News Comment

Sunday 23 October 2016

A baptism of fire and pig muck keep passion for the Ploughing alive

Published 24/09/2016 | 02:30

Peter McDonald from Mullinavat, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Peter McDonald from Mullinavat, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Gerry Mooney

There are some things in life you have to learn the hard way. And how to handle an Oxford Sandy and Brown piglet is one of them.

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While watching an intense round of the 'Pig Agility' obstacle course at the 2016 National Ploughing Championships, I came to the conclusion that getting a photo with a piglet was a choice idea. "It will be nothing short of adorable," I told Gerald Wrynne of the Irish Pig Society. He looked me up and down. "Have you held a pig before? They don't like being picked up."

I informed him that I hadn't held a pig, but I had held a cat and imagined it was much the same thing.

"Wait out the back of the tent," he said. Triumphant, I stood outside with Irish Independent photographer Gerry Mooney - who was feeling sceptical.

"It'll be grand," I said, trying to reassure him. Then I heard a noise I will never forget. Contrary to what Old MacDonald tells you, pigs don't oink, they scream.

A high-pitched, blood-curdling cry that sounds like you've suddenly been plunged into the depths of Hades. Think Jamie Lee Curtis's 'Halloween' yell and Janet Leigh's 'Psycho' shower scream played in unison and you're halfway there.

Kirsty Blake Knox holds Clare the pig. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Kirsty Blake Knox holds Clare the pig. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Turning around, I saw Gerald carrying the pig, named Clare, by the hind legs. "Here's your pig," he shouted before placing the wriggling, shrieking piglet in my arms. Gerry began taking photos and a crowd started to gather to see what all the noise was about. "Hurry up!" I hissed.

As Clare continued to squirm, I heard a small boy ask: "Daddy? Why is that lady letting a pig go to the toilet all over her jumper?"

Grimacing at the camera, I asked Gerry: "What did that child say?!"

"Just keep smiling," he replied.

After that baptism of fire, I felt I could handle anything the Ploughing threw at me. This year, the three-day festival had moved from Ratheniska in County Laois to the rolling fields of Screggan, near Tullamore.

It was last held here nine years ago and has shifted and changed a lot in that time. "Back then there were 800 stands, and 190,000 people," organiser Noel Dunne explains. "Now there are 1,621 stands with 283,000 people attending."

Today, TV presenters, media outlets, banks and backbenchers all clamour to be noticed at the Ploughing. "It used to be just farmers and their wives," says Lorna Sixsmith - author of 'An Ideal Farm Husband'. "But the crowd has changed. Some of the people here have never been to a farm."

Sixsmith thinks this is a positive thing. "It reminds them how important farming is."

The media scrum certainly hasn't diminished the Ploughing's charm and character. "I've been coming for 40 years," Meath farmer James Brady says. "It's bigger but you still can't beat it for the cattle and a catch-up."

Jim Croke is showcasing some of his striking Zwartble sheep and stresses the economic importance of the festival. "This is like a farmers' Christmas window display," he says. "It's where we connect with customers."

Much like a festive display, there's also a dizzying amount of things to see.

Charolais cattle are getting their curls backcombed, gargantuan Tractor Football matches are being held and dungareed man child Richie Kavanagh is performing some of his "greatest hits", such as 'Mickey's Buckin' Ass'.

Marty Morrissey - who transforms into some sort of demigod during the Ploughing - poses for selfies and B&B owner Phyllis McGovern is crowned the winner of Aldi's Brown Bread Competition. "The secret is chia seeds and practice," she says.

But the heart of the ploughing lies in the earth - away from the madness of the stalls and fairground rides.

Down in the lower fields, there's a quiet sense of concentration and calm as the blades slice through the heavy, wet soil.

Tommy Reynolds is representing Leitrim in loy ploughing and talks about straight lines and even depth. "It's a craft for sure," he says.

On another stretch of land, John Whelan - a "dairy farmer with a grá for ploughing" - is named the champion of the Reversible Class.

Asked if he would be lording his victory over his competitors, he shakes his head. "Nah, when the ploughing is done and the dust has settled - we're a community. We're all together."

Irish Independent

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