The Flying Snail

Iarnród - between Ballydehob and Schull 1939

Iarnród – between Ballydehob and Schull 1939

In the heydays of transport by rail, the south of Ireland was served by a network of lines radiating out from Cork. Most of these were scenically picturesque – the nature of the countryside saw to that – and all were imbued with Stories, still recounted with relish by the local people who remember them, or whose mothers and fathers remembered them. Here’s one of the stories – told about the Chetwynd Viaduct, coming out of Cork on the way to Bandon.

Chetwynd Viaduct today - a scheduled monument

Chetwynd Viaduct today

This structure was designed by Charles Nixon, a pupil of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built between 1849 and 1851. It’s still in place today, passing over the main  N71 road from Skibbereen, and is a scheduled monument. The railway, track and track bed have all gone. For quite a while after its construction it was known as “The Bowlers’ Everest”. Alert followers of these posts will know about Road Bowling already (don’t forget to pronounce it correctly: Road Bowelling) – a very skilful and ancient Irish sport involving hurling a heavy iron ‘bullet’ along a road, and getting it from one place to another in the shortest number of throws. For Bowellers, the viaduct presented an obvious challenge: to throw the ‘bullet’ on to it. This was attempted many times year after year, but it took a mighty man to do it: Mick Barry, widely acknowledged as the greatest bowlplayer ever. My informant was careful to add “…This has been said by many and denied by very few…” The Cork Examiner takes up the tale:

“…Barry conquered the Bowler’s Everest, the Chetwynd Viaduct on the Cork-Bandon Road on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1955. He lofted the 16oz bowl on to the 100 foot high parapet; an incredible feat which required almost superhuman strength, virtually defying the laws of physics. This feat was witnessed by thousands of spectators…”


Bowlers’ Everest – the viaduct at Chetwynd and a 16oz ‘bullet’

Less commonly cited is another Chetwynd story: on September 8th, 1985, watched by over 10,000 people, Hans Bohllen from West Germany lofted a 28oz bowl clean over the viaduct, clearing the top by ten feet.

clonjunctionLines from Cork eventually penetrated surprisingly far into the south west extremities of the state: to Kinsale, Bandon, Courtmacsherry, Clonakilty, Bantry, Baltimore, and – on a 3ft gauge narrow line snaking out of Skibbereen – to our two local towns of Ballydehob and Schull. It’s worth mentioning the colourful history of railway track gauges in Ireland: the standard now is 5ft 3in – something shared in the world with only Brazil, Australia and New Zealand – but earlier lines had 4ft 8½ins [UK and Europe standard], 6ft 2ins and 5ft 2ins, and when trams were first introduced to Dublin they had 5ft 2 and a bit.


Local history: plaque on the viaduct at Ballydehob

In 1925 all the railway lines in the new Irish Free State were amalgamated to become the Great Southern Railway, and in 1945 the system was consolidated with road transport concerns and trams to become Córas Iompair Éireann. The logo used by CIÉ until 1964 was affectionately (and, perhaps, cynically) known as The Flying Snail.

Córas Iompair Éireann - the national rail and bus company - logo used between the 1940s and 1964: known affectionately as 'The Flying Snail'

‘The Flying Snail’

ballytrainmcThe line out to us here in West Cork was particularly eccentric and would have been a magnet for present day railway enthusiasts if it had survived. In places the narrow gauge track ran along the main road; it reached speeds of up to 15 miles per hour… But how we all wish it was still possible to catch a little train out of Schull, Ballydehob or Skibbereen and arrive in Cork in a bit. It would be grand!


Water stop – with a view…

schull station

Leaving Schull Station, 1939

skibb station

All aboard at Skibbereen!

Ból an bhóthair


A damp, grey, Sunday afternoon seemed as good a time as any to find out about a strong West Cork tradition – Road Bowling – the title of this post is the Irish for that. I had come across this ancient sport on a previous visit to Ireland and was intrigued. Friends enlightened me that it was a traditional local pastime which has spread to Armagh and, through emigration, to London and the United States – while other versions of the game exist in Holland and Germany. But the county of Cork – and particularly our western part of the county – is its true home.

bowling2A notable merit of the sport is that it requires absolutely minimal equipment and facilities: an iron ball (or ‘bullet’) weighing 800 grams and 18cm in circumference (note: Ireland is fully up to date with its metrification – miles and ounces have vanished along with the old Irish punt or pound) and about 4 kilometeres of public road. That’s all, apart from a stick of chalk. The road can be anywhere: it’s good if there are some hills and bends. Today I watched a game on the Road out of Durrus going towards Schull. It’s fairly well used (although, as this is Ireland and a Sunday, there’s probably one car passing through every five minutes), but the traffic always gives way to the bowlers.

The object is to throw the iron ball along the road. There are two players – or two teams – in each match, and the match involves one journey along the road in one direction, each player having his own ball. There’s usually another match when the crowd returns along the same route. The winning player or team is the one that reaches the end of the course with the fewest ‘throws’. To throw a player runs up to a chalk mark and, using an underarm swing, propels the ball as far as possible. Regardless of whether or not the ball has hit a wall or drain or whatever, the next chalk mark is made at the point that the ball has stopped moving. There are all sorts of techniques, but nothing – it seems – breaks any rules, unless the player’s foot steps over the chalk mark before the ball has left his hand. And I’m not sure whether anyone is actually watching out for that, as the whole crowd, including the players, spend the entire time engaged in conversation; although this is interspersed at times with shouts of encouragement – or perhaps discouragement, and loud comments on how poor that particular throw was. I was guided through the process by friendly members of the gathering (many of whom suggested that I should have a go myself) and they also assured me that an essential part of the fun was ‘money changing hands’ – a gamble on the match, or on individual throws. Everything seemed so chaotic and informal that I couldn’t work out how this all went on.


I was interested to see a tuft of grass (a ‘sot’) pulled out of the hedgerow and placed on the road at the point which the thrower should aim for in order to get the best ‘line’. And I was told that a helper known as a ‘road shower’ advises the thrower as to the best trajectory. ‘Shower’ here rhymes with ‘blower’. And – I should have said at the outset – ‘bowl’ actually rhymes with ‘howl’. But the West Cork accents I heard this afternoon were so strong that I only picked up every third or fourth word…

I returned a little wiser about another ingredient of life in West Cork.