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Mixing it up


BOWLED OVER Groups from the Western Care, Westport and the National Learning Network, Castlebar join TY’s from Rice College and coach David Hughes (in orange high-vis) on the Westport Greenway, enjoying games of mixed-ability road bowling.  (Photographs courtesy of Tim Barclay.)

Mixed-ability road bowling could be the next big thing

Lúcás Treacy

‘Road bowling is like the game of golf; you need to get from the start line to the finish line in the fewest amount of throws by negotiating the corners and the contours of the road’ – coach David Hughes

Road bowling has been a tradition in the Westport/Aughagower area since it was introduced in the late 1800s when the railway line was being built. Men from Cork who worked on the railway would take part in road bowling as their evening pastime. Locals from the town area of Westport began showing an interest in the sport and soon started to play the game on a regular basis.
The sport was further strengthened when it was introduced to nearby Lankill by men from Armagh, who were cutting down local oak wood to be used in the building of the docks over in Liverpool. Subsequently the two areas started challenging each other to games, and this led to the formation of Aughagower Road Bowling Club in 1912. To this day, Aughagower is the only road bowling club in the province of Connacht.
The club was holding a novice competition in the local area in 2009, when members David Hughes and the late Willie Carroll were sat down by Cork road-bowlers Batty Hurley, James O’Driscoll and Susan Greene. They asked both men whether they would be willing to host the All-Ireland Unlimited Road Bowling, a competition for athletes with learning difficulties.

New departure
Though the concept was new to David and Willie, they could immediately see its merit, and they grabbed the idea with both hands. Willie Carroll spearheaded the project in Aughagower, and since then, the village has hosted the All-Ireland Unlimited Road Bowling four times in the last ten years.
Speaking to The Mayo News last week, David explained the concept behind the name of the competition. “The term ‘special needs’ is one that I hate. I prefer to use the words ‘limited ability’. When we host the all-Ireland for them, we call it ‘Unlimited Bowling’, we don’t call it ‘special needs bowling’, because even though they may be limited, they do have ability.” he said.
“Last year, we put a team of 25 together from the National Learning Network in Castlebar and the Western Care in Westport to represent Mayo in Aughagower for the All-Ireland championship. We had competitors from all sides of the country, including people from Armagh, Monaghan and Cork. These competitors were split into 13 different grade levels based on their ability, from the least able, to the seniors who participate in the top grade of the competition.
“We are now ten years in association with the Unlimited Bowling, and each year we have more people competing at this level. It’s fantastic to see them develop.”
One of David’s favourite things is to watch people experience the sport for the first time and see them fall in love with it. “It’s a great event for both the village and the local club to host because it introduces the sport to more people within the area, resulting in an increase in membership within our club.
“Throughout the course of the competition, we had young boys and girls who had never seen the game before out watching the event, and all they wanted was to give it a go. Out of our team of 25 who competed, we picked up seven All-Ireland titles. I thought it’d be a shame to leave it at that and just pick it up the following year, which gave me an idea.”

Blended approach
Between helping to host the All-Ireland and coaching of one of the local road bowlers who competes in the competition every year, David came up with the idea idea of mixed-ability road bowling. It seemed like a natural progression, bringing the traditional sport together with the ‘unlimited’ version by adapting the mainstream game to suit.
From speaking to family members, David knew there was an appetite for such a blended approach. “I was talking to people who have family members with a disability, and they told me that there is no sport that they can play together on an equal playing field.” he continued.
But a safe environment would be needed for such a sport. One location in particular leapt out: The Westport Greenway.
Thanks to David, groups from the Western Care in Westport, the National Learning Network in Castlebar, and Transition Year students from Rice College now meet on the Greenway in Westport every Wednesday for games of mixed-ability road bowling.
The game gives everyone involved the chance to mix with each other in a fun setting. “If you put a limited-ability group playing here on the Greenway on their own, it becomes boring. Add the element of the TYs and they begin coaching and mixing with each other,” David explains.
“I’d been thinking about the idea of the Greenway for many years, but we could never do it because the steel ball which we use on the road would be too dangerous to use on the Greenway. But, last October I was in America, and I discovered a ball made of solid rubber which would be a feasible option. I purchased a few of them, brought them back, tried them out myself on the Greenway and found that they worked perfectly.
Now in it’s eighth week, the mixed-ability road bowling has really taken off, with around 40 players taking part on a weekly basis.
“It’s safe, with no traffic to worry about, and good fun but challenging at the same time. The main reason for the game is to provide a proper mixed-ability sport that can be brought to any level, such as a family event or a competition. Hopefully, we can make Westport a destination where families who have a member with a disability can come on holiday, especially to play the game.
“At the moment, this is only a pilot scheme, but I believe that every greenway in the country should be playing this game, and the reason is simple: You’ve got a care centre and a Transition Year class in every town, put the two of them together and you’ve got something special.”
With its emphasis on sporting skills, camaraderie and craic, mixed-ability road bowling might just be here to stay.