'Legend Mickey D' harvests some good vibes at festival walkabout
THE President made a beeline for a bunch of lads sitting like young crows along a railing and smilingly shook each hand in turn.
They nudged each other as he departed, impressed despite themselves. "Legend," reckoned one. "Hashtag Mickey D," agreed another, to the quiet mirth of An Uachtaran's entourage.
Just after noon, Michael D bounded out of his car, accompanied by his wife Sabina and joined the huge crowd at the Ploughing Championships. He had dressed most appropriately for the occasion, sporting a natty green tweed suit, unspoiled by wellies (well, there wasn't a drop of mud to be found on the bone-dry site in the townland of Ratheniska).
It was the opening day of this massive three-day celebration of all things rural and agricultural, and even though the skies over Laois remained resolutely grey, the overall mood among the organisers, exhibitors and farmers was cautiously sunny.
Situated in Stradbally, close to the location of the annual Electric Picnic music festival, the Ploughing may be less Franz Ferdinand and more Massey Ferguson, but the enthusiasm is immense.
And the site is immense too, stretching over 700 acres, including 150 acres of competitions, and it was to this part of the vast venue that Michael D headed first, making a quick inspection of the ruler-straight furrows and chatting to some of the competitors.
He was thoroughly enjoying himself. "It's a very great example of all the different strands of life in agriculture being drawn together," he said. And he explained that he gets about 150 invitations every week. "I've always had the Ploughing Championship near the top of my list, it's always been very important to me – the combination of one's mind and one's hands and the fact that you're doing something real," he said.
The President pointed out that he used to come early in the mornings to watch some of the livestock competitions. "It was the first time I saw a Charolais being dried with a hairdryer, and it did very well in the show," he laughed.
He then made his way to the bandstand for the official opening ceremony, stopping briefly to chat to some children competing in pony shows and popping into the Macra na Feirme and Irish Farmers' Association tents.
Luckily he had an escort of two garda horses showing him the way, for the entire site is an endless maze of stands, teepees, marquees and large pieces of machinery. As he passed by, two farmers were standing at one of the many small crossroads in this temporary town, engrossed in conversation.
"Did ye see the size of the Fianna Fail tent?" said one in evident dismay. "Sure you'd fit it in the back of your car. Remember the size of the yoke in Galway – it stretched from here to beyond," he gestured. "Don't worry, it'll be bigger next year," his pal consoled him.
There was applause as Michael D and Sabina were introduced by the indomitable matriarch of the Ploughing Championship, Anna May McHugh – a woman described by the President as "the great heroine of Irish ploughing".
Jim Sutton, chairman of the National Ploughing Association (NPA) welcomed the President to the site. "Your presence here is very important," he told Michael D. He compared the event to the Electric Picnic.
"Over the next few days it will be the sound of the plough-share cutting through the rich clay soils of Co Laois that will bring sweet music to the ears of all visitors to this, the largest outdoor event in Europe," he proclaimed.
Michael D was full of praise for the farming community, but also sounded a warning that there were issues to be addressed over the age profile of Ireland's farmers, pointing out that "only 6pc of Irish farmers are under the age of 35".
He then went on walkabout, enjoying the good vibrations – although he did take a moment to take a swipe at a journalist who recently dismissed him as being a presidential candidate who was "the best of a bad bunch".
It was "entirely wrong to refer to the President as. . . the best of a bad bunch," said Michael D. "We don't need to go there and I certainly will not go there."
Although there was what's possibly a record first-day crowd of 81,000, the President was the star of the show, with most politicians heading to the site today and tomorrow.
But Environment Minister Phil Hogan did materialise. And what brought him to the ploughing? "I'm opening the Leader's Tent," he revealed.
Oh? And was that a portent of his own political ambitions?
Phil looked aghast. "God, no," he insisted.
He certainly wasn't going there either.