Leeside Legends: Lofty ambition defined Cork roadbowler Mick Barry

Feat at the Viaduct echos through the ages
Leeside Legends: Lofty ambition defined Cork roadbowler Mick Barry

Mick Barry in front of the Viaduct, where the roadbowler made history in 1955.

BEFORE 6,000 eyewitnesses on St Patrick’s Day, 1955, Mick Barry hurled a 16oz bowl clean over the Chetwynd Viaduct.

Although a subsequent effort to loft a 28-ouncer hit the metalwork up top, he had still done enough to enter Cork sports lore.

There is perhaps no other place in the county as inextricably linked to a single individual as the Viaduct is to Barry.

People who have never seen a score in their lives could still name one road bowler and list one feat: Mick Barry and the Viaduct.

If that span first built in 1849 is bowling’s Everest, Barry is our very own Edmund Hillary.

Barry also won 11 All-Ireland titles for road bowling and is generally regarded as the finest-ever exponent of the sport.

For the casual fans, however, these are minor details next to his most famous achievement. Other people have lofted iron balls of various weights over the 21-feet wide rail bridge that stands 90 feet above the Cork-Bandon road since then, but Barry was the first to do so.

Bill Bennet – a famous athlete and bowler from Killeady – is supposed to have managed it in the 1930s, yarns about Bandon’s Dan Hurley succeeding before that are common too.

In the absence of tangible evidence backing up those claims, the honour remains Barry’s.

Born in Barryroe on January 10th, 1919, this little piece of history belongs to somebody who actually grew up in Waterfall, not too far from the structure that would become the monument to his own greatness.

Fourteen years old when he began working at UCC for the head gardener Harry Glavin, he held that position himself for nearly two decades before he retired in 1985.

Half a century of physical toil on campus can only have enhanced the power of a man reputed to have been born with preternatural arm strength.

“A familiar sight on summer evenings during his years at UCC was that of Mick Barry taking a short run at the College Road end of the old Quarry and hurling a 28 oz. bowl over the bar onto the embankment at the opposite or quadrangle end; insurance companies or claimants do not see to have been quite as rapacious in those days!” wrote Professor Sean O’Coileain in his citation at the college’s conferring of an honorary degree on Barry in December, 2003.

“Before he could be made permanent he was required to pass an oral examination in Irish.

"The then Professor of Irish, Tadhg O’Donnchada and his brother Eamonn were gentle souls, and the task was accomplished without much difficulty.

"Confirmed in his gardening duties, his workmate Jerry Murphy commented that from now on he could say, ‘ta go maith’ to the jennet, then the only official form of College transport.”

Although he began bowling in his teens in the 1930s, the sport’s first national senior championships were not held until 1954 when his brother Ned was beaten in the final at Cloghroe by Liam O’Keeffe, another Waterfall man.

Bowlplayer Mick Barry with some of the many trophies he won during his career 
Bowlplayer Mick Barry with some of the many trophies he won during his career 

Barry himself didn’t win his first formal title until the following year.

Following the introduction of Armagh to the competition in 1963 (when it was reconstituted as an All-Ireland), he began a rivalry with Danny McParland who went by the nickname of “The Gun from Armagh Town”.

McParland beat him in the 1964 showdown but a year later the Corkman won a thrilling encounter on his opponent’s hone turf when the stake was (pounds) £1,700. Some amount of money for 1965.

Barry would later claim that score against McParland was his finest bowling hour but his supporters would gorge themselves on the memories of so many different days.

Second only to the Viaduct is perhaps the episode in which he lofted Mary-Ann’s pub in Dublin Hill during a score.

Once every customer had been evacuated from the building, Barry let fly, sending the ball clean over the roof and, more importantly, and impressively still, landing it back on the road to keep it in play.

Like most sports, the exact origins of road bowling are nebulous.

By one account, Dutch soldiers brought it with them when they arrived under the banner of William of Orange in the 17th century.

Another reckons it may have been imported from Yorkshire by linen workers during the Industrial Revolution.

Whatever the genesis, it put down firmest roots in Cork and Armagh, the two traditional strongholds of the sport.

Representatives of the two counties first met in competition in 1928 when Fairhill’s Timmy Delaney travelled north and got the better of Peter ‘The Hammerman’ Donnelly on the Knappagh Road.

Twenty years before Barry was even born, Blackpool’s John ‘Buck’ McGrath was vying for the title of the best in Cork against Sonny O’Leary, James Barrett and Waterfall’s own pair, Ger O’Driscoll and John Buckley.

The prevalence of the game can be gauged from the fact Michael Collins played it as a boy and some of his fellow Corkonians going to work at Ford’s in Dagenham would later bring the game with them to England as a slice of home to be savoured on Sundays.

The Dutch still play a version called Moors Bowling and having participated in the first international meet in 1969, involving teams from Ireland, West Germany and the Netherlands, Barry excelled at this variation in the 1974 event.

He took silver in the road bowling that same year. Ironically, it was a foreigner then who finally conquered the only part of the Viaduct challenge that had proved beyond Barry in his prime.

In September, 1985, a crowd of over 10,000 gathered to watch Germany’s Han Bohllen loft a 28 oz. bowl over the parapet.

Although he cleared the top by a good ten feet, Bohllen’s feat was performed by running up a ramp – a feature of the game in Germany – to give himself a platform to throw from.

That same day, three other Corkmen, Eamon Bowen, Dan O’Halloran and Bill Daly, emulated Barry’s great feat by succeeding with a 16 oz. bowl.

Originally from Leap, Garda Daly was perhaps the finest Irish player of that generation, winning the first two World Road-Bowling championships in 1985 and 1987.

As for Barry, he brought the curtain down on six decades of bowlplaying in the summer of 1997.

Two years shy of his 80th birthday, he defeated his good friend Liam O’Keeffe in the veterans’ final held at Dublin Hill.

It was fitting that his last score was there, the scene of some of his greatest triumphs.

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