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Sunday 24 September 2017

It's standing-room only for politicians and the papacy at the Ploughing

More records broken on Day 2 of 'the Ploughing' in Ratheniska, Co Laois, reports Lise Hand

Liam Farrell (12) from Westmeath meets with former Irish rugby player John the Bull Hayes at day two of the National ploughing championships
Liam Farrell (12) from Westmeath meets with former Irish rugby player John the Bull Hayes at day two of the National ploughing championships
Peter Hoda (4) from Limerick on day two of the National Ploughing Championships. Picture: Mark Condren
Emma Quinn, 13 months, from Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co. Clare
Dinny Neville, from Delvin, Westmeath, taking part in the ploughing competition
Brothers Oliver, left, and Gerard Ferguson, from Belleek, Co. Fermanagh
Mena at Day 2 of the National Ploughing Championships. Picture: Caroline Quinn
General view of the ploughing. National Ploughing Championships 2014. Ratheniska, Stradbally, Co. Laois. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Minister Simon Coveney at the National Ploughing Championships at Ratheniska, near Stradbally, Co Laois
Peter Finnegan from Monaghan and Lesley Anne Conlan from Athy who won the most appropriate dressed man and woman award at day two of the National Ploughing Championships
Crowds enjoying day two of the National Ploughing Championships at Ratheniska, near Stradbally, Co Laois
Enjoying day two of the National Ploughing Championships at Ratheniska, near Stradbally, Co Laois
Conor Kelly and Sean Barry fron Cork enjoying day two of the National Ploughing Championships at Ratheniska, near Stradbally, Co Laois
Tanaiste Joan Joan Burton with Senator Lorraine Higgins and Senator John Kelly pictured on day two of the National ploughing championships in County Laois
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

THE slightly frazzled mother looked down at her two young delirious sons who each were tugging at her to travel simultaneously in two different directions - to the left towards some enormous farm machinery, and the right towards some dangerous-looking saws.

"Do ye know what ye are looking to look at?" she demanded, surveying the miles of stands stretching towards the impossibly crowded horizon.

There are two types of Irish native sons and daughters - those who have been to the National Ploughing Championships, and those who have neither a clue nor an interest in the massive three-day annual festival which involves all things agricultural.

But among the hundreds of thousands of people in the first category, this event is so famous that - akin to mega-celebs such as Madonna, Maradona and Elvis who trade under a single moniker - it's known simply as the Ploughing.

And yesterday, perhaps due a heady combination of balmy weather and a boomy economy, a record-smashing crowd of over 124,000 visitors poured onto the site for day two - usually the attendance is around 80,000 for the second day.

The first thing to strike a new visitor to the Ploughing is the sheer boggling scale of the operation. It is absolutely huge. 23km of trackway runs in a grid around 1,400 stands. The site, including the fields where the competitions take place, sprawls across 800 acres of good Laois land. For city-dwellers, it's like being transported to the surface of the Moon - yesterday one Dublin-based journalist spent some time quizzing some puzzled members of the ICSA (Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association) about cattle prices, only to discover he had wandered into the tent of the ICSMA (Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association) instead.

It would be quite easy to spend three days at the Ploughing without seeing a horse, tractor or loy in action, such is the vast amount of other entertainment on offer.

For instance, adjoining the enormous Aldi marquee (dubbed the 'Taj Mahaldi' by one wit on the wireless), the second semi-final of the most fiercely-contested competition at the festival was underway to a packed audience.

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The eight women chosen from 27 county winners (including north and south Tipp) were baking up a storm in the National Brown Bread competition - the first to be held since 1973. Liz Wall, President of the ICA, explained the judges were looking for "taste, texture, and everybody laughs when I say they don't want any soggy bottoms". She added that one competitor had arrived with a busload of supporters. "It's a bit like the All-Ireland Final - there's great support from your own county".

And on the subject of All-Irelands, it was impossible to escape the small matter of a hurling replay between Laois' neighbouring counties of Tipperary and Kilkenny. One modest pavillion on the site resembled a junior version of the first day of Clery's Christmas sale.

Behind the counter, Galway hurling stars Joe Canning who captains the county team and his brother Ollie who recently retired from inter-county hurling, were flat out selling hurls. "Loads of kids come here who otherwise can't get their hands on a Canning hurley - we make every one in our workshop in Portumna," said Ollie.

He reckoned that the massive crowds were in part due to the recent good weather. "The work is done on the farms," he explained, as he was asked to autograph almost every hurley by its new owner. "The Ploughing is an extraordinary event, the variety of stands and exhibits is amazing. Already more people are trying to sign up for next year".

Ollie, who watched the hurling classic two weeks ago as a Sky TV commentator, thinks Kilkenny may snatch the replay on Saturday. "They can improve more, so they may shade it," he reckoned.

The site was buzzing with energy and good humour. Former Munster and Ireland rugby legend and John 'The Bull' Hayes wandered about, happily inspecting the pens of Hereford cattle - he has his own herd on his farm in Cappaghmore, Co. Limerick.

Amazing

Another seriously impressed visitor was the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, New York native Archbishop Charles Brown. "For someone from New York City, I never thought I'd live a day to see such an amazing thing, so many happy faces, such an assortment of displays and people, it's wonderful," he enthused. And he was certain that his (earthly) boss, Pope Francis would enjoy the Ploughing. "He would love this," he declared.

Even the politicians were in good form. Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin got a great reception as he walked about - at one stage he bounded over a fence to chat to some farmers. "He didn't sit on that fence for long," joked his colleague, Laois-Offaly TD Sean Fleming.

Perhaps wisely, Agriculture Minister Simon steered clear of the welly-throwing, just in case.

Irish Independent



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