Sunday, January 17, 2021

Road bowls / "bullet playing" / "long bullets" in Ulster

These days, this once-widespread activity is mostly associated with County Armagh and County Cork. Yet it was once played in Ulster-Scots communities too. Here are a couple of references from Sandra Gilpin, about road bowls in the village of Moneyrea in County Down across a period of 100 years:

"... One Saturday in June 1739 a strange incident took place at Moneyrea. Some young men were playing ‘long bullets’ (i.e. road bowls) near the Presbyterian meeting house when they were approached by a man dressed in scarlet and looking like an army officer. He spoke to them in French and offered them gold if they would ‘inlist in the pretender’s service’. The young men were not impressed and sent him packing. Soon afterwards they decided to pursue him and apprehending this curious individual they took him to James Wilson of Purdysburn, a justice of the peace, who had him lodged in Downpatrick gaol. That evening many of those whom he had solicited in the same manner were seen ‘riding to and fro to the terror of the neighbourhood.’ ..."

A hundred years later, the local Ulster-Scots poet Robert Huddleston was severely injured during a game of road bowls aged around 21 -

"... the young Bob was convivial and evidently enjoyed life to the full. He writes in a letter to John Poundley in September 1843 that he has been made lame by a “mettle bullet”, probably as early as 1835. The game of bullets has disappeared in the area: the car now reigns supreme on the Ballygowan to Belfast Road, where the teams once gathered for their tournaments..."  

There are many newspaper references in the 1800s and early 1900s in both Ulster and Scotland to the same game, under the name "long bullets". According to the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, there's an account of the King playing "lang bowlis" at St Andrews in 1496 (link here).

The Belfast News-Letter reported on 7 October 1946 that "the game is now played almost exclusively on the country roads near Armagh". The same article said that Londonderry Council banned the game from being played on the city walls, and that Dean Jonathan Swift mentioned it in a poem written in Markethill in 1728. Patrick Bronte's relatives played "long bullets" near Aghaderg, Banbridge.

In Northern Ireland's unfortunate yet polished parlance, when an activity is described or perceived as being that of "one community", it's generally an untrue claim. Many traditions, historically, are shared.