Sun-drenched fiesta savoured as a record crowd bids farewell to summer

Eddie Doyle, from Kilkenny, preparing to plough. Picture: Mark Condren
Eddie Doyle, from Kilkenny, preparing to plough. Picture: Mark Condren
Dressed to impress: Catherine Furlong, from New Ross, Co Wexford, who was a finalist in the best dressed country style event on day two of the festival in Ballintrane, Fenagh, Co Carlow, yesterday
Bishop Denis Nulty with blessed salts
Tipperary woman Carrie Acheson has been addressing the hundreds of thousands of attendees at the Ploughing for more than 37 years. Photos: Mark Condren
Champion: Liz Farrell, from Carlow, winner of the best dressed country style event

Nicola Anderson in Fenagh

Down at the bandstand, an impromptu hooley had erupted, the crowd rocking and jiving as Derek Ryan sang two firm favourites - 'Wagon Wheel' and the Saw Doctors' hit 'I Useta Love her'.

If we thought the All-Ireland replay marked the farewell to summer, we were wrong.

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Between the frenzied dancing, the never-ending queues for ice-cream cones and the youngsters flinging themselves into the ditch for a bit of a rest from the blistering sun, you couldn't be blamed for thinking the National Ploughing Championships had gone on tour to South America rather than to Fenagh, Co Carlow.

This was a sun-drenched fiesta to be savoured - because it was completely unexpected.

Spare a thought then for the poor fashion victims, who had donned themselves in 'Ploughing-appropriate' tweeds in the hope of scooping the coveted titles of the 'Best Dressed Country Style' and 'Most Appropriately Dressed Gentleman' awards.

In long boots, heavy jackets, capes and felt hats trimmed with feathers, contestants wilted bravely for their art all day long, not daring to remove a single article - only to see the top prize go to somebody who strolled in looking as cool as a breeze in polka dots.

"I came dressed appropriately for the day," said Liz Farrell, from Carlow.

A grandmother, she wore her blonde hair in elegant rolls under her straw hat.

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"Penneys," said Liz, explaining that she had finished it off with a piece of fabric cut from the hem of her white dress with black polka dots.

She hadn't intended to enter the competition at what was her first Ploughing Championships.

"In fact, I entered reluctantly," she said, adding she was only standing around waiting for her daughter when she got the tap on her shoulder. Asked if she always dressed stylishly, Liz laughed: "Sometimes."

She is now looking for someone to share her prize of a trip to Abu Dhabi, she said, saying she will take "whatever member of the family will come with her".

Her best dressed male counterpart was Gerry Johnston, from Kilmihil, Co Clare, in tweed jacket and traditional peaked cap.

"I watched 'Peaky Blinders' the night before," he explained of his style inspiration.

His wife Evelyn Johnston won the women's style award last year, he revealed. She had worn a Storm Ali-appropriate yellow raincoat, hat and umbrella.

The only squall yesterday was in the Fine Gael tent, where Minister Richard Bruton was interrupted by protester James Reynolds, a suckling farmer from Longford. He told the minister that climate change commitments were contrary to current rules on beef production, which were carbon inefficient.

Beef farmers are struggling to make a living wage, he said afterwards.

With a crowd of 113,500 at the Ploughing, combined with attendance figures of 102,500 the previous day, organisers said it set a new record.

Someone who has watched those figures rise steadily over the years is the official 'voice' of the Ploughing, Carrie Acheson.

From her peaceful sanctuary at Headquarters, the Grande Dame has been presiding over the microphone for more than 37 years.

Distinctive, informative and sometimes even chastising - though she always does it with humour - she could be said to be the Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh of the Ploughing Championships. She feels that this is "a magic place".

She likes things done properly and always dresses in the height of elegance, she drinks her tea from a china cup, her cold drink from a wine glass.

"They might say it's snobbery but they used to sell china cups in Woolworths," said Carrie, of the long-gone cheap and cheerful stores.

A query about her age is met only with: "We do not discuss age."

She was first approached to go on the board of the Ploughing - the only woman among 28 men - in 1979. She had moved in farming circles because of her family's farm machinery business.

"I was the store man," she said. "If they needed a part for a machine, I got it for them."

As the voice of the Ploughing, Carrie sometimes used to give out to absconding teenagers for 'spoiling the day' for their parents.

But she never blamed a small child for getting lost, she said.

Instead, she felt it was the fault of the parents who became distracted.

"I used to see the mothers sometimes in frustration venting it on the child," she said.

These days, she no longer has the problem of having to reunite lost children with their guardians since that job went to someone else two years ago.

It is a major relief, Carrie admitted.

After a stroke a number of years ago following the death of her husband, Carrie explains that her legs may not be as mobile as they once were and so she does not get out to see the event for herself.

"But there's nothing wrong with my tongue - and that's what they want me for here," she said.

She recalls all the Presidents since De Valera - "An old man" - but she is a fan of Michael D and appreciates his fondness of the Ploughing, in turn. "He's very correct as a President," she said.

She paused to broadcast some announcements, as well as a few random Ploughing-related facts. "A chicken fillet is sold every 10 seconds on site," she told the crowds.

Last year, they also got through 19,000 eggs. "Could you think of that?" she said.

"And it all started in a field and it will finish in a field."

Sometimes she thinks of retiring. "How do you retire?" she mused aloud. The World Ploughing is coming to Ireland in two years' time. "I hope we can retire before then," Carrie said.

Over at the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin stand - where 3,000 sachets of blessed salt were being handed out in line with an ancient Irish tradition - Bishop Denis Nulty was busily sorting through the entries for a competition to find a new prayer for the environment, sent in by adults and children from all over the country.

He was moved by the beauty of many of them - but the winning entry was written by Siobhan Hayes, from Ballacolla, Co Laois, which began: "A garden bright, a lovely sight; Care and time given to the earth; Colour and beauty all around, the glory of God, easily found." Later today, the bishop will announce Ireland's favourite prayer, chosen from a shortlist of five.

Irish Independent

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