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Proud Irish tradition takes root in Andover

By KATHRYN ROSS

ANDOVER — The Ancient Order of Hibernians are buying bowls and getting ready for the ninth annual Irish Road Bowling Tournament in the town of Andover this Saturday.

But these aren’t soup or cereal bowls, they are 28-ounce iron balls, and the object is to throw them.

Irish road bowling is the game of hurling an iron ball over a prescribed course in the least amount of throws.

The sport has its roots in the 1600s when Dutch soldiers brought their manner of the sport to Ireland in 1689. Another legend says that Irish patriots, during the English occupancy, robbed English cannonballs and rolled them down country lanes by the light of a full moon, clandestinely minimizing the British firepower.

It came to the United States with Irish immigrants. During the Civil War, the game was played by Irish troops on both sides of the war when they weren’t fighting each other.

Although road bowling was always popular in Armagh and Cork counties in Ireland, the sport didn’t take root again in the U.S. until the 1950s. Today, there are Irish road bowling tournaments throughout New York state, Vermont, Connecticut, Michigan and North Carolina and, according to organizers, it is growing at fairs and festivals in West Virginia. The largest Irish road bowling event in the world is held annually in September in Wheeling, West Virginia, with more than 700 teams participating. The event is hosted by the state’s Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Irish bowling came to Allegany County in 2013 when Brian Cannon, then president of the local Ancient Order of Hibernians 1, organized the first official contest. That September, 60 people participated in the event to raise funds for scholarships at Immaculate Conception School of Wellsville.

This year’s event will benefit the Joyce Family Food Pantry, Hart Comfort House, Immaculate Conception and the local Little League.

The sport involves, a two-person team taking turns hurling, underhand, a 28-ounce cannonball (called a bowl) down a prescribed course. The local tournament’s course length is 1.25 miles on Kilbane Road in the town of Andover. It is located across from the end of the Trapping Brook Road on Davis Hill Road (County Route 22), which intersects with Route 417.

The course record is 23 throws. It is a challenging course as bowls tend to roll off the road and into the ditch or bounce into the brush along the side of the road. Tournament officials have metal detectors to locate lost bowls.

Cannon points out that the Kilbane family started farming in the area in the mid-1800s and that, in Gaelic, “Kilbane” means “white church.”

“This is a great place to hold the event because of the history of the Kilbane family,” Cannon said.

There is no pre-entry necessary for the event, which will get underway at 9 a.m. Saturday. Cannon said the crew will be setting up at 8 a.m. for any early birds who want to get on the course before the crowds.

Cannon said teams from Allegany, Steuben and Cattaraugus counties will be competing, as well as teams from outside the state.

“We seem to regularly draw around 50 to 55 teams from New York state, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Ohio,” he said.

This year’s tournament will take place while the dew is still on the grass, starting at 9 a.m. and running until 3 p.m.. A sign-in tent will be located at the end of Trapping Brook Road, where participants can register and pick up their bowls

The cost is $30 per two-person team with a $20 refundable deposit on bowls. Signup is the day of the event. The course takes between an hour and a hour and a half to complete.

There are five classes: men’s, women’s, mixed pairs, under 16 and senior (60-plus).

There will be food and refreshments available at the Andover Rod and Gun Club alongside the course and there will be wagon rides for transportation.