Sense of 'harvest' at heart of the Ploughing's success
A week from today, the annual national rural pilgrimage to the National Ploughing Championships will begin.
It is relatively modest in terms of scale or effort compared to the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This is a religious obligation that every Muslim is required to perform at least once in their lifetime if health and financial circumstances make it at all possible.
The worldwide Muslim population is over 1.3bn and, every year, around 3m of them converge on the holiest city of Islam, half of them from overseas. For many, it requires considerable effort and expense. They travel by plane, bus, car and still sometimes by camel - the last of which can take years to complete as people stop off along the way to earn money to be able to complete the journey.
But, with around 200,000 visitors, the Ploughing is very significant event on an island of 6.5m people, a mecca with a small 'm'. It's a fantastic credit to the organisers, particularly their near legendary leader Anna May McHugh, that the Ploughing remains relevant not just to the farming community but to the country at a whole.
Farming folk will often say it's the same old thing every year but, yet, when the time rolls around, they find themselves back on the road again, afraid that if they don't go, they might miss something.
While commerce is the backbone of the Ploughing, to my mind something rather different is at its heart and underlies its continuing success.
It is that most people, whether religious, atheist or agnostic instinctively feel a sense of gratitude to the natural world at this time of year for the bounty of the land; there is an innate sense of wanting to mark this, to talk about it with friends.
Perhaps the Ploughing is a kind of secular equivalent of the religious Harvest services which occur in the Church of Ireland and which are now also becoming more popular in some Catholic churches?
I first encountered these services when I got married and, for many parishioners, it is a highlight of the year; an occasion when the church is inevitably full and many people would even do a circuit of services during September and October.
Harvest services now usually take place in the evening and each church is atmospherically lit and stacked high with seasonal produce from local gardens and fields, the likes of apples, pears, courgettes, pumpkins, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, cabbages, beet and grains.
These are brushed clean but not shining, with tops and tails still attached as appropriate.
Not necessarily the perfect images that we have become accustomed to in the supermarket but all the more life-affirming for it.
The atmosphere is warm and there is a great sense of camaraderie as old friendships are rekindled and new ones struck up over a cup of tea afterwards. Its a temporary break from the treadmill to recognise and celebrate life's many gifts.
A highlight for many are the hymns. One of the most popular is the lung-busting Hymn 47 which opens with the line: 'We plough the fields, and scatter the good seeds of the land', while Hymn 37 opens with 'Come ye thankful people come, raise the songs of harvest home; all is safely gathered in ere the winter storms begin.'
Back to the Ploughing and, with the harvest complete, it's the obvious opportunity for farmers to take a break. So the timing is good. The cycle of nature never stops but this is as close to a natural gap as it gets.
I know there are some exceptions but, in a general sense, one set of crops are in the shed and most of the next ones not yet started to go in to the ground. Stock are still outdoors so they are relatively easy to look after. The nights are starting to draw in and it is a last chance to meet up with friends from all over before battening down the hatches as it were, with winter on the way.
There are also lots of kids and, while schools are back, this is kind of a last hurrah before they finally settle down to work. Politicians are also getting back into the swing of things after the summer recess and the Ploughing offers a valuable sounding board for ideas and launch pad for policies.
But one thing puzzles me. While the politicians attending the Ploughing always get their ears reddened with complaints as do the farming representative bodies, why are farmers so reluctant to engage meaningfully with those who really control the sector -the processors and retailers, many of whom now have a significant presence at the event?
Throughout this past year, beef farmers have been at loggerheads with the meat processors and the supermarkets. Some of these farmers have been involved in protests, at the front door of supermarkets. But in these situations they rarely get to engage with the head honchos.
Yet, pass by any of their stands at the Ploughing and chances are that you will see some of these same farmers sharing a cup of tea and a laugh with representatives of those companies. They might not be the head honchos, but not all of them are at the bottom of the ladder either.
Are we too polite as a race? Are we afraid that directly addressing these people will in some way have a negative effect on our business dealings with them? Is it that we expect others to do our dirty work for us? Or is that we just want a break from aggro? So while we know that bending politicians ears is painless because they are going to soak it up, directly tackling serious issues is a very different matter. Might this year bring a change of tack ?
"Sure, when the Ploughing is over, the year is fecked!" is a well known phrase.
So, I guess there's nothing for it now only to dress appropriately and stock up on stamina. Roll on Ratheniska.
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