Ireland, West Virginia is a small farming community founded by Irish immigrants over a century ago. But like many third- and fourth-generation Americans, the people of Ireland have lost touch with their heritage. To regain a sense of where it came from, the community has taken up a new sport.
When bullets fly in Ireland, West Virginia, residents aren't too concerned. In fact, they call it fair play. That's because bullets is a game, also known as road bowling, often played at festivals in Ireland, the country, that is. Eight years ago, West Virginian David Powell imported the sport for the town of Ireland's Spring Festival. He got the idea after watching the game on an all-sports television network. "It's a pretty simple game. You have a 28-ounce (3/4 kilo) steel and iron ball about the size of a baseball and you throw it as far as you can on every shot. The fewest shots to the end of a course, wins the match," he says.
The course is simply a road, but not just any road. It has to be a winding road, and have a bit of a hill to help the balls roll further, something that's easy to find in mountainous West Virginia.
Road bowling can be played one on one, or in teams of two, three or four people. Twenty people are playing today's game, which will take just under two hours to complete. "The course runs 2.2 miles (3.5 km). It starts right up behind these buildings. The first third is uphill curves over a small hill, then the back two-thirds is all downhill," says Mr. Powell. "It's a rural game and the country roads in WV are some of the most beautiful anywhere in the world. We've had Irishmen come and play here and they say, "You have wonderful roads for this sport."
The roads wind through rolling emerald hills, past lavender wild flowers, and a bubbling brook…
Yet road bowlers must stay alert. West Virginia's roads are public property, which means they can't be shut down during games. Team co-organizer Buzz King says players bowl at their own risk, and seldom get a chance to practice between matches. "We really don't encourage doing it during the year because it does hold up traffic and it kind of is a problem in the roadways [for those] who want to get through," he says.
Nevertheless, he says, there's never been a shortage of players. "People got involved in this sport right away. What was so interesting about it was we had all ages, we had a team comprised of a captain that was in a wheel chair, our best pitcher on our first run was a little bitty teenage girl who did wonderful," he says.
Jarod Putnam, who's been playing bullets since he was a teen-ager, has emerged as one of the area's best bowlers. He's known for his colorful grunts as he throws the ball 46 meters or more at a time. Despite his prowess, he says he's not sure how much of the game is really talent and how much is just pure luck. "It's not an easy thing to prepare for. It's such an awkward sport to play. It's like nothing you've ever done before really gets you ready to do this. As we learned this new sport we all kind of learned our own ways and our own styles, just kind of winged it," he says.
While the West Virginia bowlers use a variety of pitching techniques, Mr. King says tossing a ball down a road does take some skill, If only to keep from losing the equipment. Each ball costs $5. "Troubles for road bowling is curves and rough road areas. Things to avoid on the left and right. You want to make sure your ball doesn't get over into a cow pasture or pigpen or something like that or away from a waterway. So it doesn't go down in the water somewhere and you have to try to dig it out," he says.
Much of the game involves searching the side of the road for stray balls.
Often neighbors come out to watch as the teams pass by. Some want to try a throw or two themselves, others just want to join in the walk. Travis Craig, another of the area's premier players, says he likes the game's sense of community. "Just being outside, having fun with all my friends. Everybody from around here we always get together and do this and have a get together after. It's always fun. Meet new people going to all these festivals. Just going outside it's nice," he says.
While road bowling may be new to West Virginia, it is one of the oldest games in Ireland. David Powell says it dates back nearly 400 years, but its exact origins are unclear. "There are various stories, one is the balls were robbed by the Irish patriots from the English and they rolled them home by the light of a full moon. Another story is that it was brought over from Holland by William of Orange, who was a conqueror of Ireland," he says.
As old as roadbowling may be, the sport didn't get much attention until 1969 when Irish teams created the International Bowlplaying Association. From there, it spread to Holland, Germany and Italy. In the United States, West Virginia and Boston, Massachusetts are the only places bullets is played. So to introduce more people to the sport, the folks in Ireland West Virginia created the Irish Road Bowling Tour. Jarod Putnam, Travis Craig, and their teammate Shannon Gear tour the state's fairs and festivals giving demonstrations and playing games against fairgoers.
Mr. Putnam says while he enjoys sharing the sport with West Virginians, he has his eye on a different sort of competition. "I hope to compete in the All-Ireland, in a couple years they're going to have the competition in Boston," he says. "I'd like to be up there maybe be an American competing at an Irish event."
Today's game comes to a close at Duffy Bridge. More than a few balls are lost, and there's a bit of confusion over which team actually won, but no one really seems to care as they all climb out on the mountain waterfall below the bridge for a group picture.