Farm Ireland

Friday 15 December 2017

The Plough & its stars

Darragh McCullough takes on the men of the soil at his debut in the ploughing championships

Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

It seemed like a good idea at the time. During a recent editorial for RTÉ's 'Ear to the Ground', presenters were encouraged to find a story that we "could really get stuck into".

I thought the perfect vehicle to do so, if you'll excuse the pun, would be a tractor and plough at the National Ploughing Championships. The logic was crystal clear at the time.

There's buckets of coverage of the Ploughing Championships every year, from the six tons of ketchup that are consumed by the 180,000 punters who throng the event to the political shenanigans amid the shiny machinery and back-slapping country folk.

But what about the guys who the whole thing was set-up for in the first place? Those weather-beaten men (let's face it -- they are mostly men) who stand around for hours in the winds that carry the first hint of winter, gesticulating, measuring, conferring and focusing on one thing and one thing only ... ploughing.

What on earth can be so absorbing about turning a sod of dirt? How hard can it be? And why do they persist with dinky machines that look like they belong in a pre-war era?

So I thought the best way to find out would be to take on these men of the soil at their own game and enter the Ploughing Championships myself. That was the easy part.

I thought it would be straightforward enough to get set up. First of all, I joined my local Macra club in Ardcath so that I could compete in the newly reintroduced Macra class. The fact that nobody else in the club, or indeed the county, was particularly interested in challenging me for the role of representing Meath did wonders for my chances of making the cut.

However, nobody gets to just waltz on to the stage of the National Ploughing Championships without having first proved their worth at least once at any of the county championships that happen around the country. My competition is today.

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This is where things are starting to get tricky. First up, you can't just turn up with any old plough. It has to be a competition-regulation-standard plough. In my case, this translates into a two-furrow conventional plough.

I only got my first look at it this week, when I was solemnly informed that it had already produced the goods, winning at several levels including the world championships in Wexford... in 1973.

That's the thing about ploughing, you see. Ever since man first figured out about 10,000 years ago that flipping the top couple of inches of the earth upside down was the best way to prepare ground for planting a crop, things haven't changed that much.

Of course, tractors have replaced oxen, and where Patrick Kavanagh slaved to reveal an acre of stony grey soil, today's farmer will plough down many multiples of that with his €50,000 seven-sod reversible machine in less time than it takes to me to write this.

But, at its core, it's still all about turning that sod of earth over to bury last year's stubble and provide fresh soil for next year's crop. Except at competition level, it's not good enough to be able to prove you can flip soil.

You need to be able to steer a tractor in a line so straight that it won't vary by more than an inch over the course of 200m. You are required to set your plough in such a way that it takes exactly the same depth of clay, regardless of what slope or stones gets in the way.

The sods you leave behind must have just the right degree of firmness; not too loose, but with just the right amount of 'pack'. And whatever you do, don't leave some stubble or grass sticking up where the eye should see only perfectly formed furrows.

I knew from the beginning that I wouldn't have a hope on my own. That's why I've now got my own coach. Thomas White is a farming neighbour in Meath and he tells me that he competed in his first plough match exactly 40 years ago, at the ripe old age of 13.

He went on to win county ploughing matches right into the 1980s, when his long-suffering wife Dolores decided she'd seen enough of Ireland from the cab of the truck that they piled the whole family into every time they went to a competition.

I'm Thomas's first trainee; the first novice to hear the secrets of the plough that he learned from ploughing greats such as Willie Murphy and Brendan Sutton all those years ago. We've spent hours together stepping, measuring, adjusting and discussing the finer details of the 'flesh' and 'split' of my efforts up on his farm on the hill of Ardcath.

Today will be my first attempt to put it all into practice at the Offaly Ploughing Match. It'll be an important step in my attempt to get to grips with the art of ploughing, but the real test will be next Thursday on the final day of the Ploughing Championships in Athy.

While the crowds will throng the aisles of stands with the glossy combine harvesters, three-card tricksters and Charolais cattle, I'll be sweating under the gaze of the few who actually make the trek out behind the hurdy-gurdys and the beer tents blasting out Richie Kavanagh's latest hits.

The men and women who've been bringing their flasks of tea and brown-bread sandwiches to this event long before a caterer was ever required. The ploughing aficionados who began what has become the biggest annual outdoor event in the country.

Suddenly, what was perfectly do-able at an office editorial meeting has become a challenge that I now know I haven't spent half enough time preparing for.

Already, I've called in more favours -- borrowing everything from tape measures to tractors and trucks -- than I can repay.

More importantly, people such as my coach Thomas have invested an enormous amount of time in trying to help me do the county proud.

I've taken calls from the local Macra committee about getting a banner and some supporters down from the club.

Yes, I'll finally get an insight into the art that forms the core of the Ploughing Championships. But this has suddenly become much more than a journalistic mission. There's more than just my pride at stake.

But there's no going back now.

It's time to plough.

The National Ploughing Championships take place from September 20-22 in Athy, Co Kildare. Darragh's ploughing experience will be aired on 'Ear to the Ground' on RTE1 in November

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