West Virginia is the only state born out of the whirlwind of the American Civil War.
In those days, Ireland, WV, was a place of divided loyalties. Stonewall Jackson, with Robert E. Lee the Confederacy’s two greatest generals, grew up just to the north of Ireland, WV, at Jackson’s Mill. But two miles south of Ireland was Fort Pickens, a Union army fort and muster field. All about these parts it really became friend against friend, even brother against brother.
In West Virginia battles were different than on the flatland, fought often in huge nearly impassible tangles of rhododendrons on a mountaintop, or even worse, on the side of a mountain. Smaller but powerful mountain howitzers, which could be hauled up the mountainside by only two mules, blasted away through dense woods at close range.
Irish Road Bowling was already very old when the American Civil War began, and Irish troops for the North and South marched though West Virginia.
For the North, the 23rd Illinois Infantry, Mulligan's Irish Brigade, mostly policemen and firemen from Chicago, built Fort Mulligan overlooking Petersburg, and stayed there for many months guarding the railroad. For their health and safety, they probably played more on the roads to the North. While protecting Clarksburg and Parkersburg from Confederate troops under Imboden and Jones, the 23rd Illinois marched over our bowling road, Old Rt. 50, near West Union.
For the South, the 33rd Virginia Infantry, Company E, the Emerald Guard, Irish laborers and farmers from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, was part of Stonewall Jackson's famous Stonewall Brigade and skedaddled Yankees in what is now West Virginia's eastern panhandle.
In 2004, Dan Harvey, Commandant Curator of the Military Museum, Collins Barracks, County Cork, wrote that, “YES, it is highly likely, even probable that Union and Confederate troops of Irish origin played road bowling as diversion between battle during the American Civil War - as they did worldwide on service with many foreign armies.”
We did not start a new sport in 1995 in West Virginia, we just restored one that had vanished. As we throw small cannonballs down the road this weekend, let’s keep in mind’s eye all young men, including big-hearted Irish soldiers, North and South, who played here in days gone by.