The 'Olympics of the Land' show no signs of flagging
Published 21/09/2016 | 02:30
The President was in a wistful mood as he inspected ridges and furrows with an expert eye and a wise step.
He recalled his uncle who had sheared sheep - and in his speech, bigged up the 85th National Ploughing Championships as the 'Olympics of the Land', and with gifted eloquence spoke of the vital importance of sustainability and the need for a renewed vision for the future of European and Irish family farming.
He got a vigorous round of applause for remembering the tillage farmers who could not be there because they were too busy "salvaging what they could" after a terrible summer.
It was a good speech.
"But why wouldn't it be, sure, isn't he a professor?" reasoned farmer Bertie Enright from Listowel, Co Kerry, who had travelled up to the ploughing in Screggan, Co Offaly, yesterday morning with his daughter Eileen.
Bertie has been coming here for longer than he can remember, and used to come up to inspect the milking machines. "I think it's maybe gotten too big now," said Bertie of the three-day event, expressing concern at the volume of the crowds, adding that it was harder for older people to walk around. "But sure, that's progress, as they say," he said with a smile, remembering a different Ireland.
Though that Ireland was there too, among the vintage agriculture machinery and the old crafts.
With a record-breaking first-day attendance of 100,000 people, the championships certainly show no sign of flagging, under the shrewd stewardship of mother and daughter duo, Anna Mae and Anna Marie McHugh.
The weather was overcast but almost balmy - and the atmosphere among the milling crowds on the steel walkways was upbeat and determinedly cheerful - despite Brexit fears and the general economic situation for farmers.
"Things aren't too good - I've no money but haven't I enough for a cone?" mused sheep farmer Declan McSweeney, from Macroom in Cork, enjoying an ice-cream on his day out.
Having moved to Screggan from Ratheniska, Co Laois, where the event had been stationed for some years, there were some grumblings that the stands were not where they might have been expected to be.
"Everything has changed around," said one elderly woman, lost and fretful she might miss the President's opening speech. "I think he's wonderful," she said.
But there could be no one more enthusiastic to be at the ploughing than young TJ French (3), from Skibbereen in West Cork.
"He was up at 1.15am saying it was time to go," grimaced his father Tom, adding that they had an early start all the same at 4.30am.
"I'm shagged but . . . anyhow," shrugged Tom.
Over in the distance, the clank of a blacksmith's hammer could be heard as Patrick Strahan from Ballaghderreen, Co Mayo, skilfully forged a flowerpot bracket for a woman who was dropping by later to pick it up.
"You've got to strike while the iron is hot in my game," quipped Patrick.
His speciality is the old traditional 'nine irons' - a recently rediscovered Irish amulet of miniatures - including a cross, a shovel and a griddle pan - often brought for luck by Irish people who were emigrating abroad by ship.
In the old days, each village had three or four blacksmiths. Now it was down to three or four per county, he said, having honed his own firing skills through a friend of his grandfather.
Thinking there must be more to life, he set out to travel the world - but found that even in locations as far flung as Brazil, South America and Africa, his work as a blacksmith was required.
Now settled in Mayo, Patrick is the quintessential happy blacksmith - apart from the fact that they didn't manage to win the All-Ireland last Sunday.
"I could be singing and dancing every day in the forge because I'm so happy that I make my living through such a beautiful craft," he said.
Inspecting a 1916 model steam tractor at the vintage section, William Wallace, from Clonbrock in Carlow, said he attracts "bus loads" of enthusiasts to the museum of vintage machinery he runs from his home.
And then he revealed that he was the man who became a 'viral sensation' after appearing on TV at an IFA protest last year wearing a hat printed with a cannabis leaf.
"I hadn't a clue - the hat came in a bag," he explained.
But after that, it went in the fire, said William grimly.