This article originally appeared in the March 17, 2011 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.
IRELAND – Leprechaun hats, Shamrock Shakes and green beer are fine for St. Patrick’s Day amateurs, but those seeking a big Emerald Isle bash should just go to Ireland.
Head north on I-79 and take the Flatwoods exit.
Ireland, a small Lewis County community just over the Braxton County border, is celebrating its 30th annual Irish Spring Festival. It started last Sunday, but most events will occur today through Sunday.
Residents have decorated their homes with leprechauns and rainbows. Four-leaf clovers abound.
Festivities include a “snake chase,” which is a 10-kilometer run named for St. Patrick’s legendary expulsion of snakes from Ireland; the “Tour de Shamrock,” a 10-mile bike tour; a four shooting contest; a fried potato contest; and a “lucky charm” horseshoe-throwing contest, among other events.
Road bowling, one of the festival’s most popular events, takes place on Saturday and Sunday.
The rules of road bowling are more like those of golf than typical 10-pin bowling. Bowler stand behind a starting line and roll a 28-ounce steel ball toward the finish line. Bowlers make their next roll from wherever the ball stops.
The bowler who reaches the finish line with the fewest number of rolls wins. There are no pins to knock down and, unfortunately, no gutters to return your ball if it leaves the course.
The competition takes place on Wild Cat Road, behind the Ireland post office. Though true Irish competitions limit the course to a mile or a mile-and-a-half, the community of Ireland’s course is about two miles long.
Postmaster Sharrey Craig said balls don’t usually land in convenient places when they run off the road.
“They’ve been in the creek in March. It’s pretty interesting,” she said.
The sport first came to West Virginia in the 1990s. David Powell, whose aunt lives in the community of Ireland, brought the sport home from a trip to the country of Ireland. He saw some men rolling balls down the street and asked what they were doing.
After they explained the sport and its rules, Powell decided it would be a good addition to the Irish Spring Festival. He was right.
Ireland, W.Va., hosts one of this country’s three road-bowling leagues. The other two are in Boston and the state of New York.
Travis Craig, Sharrey’s son, won the North American Novice 2 Championship in 2008. He traveled to the country of Ireland to represent the United States in the All-Ireland Championship, where he placed third.
The next year, Travis placed first in the North American Novice 1 Championship and again traveled to Ireland.
He said American bowlers face stiff competition on the Emerald Isle.
“Those boys over there have done it since they were 4 years old,” he said.
The country of Ireland even has professional road bowlers who make a living from the sport. He said European competitors can spot ruts in roads, allowing them to send their balls flying around turns. Some can even put “English” on the road bowl, spinning it like a cue ball.
“Very few guys can do it,” he said.
Road bowling is much more casual in Ireland, W.Va. Sharrey says the community doesn’t even flag traffic while the competition is going.
“You just yell, ‘Car!” and people move out of the road,” she said. “Here, it doesn’t matter. If you’re two or if you’re 90, you can still road bowl.”
The town also is marking the 29th anniversary of its post office’s special cancellation stamp. Collectors send letters to Ireland in March, just to have postmaster Sharrey cancel the letter.
“It’s just something the Postal Service does,” she said.
Every year, the post office makes up a special design for its cancellation stamp. Craig designed this year’s model, which features the Irish Spring Festival’s logo.
Lewis County Printing in Weston produces the stamp and for 30 days, from March 17 to April 17, Craig cancels her letters with the design, inked on a green pad.
“Is there any other color in Ireland?” she said.
The stamps truly are limited editions: Craig destroys each year’s stamp after the 30 days expire.
“I just tear it off and cut it up,” she said.
She said she receives letters from around the United States and overseas including Germany and Ireland. She said many of the envelopes come from repeat customers who have collected the commemorative stamps for years.
The U.S. Postal Service also advertises the stamps in collector publications. Craig spent time Tuesday canceling a big stack of letters, all from one person. The canceled letters were headed to family and friends in Tennessee, Michigan and beyond.
She said about 300 letters usually filter through the tiny post office for the special cancellation stamp.
“For this small of a community, that’s a lot,” she said.
Anyone wishing to receive a stamp should send an envelope – along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope tucked inside – to Postmaster, P.O. Box 9998, Ireland, WV 26376.
The post office also acts as a polling place, where Ireland residents can vote for the year’s King Andrew and Queen Elizabeth.
Named for the community’s founder and his wife, kings and queens must be at least 60 years old to compete. Votes cost a penny, with proceeds going toward Ireland’s community center. The community will host its annual coronation ceremony at 9 p.m. today at the community center.
At the festival’s 10th anniversary, Craig’s mother and father, Rex and Madeline Perrine, were named king and queen. They were the first married couple to hold the titles simultaneously.
“We’ve had several since,” she said.
For more information on the Irish Spring Festival, visit www.angelfire.com/wv/irish springfestival.