Sean O’Mahony, who installs gas lines in the Boston suburbs by day, returned home to Hyde Park recently with a gold medal and a silver cup for his handiwork digging around the windy village roads of Ireland.
O’Mahony’s love is Irish road bowling, a quirky niche of the sporting world that even he, now a two-time “All Ireland” champion, gave up trying to explain to friends.
“To be honest,” noted O’Mahony, 22, thinking back to his student days at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester, “I didn’t bother telling most of ‘em. The amount of time it takes to explain to someone that we go out and throw a steel ball down the road, they look at you like you’re kind of crazy.”
A quick primer for the one or two here unaccustomed to the ins and outs of a sport that traces back centuries, its origins in England and Scotland, some believe to the 1400s:
Two bowlers take turns hurling a 28-ounce steel ball, roughly the size of a baseball, down a twisting stretch of road upward of 1.5 miles in length. The object, as in golf, is to complete the course with the fewest number of shots (or bowls), to get from start line to finish. A typical winning score is in the mid or upper teens.
That’s really about it, minus, say, a million and one strategic nuances, the capricious bounces of a serpentine country lane, the keen advice each bowler receives from a couple of caddy-like aides, the roadside crowds that can endanger a bowler’s tosses, and, oh, the frenzied betting of Irish pound notes that can make a quaint country lane seem like the wagering windows at the Kentucky Derby.
According to Seamus O Tuama, longtime sports columnist for the Irish Examiner, avid bowlers in the villages in and around County Cork fill the streets every weeknight, as well as each Saturday and Sunday, in the summer. Too bad for the motorists who aren’t looking to be part of the game.
“Such an inconvenience … people deciding to drive on to the playing pitch,” a wry O Tuama, a lifelong road bowler, said with a chuckle. “Can you imagine that? You’re in Fenway Park and a guy drives along onto the field and you say, ‘Hey, why’s he bringing his car in there?!’ ”
O’Mahony won his title in the national tournament’s “Novice One” division, which is the second level in the annual competition. Born and raised in Hyde Park, he took up the game as a preschooler, eager to learn it from his dad, Florrie O’Mahony, a four-time All Ireland champ (across three divisions).
“Sean was, oh, 4 or 5 when he started,” recalled the senior O’Mahony, 57, who grew up in County Cork and emigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s. “We’d be leaving for practice on a Sunday morning, and he’d be in the truck before I was hearing, you know, ‘Let’s go!’ ”
Sean won his first All Ireland title in September 2017, qualified for it again two years later, didn’t win, and then took back the crown this year with only 13 bowls in the final, his opponent conceding the road had become a dead end.
“They’re unique on the planet Earth,” said O Tuama, referring to father and son O’Mahony, “because they’re the only family to win six [titles]. What’s even more amazing is Sean’s technique, the way that guy can play.”
The younger O’Mahony, noted O Tuama, has mastered the distinctive Cork (or Munster) style of delivering the bowl into play. Clutching it in his right hand, O’Mahony runs toward the throwing line (known as the tip line), makes a full rotation of his arm like a fast-pitch softball hurler, then fires it underhand into play, his release point above the waist and below the shoulder. With a slight arc, the bowl flies 20-30 yards before landing and then picking up added yardage.
“What captures me is that technique … it is extremely difficult to accomplish,” said an admiring O Tuama. “That is the big, big, big thing about him. For an American-born player, he is doing the impossible.”
For comparison, it would be like an Irish-born kid, schooled to pitch a baseball in his backyard in Cork, showing up at Fenway and firing like Pedro Martinez. Just doesn’t happen. Sean O’Mahony is an anomaly.
“If you look at the two of them throw, they’re the same,” said Janet O’Mahony, comparing the tosses of her husband and son. “I would say almost identical.”
Does Sean’s dad see the likeness?
“I do, yeah,” he said, a hearty laugh mixing in with Florrie’s brogue, “but I’m 57 and he’s 22, that’s the difference … I’m not nearly as agile now. He throws a lot harder and runs a lot faster into [the delivery].”
Florrie O’Mahony grew up in Ballydehob, a coastal village in County Cork, and bowled the way home from school every day with his pals over the mile trek from the schoolyard. The boys were 5 and 6 years old and used a 16-ounce steel bowl, about the size of a golf ball.
“We’d hide it outside the school, in the ditch, so the teacher wouldn’t see it till we got out,” he recalled. “We’d mind that like it was a million dollars, because if we lost it, we couldn’t afford to get another one.”
The senior O’Mahony kept up the game upon arriving here in his early 20s, playing with Irish pals at the Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, playing while dating Janet. For decades in the O’Mahony family the Sunday tradition has been morning Mass at St Anne Parish in Hyde Park, followed by breakfast, followed by a couple of hours of bowling.
Sean and Florrie can be found most Sunday mornings bowling with friends on a secluded stretch of road not far from the South Shore Plaza in Braintree. Tournament play, such as the recent North American qualifier for the All Ireland matches, typically is held at Wompatuck State Park in Hingham.
With so few American kids interested in the sport, Sean grew up forever playing against older competition. Nowadays two Sunday regulars, Brendan Fleming and Chris Finn, are 78 years old. By age 12, Sean, who started out by rolling a tennis ball, was rolling the 28-ounce steel ball in tournament play, always pitted against players 10, 20, or 30 years older.
“I got thrown into the men’s division a lot earlier than most kids in Ireland would be,” said Sean, whose brogue, like his bowling, is distinctively Irish. “I guess I can thank all the beatings I got as a young kid.”
A 2017 graduate of Boston Collegiate, Sean studied a year at Wentworth Institute of Technology but grew itchy for the outdoors. He has worked full-time the last three years for R.J. Deveraux, a subcontractor for National Grid. He can be found most days around Medford and Malden, installing gas lines and connecting them to homes.
Work is work, so O’Mahony keeps his bowl at home, eliminating any temptation to sneak out for a toss.
“No,” he said, with a hint of regret in his voice, “I don’t think the boss would go for that.”