Ron Bell was one of the founders of Lough Cuan Bowmen, back in 1986. I joined in 2014, and by then, the former fire fighter and pioneer in establishing archery in Northern Ireland had passed away. In his memory, we have the annual Ron Bell Memorial Competition.
When I first took part in the Ron Bell, it was a hybrid type round, in which half of the targets were 2D animals with the rest, field targets. It was the 2D animals which presented the most gruelling endurance aspect of the course. The adopted rules for these would see the archer begin at the furthest peg and shoot one arrow. If they missed, they would move to a closer peg and shoot another arrow, which would get them a lower score. And if they missed again, there was a final peg, with an even lower score available.
Now, the combination of naivety and courageousness led me to this 'walk-in' round as it was being called. To compound matters I was taking, not just a new bow, but a new bow style into this deeply unknown format and venue. I was shooting compound barebow, because I was young, and didn't know any better. Though my trad days were only around the corner. So perhaps it is true when they saw, that the night is darkest just before the dawn...
Compound bashing aside, I was standing at distances I had never seen in archery before, with a bow I knew nothing about, shooting targets too unfamiliar to be anyway confident about. And goodness, gracious was it a disaster. I know any seasoned archer reading this will have a story or two about a disastrous shoot. We all do.
When the day began I had seven arrows in my quiver - already a rookie mistake, taking so few arrows with me - and when the day ended, I had two left; three MIA and two broken. I do recall Glenn Thompson in my shooting group, a prodigy where traditional archery is concerned, putting in scores to rival barebow archers. I would go on to have the pleasure of his company in many a shoot up until Covid and will say that much of the enjoyment I derived from archery in my early days came from his suave and easy-going company.
In recent years, the Ron Bell has been hosted as mixed field rounds, or conventional unmarked, marked field rounds - which has been easier on the arrows and my will to shoot.
This year we held it as an arrowhead round, at Clandeboye, our classic venue, and one many an archer is familiar with. Since we were last there, the full force of summer has seen the venue swallowed up by new plant life. You couldn't move a few feet without snagging your foot in a thorny reed or some such. Leavey branches constantly leaned down to pat you on the head and the ferns rose up to waist height. Nearly every target was bundled into the foliage, held hostage by the forest.
The glorious aspects of this venue though are from the the time when an eagle - either a golden eagle or a white-tailed eagle - gliding over head, and from the fact that I have found buzzard feathers here too - a tradition, as this time I found another two! Deer have even been spotted, and there are always signs of their presence, through paw prints.
Storm damage was present of course, another expectation and a signature look for Clandeboye. More trees had collapsed and been worked through to ensure no blockages on the course.
Upon some of the fallen timber were mushrooms, which I was told are called oysters. It made sense they would be called that, because like oysters, they looked disgusting.
To bolster the numbers, many from Ballyvally were present, including international talent such as Kathryn Morton and Orla O'Connor. Our own club, Lough Cuan Bowmen had a number of newer members out too, which is always encouraging.
The allure of arrowheads was also responsible for bringing archers in, and several members of Lough Cuan were after these. No easy feat for a newer member, as they must make the jump from white peg to blue peg. Suddenly the 60cm and 80cm faces are miles off, and the additional distance to the target sizes clouds an archer's judgement in dizzying uncertainty. Multiples at 15m are one thing, but to see them at 20m, is to look at them through a microscope for all the size of them. As the distance increases, so does the doubt and the intrusive thoughts.
Now, we at Lough Cuan had a recent regime change, with a new tournament officer among other new committee members. In setting up the Ron Bell, David Turner, the new tournament officer, managed to add several brand new shots to the course. The ability to take a course and constantly reshape it is a hard to find talent, and David managed to achieve a fresher look to the long term venue.
It's good to throw in some surprises, and keep the seasoned archers off balance as they try for the higher scoring arrowheads. You can't have them looking confident, as it sets a bad president.
Into this fray I took my brand new Rooks, arrows I had made up with the crow feathers I had been finding in droves, around Ballyvally's core venue, Loughbrickland. The notion of taking such dark colours into a field round - especially after putting together several posts on the use of practical colours for arrows - I would say is certainly far from prudent archery etiquette. But I liked them, and I wanted to use them.
Spotting them on the target was next to impossible, despite white nocks. The dark blue dye was not to difficult to discern when I missed a target and was looking over the ground for the arrow. Now, the feathers themselves held up very well, and behaved themselves once the arrow had been loosed. There is a titillating whisp, as the arrow whips from the bow into its arc, a sharp but subtle whisper telling the archer if the shot was any good before evening hitting the target. Too long a whisper, and the arrow will over shoot, or land high, and too abrupt a whisper, and the arrow will undershoot. This is something you don't get from conventional flights.
Traditional, or as I like to think of it, the artistry of archery, was reinforced by the presence of Alan Craig and Mike Lecky, with their own wooden bows and arrows. Encouraging, as I fear that the use of wooden arrows is becoming a lost art in the traditional field of archery. And to join us, we had Bob McHenry, one of Lough Cuan's newer archers, shooting barebow.
Whilst shooting from the white peg, Bob put in a very respectable score, with few misses over all - and this wasn't an easy course. A great big target, a target I can not possibly describe without the use of profanity, was present as it always is. Usually a 60cm face, on a boss propped up above the ground, and shot from the bottom of an incline. I got two arrows on, which historically speaking, is me doing well on it.
For the archers who did manage to achieve their arrowheads - and I had no doubt that Jordan McBroom would, as I've seen his scores - they had been placed against a difficult course. In previous years Clandeboye was the venue where I would shoot my personal bests and could be confident of doing so. In the here and now, it has been twisted into something fiercer, to match the wild and untameable growth which pulls the archer in and away from civilisation.
Either way, it was a great day for throwing wood at a target, I have to say, and I know those present would agree with me. Next in line, up here at least, is the NI and Open Field Championships on the 23rd and 24th of this month, hosted by Ballyvally Archers and held at one of the finest venues we have, Greenmount. Even if your have no interest in high level competition, the venue is worth shooting in and of itself - that's the reason I go to it, it's sublime.