In the second of our three-part series highlighting the growth of women’s road bowling, we look at the Irish women who made their mark on the European stage
For Part 1 of this series, click here
BY the mid-1980s women’s bowling had carved its niche, the top players garnering the headlines as the upsurge in interest brought forth talented exponents from all regions.
Intense rivalries developed and major match-ups attracted crowds similar to their male counterparts. The women’s game was given an immediate boost when, following representations from then chairman Brendan Roche to International Bowling Association head Karl Erich Sievers, it was announced that an adult women’s competition for road bowling would be included in the seventh European games to be staged at Garding, Germany, in 1984.
For the first time Irish ladies were on the European journey with a team of four led by May Barry as coach, her daughter Susan, Gretta Hegarty and Agnes Hurley, a rising star from The Pike who had won the previous year’s U18 championship and would go on later to dethrone her neighbour, dual champion Gretta, to win the 1984 senior crown. On the European stage it was Gretta who shone, winning the individual gold against strong Dutch and German opposition who had developed their game far earlier than the Irish.
The Lyre lady dominated the rest of the 1980s but there were shocks and surprises too. She would win two more national titles in 1987 and ’89 but as county champion lost out to Rosin Toal in the All-Ireland of ’85. There was another upset in ’88 when losing out to junior champion Joan Savage in the overall play-off. The North Cork woman justified her credentials with a splendid All-Ireland winning performance against Assumpta Cullen in Armagh. Joan Shannon remained in the frame, a top player, and captured her second county and All-Ireland title in 1986.
Significantly too in 1986, the expanding underage category was given an upgrade when the U18 category was given All-Ireland status. Orla Galvin from Ballingeary became the first national champion when defeating Michelle McSorley in the Armagh series.
Ból Chumann’s ladies won the team event at the 1988 European championship but individual medals eluded the group and it wasn’t until 1992 in the home international in Cork that Ireland took a podium place again when Susan Barry claimed bronze.
On the domestic scene new talents were emerging. There was Mary Brady from Mid Cork, an U18 and senior county champion; Sandra Dempsey who swept all before her win county and All-Ireland honours in 1990, the latter on her home road, Bauravilla; and a teenage sensation from Drimoleague called Sharon O’Driscoll.
Sharon was a record-breaker, winning both U18 and senior All-Irelands in 1993, her performance on the Cathedral Road that year rated one of the best. In an extraordinary sequence she won the county senior as well in 1992 and claimed three U18 national titles in a four-year period from 1991 to ’94. Geraldine McCluskey (Armagh), a two-time All-Ireland U18 winner, was a great rival at the time and the pair engaged in an epic battle at Ballingeary in for the senior crown in 1992, the northern girl emerging the winner.
Sharon was one of the stars in Ból Chumann’s team for the 1996 European Championships at Tubbergen, attaining a silver medal after a gripping joust with GermanAntje Schottler. Gretta Hegarty, now Cormican, was a towering presence in the lead up to 2000, winning senior championships in 1994, ’97, and ’98 and further enhanced her reputation with an exceptional performance at the World Championship event staged on the Cathedral Road, Armagh in ’98 where she claimed the gold medal from a field of 30.
These highpoints saw her inducted into Ból Chumann’s Hall of Fame and become the first Celtic Ross Sports Star of the Year in 1998. Agnes Hurley, now Agnes O’Gorman, was another to shine on the All-Ireland stage in the 1990s winning her second and third titles in ’95 and ’96 while in Armagh plenty of upcoming talent made for intense rivalry.
Catriona Powell was tops in U18 and runner-up to Gretta Cormican in the World event; Paula Gillespie and the Cullens, Susan and Fiona were to the fore. Susan Cullen became the second Ulster lady to win the Armagh Construction Cup as senior champion in ’99 when capturing the crown from Carmel Ryan.
The intermediate grade was introduced in 1999 and was immediately given All-Ireland status. It was Dervla Toal from Armagh, a future senior great, who won the first intermediate All-Ireland after a great contest with Cork’s Mary Browne. In the mid-1990s a women’s competition was introduced to the prestigious King of the Roads festival.
Now a King and Queen would be crowned and that first winner in 1996 was European champion Antje Schottler, who defeated Agnes O’Gorman and another rising Cork star, Kathleen Cooney, in a three-way play-off. Kathleen Cooney was by now a formidable exponent and was the first Irish winner in ’97 when she got her revenge on the German lady. Catriona O’Farrell and Carmel Ryan both from Carrigtwohill were making their presence felt when winning Queen crowns the following years.
In 1996 too, a county U16 championship introduced a leading exponent, Marie Noonan, who got her first taste of success here taking the first two championships. Another new champion was unveiled in the millennium year when Catriona O’Rourke from Rylane won the senior crown and, significantly too, as the new century dawned the input of women and the positive influences they brought was now seen as hugely beneficial at administrative level. So much so that, in a development that would have been unthinkable just two decades previously, a leading light from the women’s game was about to assume the reins of power as chair of Ból Chumann na hEireann.