a piece of chalk, and a road.” It is this ease and accessibility that makes the sport popular with all ages. Three generations of family members jog the roads, chasing balls and marking landing spots. In fact, it is not much different from an energetic country walk on a lazy afternoon with the occasional burst of energy and a keen sense of competitiveness. It’s enough to bowl you over.
West Virginia Irish Road Bowling Association ( 202/387-1680; www.wvirishroadbowling.com).
When to Go: Spring and summer weekends.
Charleston (90 miles/145km).
$$ Embassy Suites Hotel Charleston, 337 Meeting St., Charleston ( 843/723-6900; www.embassysuites.com). $$ Hampton Inn Buckhannon, 1 Commerce Blvd., Buckhannon, WV ( 304/473-0900; www.hamptoninn.com).