'It's the people that make The Ploughing'
If President Trump and Kim Jong Il were to physically come to blows this week, I sincerely doubt that it would have distracted the attention of the Irish public from the phenomenon that is the National Ploughing Championships. Therefore, I've decided to dedicate this week's Journal specifically to my trip to 'The Ploughing' to give you a flavour of what a day at this mammoth event entails for the Minister for Agriculture.
For me, ploughing 2017 began before the summer recess, when the invitations and requests started to trickle into my offices. The Tuesday morning slot on Morning Ireland is the first official engagement to be pencilled into the diary, quickly followed by the date of the press launch for the event which usually takes place a month in advance of the Championships themselves.
Over the summer, my team in the office collate the invitations as they arrive, before sitting down to prepare a first draft of an itenerary a week out from the big day. We make every effort to accept all requests but unfortunately, given the sheer volume, there are inevitable disappointments.
Twenty two hours out from arrival onsite at Screggan my ploughing experience gets off to a surreal start. Sitting on my own, in the deserted Morning Ireland studio chatting to Rachel English live from the RTÉ pavilion at the ploughing, is enough to make you feel the Country has flipped on its axis. While over 100,000 revelled in the autumn sunshine in Offaly, I attend Cabinet and got on with a lively Tuesday of meetings before sitting down at 5pm to go through the final draft of the 'masterplan'.
5am alarm.... It's here. No tie today - wellington boots and rain jacket. I meet my entourage at 5.30am and we set off for Tullamore. It's dark - as is the news on the radio. The sad news of the tragic death of Martin Kehoe Jnr in a farm accident shatters the mood in the car. The Kehoe family have a deep and illustrious association with the National Ploughing Association. The tragedy leaves a scar on the days events and throws the issue of Farm Safety to the fore of the days conversations.
6.45am and I have a quick cup of tea and a sausage roll at a filling station on the edge of Tullamore. It's my last opportunity to take a breath before taking on the gauntlet of events that lie ahead. We arrive on site just before seven. The morning light is breaking, but the sky is heavy and grey. Pathetic fallacy is the poetic term if I recall correctly from my school days. Just before seven the team and I march through gate 14 ready for what the day has to throw at us.
John Kelly, Dunmanway, is our first host of the morning. John and his wife are showing their cattle at the ploughing. I enjoy the livestock section more than any other of the vast array of displays on show here. Unfortunately this is my only visit here of the day. Michael Creed from Inchigeelagh drops by to double the number of Michael Creeds present. A spare could be useful on a day like this.
7.30am and the first large set-piece event of the day. The Farmers Journal are hosting a breakfast for representatives from the Irish Agri-food industry. My role is to comment on the opinions raised in a wide ranging panel discussion. Brexit, Mercusour trade talks, the future of the beef and tillage sectors and, of course, farm safety are the topics du jour.
Panel discussions are a big feature of the day. I participate is several more throughout the day hosted by the Irish Independent, Agriland, Macra na Feirme and the NPA. I become self concsious over time that I'm being repetitive. But the issues are the issues.
A visit to the main Farming Organisations is as good as a Constitutional duty if you are the Minister for Agriculture visiting the ploughing. The IFA are first up where the mood is jovial to say the least. This is perhaps due to the presence of Pat McDonagh of Supermacs and more notably Liam McCarthy who has taken up residence in Galway of late, and not the current state of farming. I enjoy tea and a biscuit with the ICMSA and take shelter from a particularly heavy downpour when I visit the ICSA. There is a word or two on Budget priorities at each visit. But the welcome is good and the exchanges positive. Macra have a sporting hero of their own present when I visit as Rory Best helps out for the launch of their Young Beef Farmer Sustainability Programme in conjunction with Dawn meats.
Launches, presentations and photocalls are a large feature of my itenarary. There's the prize-giving at the Farmers Journal Electric Ireland Farm Safety Programme. There are photos too at UCD, Dairymaster, Europumps, Carbery Plastics, Aldi, Lidl, Acorns, Embrace, Aware, Enterprise Ireland, Glanbia, Offaly County Council, Agriaware and some others along the way.
Old friends and colleagues must be visited also. The Department of Agriculture tent is humming with activity when I drop by, as farmers avail of the services on offer to check up on the status of the various schemes they are participating in. At Bord Bia I host a reception late in the evening which is an opportunity to meet with some of the foreign delegations present as well as some familiar faces from across the sector.
The Fine Gael tent was a quieter affair however. This was not due to any dip in the fortunes of the party or the mood of the members but rather the significant rain that was beginning to flood the area immediately outside the front of the tent. Defiantly the team there kept the doors opened, while others nearby succumbed to the elements.
Media interviews provide a framework upon which the itenerary is built on. You can't very well do a live interview if you are 10 minutes late for the broadcast. Therefore, my team spend the day in a constant state of stress, ushering me from event to event in order to stay on schedule.
A media doorstep in the press room just after lunch allows many of the outlets ask the question they wish and get the clips they want to use for their broadcast or publication. I dust down my cupla focail for Siún on Nuacht RTÉ at 5.30pm and round off the day in the outside broadcast unit of Midlands 103 with a marathon 45 minute interview with MJ Clery on his Country Life show, which after 13hours on my feet was no easy ride.
It's just shy of 8pm when we return to the car, sodden and muddy. It's been a successful day in the main as we've managed to keep almost all of our commitments. There is often much cynical comment about politicians and the ploughing. I won't comment one way or another on that, only to say that I didn't visit one single pavilion uninvited. I'm thankful to the hundreds of people I met for a warm generous welcome. It's the people that make the ploughing. There is no greater congregation anywhere in Europe. While there are attractions and distractions aplenty, it's the chats and stories along the way that make it an event like no other. Where else could you rub shoulders with Presidents, dealers, lions and healers. I'd love nothing more than to be returning as Minister again in 2018.
PS: I don't think I've ever made a negative comment about being a Minister in these journals. One of the few drawbacks of the office is that you are bound to your diary without escape. This presents difficult situations when it is unavoidable to miss an unforeseen event. This was the case over the past week when I couldn't attend the funeral of my dear friend, and loyal supporter Ann Dunlea RIP. Ann's unique sense of humour always made the many hours we canvassed together a rare joy during tense campaigns. She will be a huge loss to her formidable family and beyond.