Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 February 2018

Champions, characters and controversies in new history of our ploughing culture


‘Depth steward’ Harry Gunning from Offaly measures the depth of the ploughing in Ballacolla, Co Laois
‘Depth steward’ Harry Gunning from Offaly measures the depth of the ploughing in Ballacolla, Co Laois
A Ploughing People is published by Hachette Ireland and is being launched all week at the Ploughing
A tribute to Thady Kelleher from Kanturk who won two World Championships and many All Ireland and County Cork titles.
Anna May McHugh, secretary of the NPA, with Murty McGrath at the 1957 Ploughing in Boyle
A ploughwoman in action at the 1989 championships. In 1973, the National Women’s Council of Ireland objected to the ‘Farmerette Class’ term for women’s competitions
Cian Ryan from Ballinascarthy competing in the Vintage Ploughing match at Clogach, West Cork
Jer Coakley from Clonakilty, Cork and Dan Donnelly from Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford who won 1st and 2nd place at the European Ploughing contest in Switzerland last month
The sunshine brought the crowds to the National Ploughing Championships at Ballacolla, Co Laois
Fiona Galligan from Leitrim on her 1949 TVO 20 Massey Ferguson during the Vintage Two Furrow Competition at the Ploughing Championships in Grangeford, Tullow, Co Carlow
Author Valerie Cox

Claire Fox

A barrel of oil worth €7, a five shilling entry fee and a ten stone bag of flour for the 'Married Competitor with the greatest number in his family'. A lot has certainly changed since the first National Ploughing Championships was held in Coursetown, Athy, Co Kildare in 1931.

Former RTÉ journalist, Valerie Cox, documents the development of the Ploughing and ploughing culture as a whole across Ireland in her new book, A Ploughing People. The book journeys from the early years where ploughing was done with a horse to modern times where the national event attracts hundreds of thousands each year.

One of the book's most memorable moments is Cox's meeting with co-founder of the Ploughing, JJ Bergin's grandsons Mark and Andrew.

Their father Ivan kept everything their grandfather had gathered throughout his years at the helm of the competition, such as notes written by JJ documenting who had not paid the five shilling entry fee and the prize schedule for the inaugural Ploughing held in Athy in 1931.

While Mark and Andrew do not plough competitively, they appreciate the importance that is placed on ploughing in Irish society and are proud to be "associated with it".

"The Ploughing is fantastic, it's a celebration of agriculture, it's not just for the country person. It's all that's good about Irish agriculture," says Mark in the book.

Wicklow man, Charlie Keegan's feat as being the first Irish man to win a title at the World Ploughing Championships in 1964, reflects the country's obsession with ploughing.

Not only did the Enniskerry man receive a letter of congratulations from the then President Eamon De Valera, marks are still visible on a hill where a bonfire was burned to celebrate his success.

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"They lit a bonfire and it burned for two days. And after all those years, the hairline cracks and red on the rock are still there to be seen," NPA Director for Co Wicklow, Robert Roe tells Cox.

The book pays tribute to legendary ploughmen and women - from Kerry man, Pat O' Mahony who won three All-Ireland titles in the 50s and 60s to Zwena McCullough, who was the first and only woman to plough against men in the Nationals.

One stand-out ploughman remembered in the book, is Thady Kelleher from Kanturk in North Cork. Thady won two world championships and 40 county titles and continued ploughing until his death in 2004.

A "giant of the furrows", the book recounts how Thady and his brother Dennis slept in a horsebox at the 1994 Ploughing rather than find digs for the night.

"They'd sleep anywhere rather than going to a hotel, so they'd sleep with the horses in the box. There was a barrier in between the horses and themselves at the back of the lorry but they never knew there was a fall in the floor of the lorry and the horses peed and drowned the men below. They were all yellow the shirts and they had to wear them," Thady's sister Anne recalls.

Not forgetting the Farmettes, Anna Mai Donegan was crowned the very first Queen of the Plough in 1955. In 1956 a further incentive was added: if the Queen of the Plough married during her reign, she would receive £100 on her wedding day and Mary Shanahan the 1960 winner led the St Patrick's Day parade in Dublin the next year.

A controversial word from the beginning, the National Women's Council of Ireland tried to have the name of the "Farmerette" category changed in 1973. Joanne Deery, from Co Monaghan has won four Queen of the Plough titles in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015 and feels there is no harm in the word. "Well it has to be called something. I plough in Northern Ireland and up there it's known as the Ladies' Class. Really it makes no difference," she tells Cox.

While author Valerie Cox originally hails from Dublin she has been living in rural Wicklow for the last 30 years. Having spent years working on stories from rural Ireland, she told the Farming Independent that she felt it was about time that a book was written about the ploughing tradition.

"There had never been a major book about ploughing or the NPA. There's some lovely local books out there so Hachette Books approached me about the idea and I became so excited.

"The book really shows the tenacity of ploughing families. Rural Ireland is still one of the most decent societies left in Europe and I really fell for it as I traipsed around the country and to the Ploughing when I was with RTÉ.

"The Ploughing is almost like a holiday for farmers as the harvest is hopefully in. Farmers told me of the stillness they feel when they plough and how they see all sorts of things and get close to nature when they're alone on the plough at dawn or late at night. Ploughing is the embodiment of rural Ireland's warmth and hospitality," said Cox.

A Ploughing People is published by Hachette Ireland and is being launched all week at the Ploughing.

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