DENIS Collins was recently inducted into the Bol Chumann Hall of Fame, a richly deserving tribute following a glittering road bowling career that took the Clonakilty native all over Europe.
Never a man to court the limelight, 77-year old Collins granted The Southern Star the rarest of interviews following the recent announcement of his Hall of Fame induction.
His Clonakilty home is adorned with the hundred of cups, plaques and medals won during a remarkable career that began back in 1970 and included an All-Ireland veterans’ trophy as recently as 1993.
A recollection hangs behind every trophy and Collins’ eyes come to life as he recalls, in forensic detail, the story behind each triumph.
Still in remarkable shape for his age, Collins has maintained his amazing level of fitness thanks to his many years working outdoors for the ESB, a superb amateur boxing career (including Munster titles) and healthy lifestyle that includes, to this day, a daily six-mile walk.
The memories come flooding back when Collins is asked how and where it all began and if he remembers bowling his first score, a story that leads to another famous legend of the road.
‘It all started when I was a young fella and used go along to the scores to watch the local bowlers,’ Collins reminisced.
‘I would have been very young but remember the huge crowd, the roars of excitement and just shoving through a sea of bodies to be part of a huge score that day. I also remember the day I bowled my own first ever score as it was down in Kilgarriffe (near Clonakilty) and none other than Mick Barry was bowling the same afternoon. There were thousands of people all along the road that day, I’ll never forget it.
‘There were some friends who came along with me and we went away up the road to throw a couple of shots between ourselves. So there I was, throwing the bowl up the road to the lads and next thing I noticed that there were five or six other fellas watching me swing away at all my shots. Now I was hitting them 70, maybe 80, yards up the road and when I finished they insisted I throw a score back down the road with them.
‘At that stage, I had never thrown a score in my life and said I wasn’t able, especially not for any money. Well, they wouldn’t take no for an answer and dragged me down to the huge crowd that was there and got a fella to bowl me.
‘God Almighty, I never saw so much money being wagered in all my life. I absolutely destroyed him in my first ever score and thought I was a millionaire after it with all the money I won. That was a very special day.’
Denis Collins turned out to be no ordinary novice bowler and went on to win 28 international tournaments across Europe in places such as Jever and Garding in Germnay plus Tubbergen in Holland. In all that time he and the legendary Mick Barry remained close, with their paths crossing numerous times on foreign soil.
‘I went bowling to Germany with Mick Barry on many occasions down through the years,’ commented the 77-year old.
‘He was always very good to me and palled around with me whenever we went over to Europe. Mick didn’t drink and I didn’t much either at the time so he was a great friend to me and we got on very well.
‘From 1970 to 1992 I spent 22 consecutive years of my life competing at international bowling events across Europe. You had to qualify for all of those tournaments as well including the German loft (the German’s version of bowling but on a grass track) which meant a lot of hard work and preparation.
‘One year after a tournament in Holland, the locals insisted I stay over for another two weeks and drove me all over the country to give exhibitions of road bowling. I was treated like a celebrity, appeared on Dutch television and twice beat the Dutch champion on his own roads as well.’
Collins’ remarkable dedication to his craft and ability to maintain such a high level of fitness, despite his aging years, are just some of reasons the amiable Clonakilty man managed to stay at the top of his sport for so long.
He produces an incredible list of all his accomplishments written out on multiple sheets of faded A4 paper and proudly points out some of the accompanying medals hung around a sitting room that has been transformed into a walk-in trophy cabinet.
In the middle of his bowling memorabilia sits a glass-cased scale model replica of the famous German battleship, the Bismarck. It took Denis Collins two years and 1,928 individual pieces (some needing a magnifying glass to painstakingly position) to complete. It is a perfect example of the Clonakilty man’s dedication, patience and skill, attributes that always served him well on the bowling roads of Ireland and Europe.
Winning the All-Ireland veterans’ title in 1993 is probably the standout moment when he is pressed for his favourite bowling memory. A famous bowling setting, Cathedral road in Armagh and the presence of one of the icons of the sport, Harry Toal, only serve to further embellish the story.
‘There were thousands of people thronging the Cathedral road in Armagh the day I won the All-Ireland veterans’ title,’ said Collins.
‘I was up against Harry Toal from Armagh and Willie Carroll from Mayo but Willie was out of the running after about four or five shots. That left me with an unbelievably tough score against Harry Toal.
‘The fifth shot was a difficult one and a throw I remember to this day. Harry threw first and went all the way down the road. I was thinking to myself, “Jesus, this is going to be tough”, as he went all the way around a tricky corner as well.
‘There was a kerb that I knew if I touched, the bowl would be gone across and into a ditch. I took a gamble and shaved the stone corner and by God was it inch perfect! They had to measure the shot but it travelled over 400 yards.
‘Toal’s followers immediately questioned the throw and went straight to the referee about it. They love their bowling up in Armagh but are a tough crowd too sometimes, I can tell you. They couldn’t rattle me though and I won out in the end. It was one of my best ever scores and another I’ll never forget.’
The truth is, I could easily have written double the word-count for this interview and it still wouldn’t properly convey the high esteem and affection Denis Collins is held within the bowling community both in West Cork and all across Europe.
Collins is a gentle giant of the roads and bowling is fortunate to have had such a well respected, kind, genial and much loved figure synonymous with success since he first threw a bowl over 40 years ago.
Denis Collins, King of the roads.