Long live the Ploughing pilgrimage
Published 20/09/2016 | 02:30
"Do you want to go to the Ploughing?" I asked our 9-year-old daughter Ruth.
"If I can go to the Ken Black stand", was her prompt reply.
"What's the big deal about the Ken Black stand?" I said, a tad touchily, pointing to the fact, as she well knows, that there is a giant Ken Black toy store in Portlaoise, which is much closer to us than Tullamore.
"Its just special somehow bringing something home from the Ploughing," she replied.
Ireland's great annual agricultural pilgrimage begins today and there are as many reasons why people go on pilgrimage as there are pilgrims.
While attendance at organised religion events is struggling, numbers participating in pilgrimages are burgeoning. People take their own meaning from the participation, not what someone else tells them to.
Irish agriculture is at a similar juncture. We have become more questioning and critical of many of our traditional sacred cows - the IFA, Bord Bia, Teagasc, the banks, etc. At the Ploughing, there is a great choice in who you listen to. Or don't.
Most pilgrimages require the taking of a journey, usually a long one. After a vehicular trip of varying duration, we will spend hours trudging up and down trakways, battling through crowds and perhaps testing underfoot conditions.
At the heart of a pilgrimage, religious or secular, are people and one of the most remarkable achievements of the Ploughing is its ability to attract the young. Of course, many are there through school. Racing around in groups, the collected biros and other freebies are stamps on their pilgrim's passports.
For those of us who are not quite so young, the pace will be slower. Many will have a list of the stands they want to visit, others are on a never-ending quest for the next good thing.
Travel light is a common motto. But it's critical that if you see something you want, get it there and then because, chances are, you will not pass that way again.
Most importantly, its a break from the humdrum, a chance to catch up and share a laugh with friends from near and far that you mightn't have seen since the same time last year.
Screggan will be teeming with politicians and celebrities, major, minor, rising, fading. But many pilgrim farmers are more interested in a face-to-face meeting with someone from the Department, hoping to sort a problem that months of phone calls and letters have failed to. Saviours come in many guises.
Other elements of pilgrimage are prayers and miracles.
Ploughing prayers may be about very basic stuff; that there won't be a long queue for a burger, that you'll get someplace to sit down to eat it and, later on, that you'll find a clean loo, with toilet paper. Less satisfies us in demanding circumstances. Approaching the site, I always look heavenwards towards the blimps and whisper a little entreaty that everyone who sets out for the Ploughing gets there and back safely.
Miracles happen, too. Someone will win a tractor or a quad. Or maybe someone will hand you a spare admission ticket. Or maybe you are passing a stand at the precise moment a giveaway is announced. Or maybe the traffic will fly!
Most people arrive home wrecked. Though this could actually set us up for the year ahead. Exhaustion clarifies the mind as well as cleansing the soul.
I invariably ask myself if it was worth it. But, do you know what, Ruth has a point. Something that requires an effort to achieve or obtain is special. Long live the Ploughing.