Forget football fever -- farmers flocking to real field of dreams

Eimear Ni Bhraonain

WE ARE in the grip of All-Ireland football fever but farmers are training for their own championship match.

Eighty years ago, Denis Allen from Gorey put a challenge to his life-long friend, JJ Bergin from Athy.

Denis wanted to prove that Wexford had better ploughmen than Kildare -- and in 1931 that is exactly what he did, when his county won the first ever National Ploughing Championships.

Farmers came from all over and parked their bicycles at WK Hosie's field in Coursetown, just outside of Athy, for the event

Pictures from down the years show how farmers gathered in long trench-coats and hats at the end of World War Two in 1945 to see a young John Condron from Killemore, Killeigh, Co Offaly, win the minor All-Ireland championship.

Fast forward to the present day and truckloads of heavy machinery have been arriving in Cardenton, Co Kildare ahead of the 80th National Ploughing Championships which begins on Tuesday.

The technology has improved, the site has expanded, but the competition is as fierce as ever for the three-day event.

It will even see one former world champion ploughman, Martin Kehoe from Wexford, coming out of retirement.

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Ploughing will take place all day next Thursday -- and some of the 300 competitions will be held in the same field as the original contest.

The patch of land, today owned by Jim and Iris Fox, has only been under two different owners in the past 80 years.

One of the oldest supporters of the championships, Kilkenny man Michael Muldowney, recalls how his father, Michael Muldowney Snr, attended Ireland's first ever plough match in 1931.

"I remember at that time, a neighbour of my father's over the road, was terribly interested in ploughing as well. The two of them would sit here at the fire and talk more about ploughing matches. They'd often talk about Eddie Jones from Wicklow -- one of the first horse ploughmen," he said yesterday.

The six-time national ploughing champion became interested in the event once the tractor came on stream. "I didn't win a national championship until 1959 but it was a great feeling."

Weather conditions have been "superb" in the past week -- leaving the ground in perfect shape at the Cardenton site for next week's championships.

"This is a huge factor for us and it means ground conditions are fantastic. Yesterday and today are the main days for machinery to come in so we've done really well with the weather," said spokesman Anna Marie McHugh.

For the first year, this year, Smurfit Business School will be conducting a study to see exactly how much the championships are worth to the region's economy.

Hotels, B&Bs, restaurants and bars all see a massive upsurge in business for the three-day event.

"We've been very lucky because exhibitor numbers at the event have been very constant even from the boom to the downturn. Some have reduced their facade but maintained their presence at the event," added Ms McHugh.

Irish Independent

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