In the footsteps of giants: Valerie Cox recounts her journey in search of legends of the ploughing

Anna May McHugh and JJ Bergin (right)at the 1956 Ploughing
Anna May McHugh and JJ Bergin (right)at the 1956 Ploughing

Valerie Cox

It was a muddy sort of a day when I went to East Cork last year in search of the family of the late Thady Kelleher.

His story had always been in my head, a fascinating, bold adventurer, a showman who held two world and four All-Ireland Ploughing Championships and a man who died too soon.

On the outskirts of his native Banteer there's a memorial, a larger-than-lifesize statue of Thady with a plough and the words written by John Dillon: `From the fields of Duhallow, You bring back the waves of our yesterday, You feed the dreams of our tomorrow, Peaceful and strong is the ploughman's way.'

I was on my way to meet Thady's brother, Dennis, not realising that I was walking in on a gathering of ploughmen, a who's who from the world of ploughing.

Around 25 people crowded into the Kelleher kitchen, where there were platters of sandwiches and home baking, teapots that kept pouring and stories about Jerry Horgan, Murty Fitzgerald, Dan J Mahony, John Joe Egan, Ted Keohane and Mossy Sheehy.

Dermot Flynn said he could remember the first ploughing match that Thady went to in 1958 back in Timoleague when they travelled in an old Prefect car, registration number ZT4905.

From Kanturk in north Cork, Thady won two World Championships and 40 county titles and continued ploughing until his death in 2004.

Sonny Egan, who had hopped across the Kerry border from Abbeydorney, explained to me that ploughing "is a religion. 'tis a tradition and most of all, I suppose, 'tis the enjoyment. To the ordinary man, sitting on a plough looks awful easy, no bother to him because it's going right, but the man that's behind it has to adjust it for every different scribe, for an open he also has to have the horses trained that they won't be walking up on top of the scribes."

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These men have an incredible affinity with their horses.

JJ Delaney spoke of the sheer loneliness of the ploughman and the beauty.

Cork's 1954 All-Ireland winning team: Ted Keohane, Jerry Horgan and Donal O'Donovan; (right) President Sean T O'Ceallaigh and other dignitaries at the 1946 Ploughing Championships
Cork's 1954 All-Ireland winning team: Ted Keohane, Jerry Horgan and Donal O'Donovan; (right) President Sean T O'Ceallaigh and other dignitaries at the 1946 Ploughing Championships

"Ploughing on your own can be a boring old day," he said. "For an acre ploughed you'd have 11 miles walked with the horses! But there are compensations -- you see everything, it's the nearest thing there is to God, the crows are following you, picking, and the seagulls flying very close. You see foxes and badgers and mink and even deer."

"You'd talk away to the horses all the time, good, bad and indifferent'," adds Dennis Kelleher. "When the man catches the ropes behind the handles, the horses would know if there was a different man there."

Over the years ploughing with horses has declined but there are communities where the horse remains king and where they say the tradition is embedded in their spirit and will never die out.

Some of the ploughmen, like Charlie Keegan from Co Wicklow, moved from horses to tractors -- he became the first Irishman to win the World Championships in 1964.

His grandson, Michael, wasn't born then, but people have told him what a massive win it was. There was a bonfire of tyres up on the hill in Enniskerry that burned for two days.

"It was like Ireland winning the World Cup," says Michael. "I think the only world title Ireland had then was Ronnie Delany in the Olympics!"

As I travelled around the country meeting the ploughing people, I was told several times that if I was going to write a book about ploughing, then I should try it myself.

That came to pass at the local match in Roundwood in Co Wicklow, a wet and windy day when even the horses looked like they'd fancy a hot cuppa and the shelter of an umbrella.

Even in the early morning, the entrance to the field was a sea of mud and cars were pushed, shoved and coaxed through the gates and into a field overlooking Roundwood reservoir, although that too was shrouded in a thick mist.

It was there that I met horseman Kevin Doran, who introduced me to Tom and Womble. "I used to have Tom and Jerry, but Jerry retired," he said.

Kevin decided it was time to learn the ploughing and, assuring me I wouldn't find any calmer horses, he handed over the reins.

We started off, Kevin calling instructions (not sure if this was to the horses or to me). Kevin's team-mates Donal O'Keeffe and Martin Austin did look worried about the furrows, and there were curious onlookers keeping an eye on things.

But it was a wonderful feeling trailing through the wet soil, and it was then I understood why so many city folk have now become weekend plough people, tinkering with vintage tractors and trying to get back to their roots at the end of a busy working week.

The plough being pulled by Tom and Womble had been passed through three generations. It originally belonged to Mick Redmond of Kilmuckridge in Co Wexford. He won an All-Ireland with it and then Kevin's grandfather and father ploughed with it, so Kevin said he'd give it a go too.

There is so much to the ploughing, the horses, the tractors, the loy ploughing and even the horses that live double lives, pulling tourists around in horse-drawn caravans in the summer and back ploughing in the winter. Anna May McHugh and JJ Bergin (right) at the 1956 Ploughing

Then there's the farmerettes, a unique group of feisty women who have been competing at the ploughing since 1955, when the first Queen of the Plough was Anna Mai Donegan from County Kerry.

Of course, women had always worked on the farm but it was really the sharp eye of the tractor salesmen for promoting their products that enticed women into competitive ploughing. In Anna Mai's case, it was Martin Slattery, the salesman from Benner's Garage in Tralee, who came up with the idea.

Anna Mai remembered how Martin came to see her in an era when very few women could be spotted driving tractors. "I laughed at him," she said. "I grew up on a 30-acre farm with animals, tillage, everything.

"He said he'd seen me on the tractor and eventually I agreed to compete. Martin became my coach and, in 1955, drove me to the first championships in Athy, Co Kildare in a Ford car. And I won!

"I was thrilled of course, although I don't remember actually getting a prize for it. I was very excited and dying to tell my parents my great news. But there were no telephones and I had to wait till I got home to tell them I'd won!'

Valerie Cox is the author of A Ploughing People: The Farming Life Celebrated. Stories. Traditions. The Championships. Hachette Books Ireland

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