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Wednesday 22 February 2017

The show goes on after 80 years and humble beginnings

Published 20/09/2011 | 05:00

The National Ploughing Association celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, but the history of ploughing competitions goes back centuries.

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According to the NPA, one of the first recorded ploughing matches took place at Camolin Park in Wexford on October 20 1816, where a special prize of £5 was offered for the carpenter or ploughmaker who produced the best and cheapest plough.

Between 1816 and 1930, local ploughing competitions thrived between neighbouring parishes but the competitions took off during the 1930s Depression.

Agriculture Minister Paddy Hogan pinpointed the challenge of the day with his clarion cry for "one more sow, one more cow, and one more acre under the plough".

The late JJ Bergin, from Athy, Co Kildare, a progressive farmer, and his friend, civil engineer and farmer Denis Allen, from Gorey, Co Wexford, often debated which of their respective counties had the best ploughmen.

The idea of an inter-county ploughing contest generated great interest, far beyond Kildare and Wexford, and on February 16, 1931, ploughmen from nine counties gathered on the plains of Kildare.

The location was Coursetown, Athy, not far from the venue of this year's championships, and it became the birthplace of the National Ploughing Association (NPA).

The competing counties formed a committee, drawing up rules and conditions with the main objective "to bring the message of good ploughing to all parts of the country and to provide farmers with a pleasant, friendly and appropriate place to meet and do business".

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The ploughmen of Wexford won that first challenge, to Mr Allen's delight. Given the event's success, the committee, with Mr Bergin at the helm, immediately set about planning an annual competition.

After the first championships, there was much debate about the type of ploughing which should be deemed standard or best.

It was decided that a so-called National Style should be adopted that would create a well-skimmed sod, turned well over, with a round back, giving a firm bed and suitable for modern tillage implements.

Only three poles were allowed at the marking of the middle and the time limit for ploughing a rood was five hours.

The second championships, held in Gorey on February 19, 1932, were a resounding success and attracted 3,000 people.

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Within a few years of its foundation, the event became one of the major annual shows in Ireland, attracting publicity, manufacturers, traders, and senior politicians, including former Taoiseach Eamon De Valera.

It also drew some of the best minds, the best men and the most industrious and progressives farmers. Ballads were even composed about the ploughmen and their contests.

The Ploughing Championships continued through the war years, although from 1939 to 1946 the senior event was held at one venue and the junior championships at another.

In 1942, the first tractor ploughing class was introduced. This was a massive breakthrough but it took several more years before the farmers of Ireland would put their horses out to pasture and use a tractor in their place.

At the 1944 Ballinasloe event, up to 90 pairs of horses were borrowed from farmers in the local area for the event.

However, by the end of the 1950s, the noise of motors on demonstration plots and competition arenas could be heard.

Having started working with Mr Bergin in 1951, Anna May McHugh was made secretary of the NPA in 1955 -- the same year the Ploughing became a two-day event. Just three years later, Mr Bergin passed away.

In 1964, Charlie Keegan, from Wicklow, secured the first world title for Ireland in Vienna. The world champion was brought home from Dublin on an open top bus on a route lined by celebratory bonfires.

In the early 1970s, Ms McHugh was appointed NPA managing director and the event continued to grow.

The 1973 world contest was a four-day event, with an attendance of more than 100,000 people and 25 countries competing.

The event continued to grow exponentially throughout the 1980s and 1990s and it evolved into a three-day event to cater for the crowds of spectators.

In 1994, 30 years after Mr Keegan won the world contest, Wexford man Martin Kehoe brought the title back to Ireland from New Zealand.

Since then, Mr Kehoe has become one of the greatest ploughmen in the world, having been world champion three times.

Fellow Irish competitor John Tracey, from Co Carlow, is the only man to have been runner-up in the world contest on seven occasions.

Today, the NPA runs the biggest National Ploughing Championships in the world, with more than 320 competitors in the national finals, an average of 180,000 spectators and up to 1,100 trade stands.

Generating millions for the economy every year, the NPA is still a voluntary association and relies on 500 volunteers to run this massive show every year.

Edited and abbreviated from Formation & Origins of the National Ploughing Association 1931-2011, available from the NPA office on 059 862 5125

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