IT’S five years since James O’Donovan took part in a Southern Star West Cork Minute Q&A session with sports editor Kieran McCarthy. Being interviewed as a Bandon GAA dual-player, one of O’Donovan’s answers stood out more than most.
Question: If you won the lotto what would you buy first?
Answer: My own private road so I could go bowling all day long without having to stop for a car or something.
That reply provided a momentary glimpse into one of O’Donovan’s main sporting passions: road bowling.
A native of Bandon, he now lives with his wife Deidre and eight-month-old son Jack in Ballinhassig. Working as a Quantity Surveyor with MMD Construction, O’Donovan is probably best known for his successful Bandon GAA football and hurling exploits over the past decade.
Yet, two generations of road bowlers within the O’Donovan family inspired James to first pick up a bowl as a youngster and he has carried on the proud tradition ever since. His grandfather, Brendan O’Donovan from Courtmacsherry, was a well-known player in the 1950s and 60s while his father, Declan, was a two-time senior All-Ireland bowling champion in 1986 and 1989.
‘My father was an All-Ireland champion and my grandfather was a serious player as well,’ O’Donovan said.
‘I grew up in Bandon with my parents and two older sisters, Geraldine and Bernadette. To be honest, I have been bowling from the moment I was able to first hold a bowl in my hand. I would go to all my dad’s scores and follow him around, so bowling was bred into me from a young age. I would have been bowling competitively from U10 all the way up to the senior ranks. I was U12 champions back in 1999.’
The aforementioned quote from the 2015 Southern Star Q&A interview is read out to O’Donovan. Initially, he doesn’t recall what he said at the time but laughs when the answer is relayed back to him.
‘I guess what I’d take from that answer is that bowling was never a hobby but a sport I took very seriously from day one,’ he stated.
‘The unfortunate thing is that I have been juggling my other sporting passion, GAA, with bowling for so long. It has been difficult to manage the two of them between all the football and hurling and especially when you are competing against other bowlers who are focussed on that sport alone.
‘Bowling is everything to the Murphys and Coppingers of this world. That has been the most difficult thing for me down through the years, juggling GAA and bowling. I might be coming towards the end of my (GAA) playing career in the next couple of years but that will give me more time to devote to bowling.’
O’Donovan’s conflict is easy to understand. His midweeks have been taken up with football and hurling training before lining out for the Bandon, sometimes twice, at the weekends.
During that time, his main bowling rivals have been using all their free time to hone their skills. It is a gap the third-generation Bandon bowler believes he can close but not until he is able to concentrate fully on one sport.
‘You are training three of four nights a week and with the way the GAA has gone now, a match every weekend as well,’ O’Donovan noted.
‘It has always been difficult to find time to practice bowling. Like anything, you can be throwing bowls up and down the road all day, but you need competitive scores to improve. I suppose I have been sacrificing scores to take part in GAA matches because that’s the way things have panned out for me.
‘The first round of the county football and hurling championships has always clashed with bowling. For that reason, as well, I guess it has always been more difficult for me to match the main bowlers in West Cork.’
Despite those drawbacks, he has more than made his mark on the roads around West Cork. O’Donovan obtained a senior ranking after finishing runner-up in the 2009 intermediate championship and followed that up with another (senior) runners-up berth 12 months later.
It took a dead bowl to deny the Bandon GAA dual player victory against Martin Coppinger in last year’s semi-final, but O’Donovan has tasted victory in a host of other senior tournament competitions around the county.
The O’Donovan mantle-piece is stacked with Noel Phair Cup (Shannonvale), Willie Whelton Cup Grange, Paddy Barry Cup Rosscarbery, Connie Kelleher/Dan Hurley Drimoleague, Bill Barrett and O’Sullivan/Keating Caheragh and O’Flynn Timoleague cups. That’s not a bad return for a bowler unable to give all his free time to additional practice.
‘I got to the final of the 2010 senior championship only to lose to Martin Coppinger,’ O’Donovan remembered.
‘I’ve also been a semi-finalist for two years running and they are scores I would consider myself that I let slip away. In fairness, I have a lot of supporters who are encouraging me to keep going and know I am not that far away from winning a senior (championship). I am looking forward to being able to give more time to bowling in the future.
‘As for next year, because we don’t know what’s happening with Covid-19 at the moment, I hope to be able to give bowling more of my time and focus. One of the things I would like more than anything is to win a senior championship. I’ve been knocking on the door for the last number of years so it would be nice to finally get over the line.’