From Rathcoole, Co Cork, in 1968, to Screggan, Co Offaly,has seen it all and enjoyed it
Bouts of amnesia, edible creepy crawlies, and a flyaway blimp, are just some of the more bizarre memories I have from years of reporting from the National Ploughing Championships.
It is of course a great annual showcase of Irish life, headed by a remarkable woman, Anna May McHugh, who in the words of President Mary McAleese at Athy in 2011, watches over all the activities — just like a mother hen with a clutch of chicks.
But it is not, of course, without off-beat incidents, witty retorts, and occasional misadventures, that add fun and joy to any gathering.
Ballycarney, near Ferns in Co Wexford, was where I suffered from the amnesia that sometimes afflicts motorists attending the Ploughing Championships.
I arrived on site at dawn, parked my car and went about my work over the next 12 hours. When it was time to leave in the dark, I could not remember where I had parked my newly acquired vehicle.
And the only part of the registration number I could recall was 98 C.
A big battery-powered flash lamp in the hands of a man from Wexford County Council, wearing a yellow bib over his clothing, was the high technology used that night in Ballycarney, to re-unite me with my car after a lengthy search.
That was long before ‘find-my-car’ devices with navigation systems provided by earth-orbiting satellites.
But the era of high-tech mobile phones and buzz words like wow, fab and cool would arrive soon enough.
Smartphones, iPads, voice recorders, texting, and selfies, would eventually turn the ploughing venues into Planets of the Apps. But they have yet to replace the maps that visitors require to traverse the grounds and find destinations among its 1,700 trade stands.
The first national championships that I reported on was at Rathcoole, Co Cork, in 1968.
Jotters, pencils and shorthand were our work tools. There was no live radio or TV coverage, rolling news updates or social media.
Laptop computers and emails were unknown.
Reporters had to reverse-charge calls to their offices through the local telephone exchanges, wait patiently for the call-back, and then dictate the text of their articles line-by-line to a typist at the other end of the telephone line in Dublin or Cork.
In many ways, Rathcoole marked the start of a new era. Ploughing standards had improved. Tractors were taking over from horses. And officials kept a strict watch on competitors to ensure everything was in accordance with the rules.
But this did not mean the old ways were abandoned entirely. When the ploughing ended each day, and the Time Up klaxon sounded, temptation got the better of some people. It led to Paul Dunican, an NPA director, warning on the loudspeaker that “you plough with the plough and not with the foot.” A few minutes later his voice was again carried through the grounds:
Will that man with blue overalls please stop footing. What is done is done. All you are doing is harm to yourself and losing marks.
Those times are often recalled when ploughmen from the past gather in hotels and pubs before and during the annual championships, and talk about their adventures and the hours they spent in the ancient competitive art of cultivating the soil.
It is always a joy to hear about plough teams who travelled to the finals in lorries laden with ploughs and sometimes horses, and supporters seated on bales of straw. In the old days, the event was held in the month of February. Snowdrifts, floods and storms were frequent.
And there were some hilarious stories. A man stayed overnight in a guest house near one venue, in the war years when food was scarce.
Rabbit was the main course for the evening meal, but the visitor had digestive sensitivities, and ended up roaring with indigestion pain. “Send for the doctor,” the worried woman of the house shouted to her husband. “I think he’s dying”. But the suffering one would have none of it. “I don’t need a doctor, Missus. I need a ferret.”
That man would not have enjoyed the menu in Rentokil’s pop-up Pestaurant at the 2015 championships in Ratheniska, Co Laois. Diners were spoiled for choice, with almost 8,000 insects tasted and enjoyed over three days.
A selection of edible creepy crawlies on the menu at Screggan, Co Offaly, the following year included ham and cheese mealworms, chilli pepper crickets, ant chocolate rounds, roasted locusts and grasshopper lollipops. They were all properly sourced, and nut-free and gluten-free.
Food, however, was not the main priority of a ploughman who fell off the back of a lorry as it negotiated a steep hill on the way to one venue in the post-war years. Worried locals rushed to his aid. One of them shouted to a neighbour to get a doctor as quickly as possible.
But the man’s team mates had other concerns: “Let him alone. He’s ploughing for his county in the morning, but we’ll take him to the chemist when we get there.”
Head Injury Assessment was away in the future.
My abiding memories of the ploughing include the voice of Carrie Acheson, the public address announcer with the conversational style; the cups of tea and slices of apple tart in the media centre; the friendship of colleagues; and the vagaries of the weather.
I saw heavy rain turn the fertile soil of Castletownroche (1999) into a sea of Somme-like mud; coped with the showers that led to a run on plastic ponchos given out by RTE in Grangefort, Carlow (2006); and enjoyed the sunshine of an Indian summer in Cuffesgrange, Kilkenny (2008), where there was even a dust storm.
Yet, they all have to take their place behind a story from the 1950 championships in Bandon when the President of Ireland, Sean T O’Kelly, got stuck in the mud during his walkabout. It took strong hands to physically lift him up. But he took it all in good humour.
Politicians flock to the ploughing every year.
They press the flesh and judge the mood of the people. Media scrums are common. They often cause Gardai unease, as one did in Ballycarney (1998) when Joe Walsh, the then Agriculture Minister, went walkabout.
A number of serious looking men, wearing slogan painted vests, appeared to be making a beeline for him.
But it turned out there was no need for panic. They weren’t angry protesters but Born Again Christians.
However, a quick-thinking farmer, clearly worried about farm incomes, seized the moment, pulled on the verbal sliothar like a present day Limerick hurler, and shouted aloud for us all to hear:
The end is nigh.
Things like that happen at the Ploughing.
Then there was the day in 2015 when Anna May McHugh brought the former Papal Nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown into the press centre at Ratheniska, and I asked him what he thought of it all, knowing he was from New York City... not a ploughing stronghold, as Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh might say.
It is quite different from the skyscrapers, quite different from Manhattan, quite different from Dublin really. It is a different world,” he smiled.
And so it is, a place to see smiling faces and meet people often hailed as “salt of the earth.” High spirits generally prevail, especially if the gathering is rain free, and traffic flows without too much delay. Some 200 vehicles entered one car park every 15 minutes at Athy (2009), but long tailbacks in Mogeely (2005) and New Ross (2012) are still spoken of by motorists.
Yet, there is always good humour, witty banter and ball-ops galore. I remember a young woman from Dublin who couldn’t find her car at Athy in 2010, looking blankly at a patient Garda as he tried to elicit from her a description of where she had left her vehicle that morning.
“Was it in a stubble field, Miss?” Questions like that are as rare as hen’s teeth in Dublin 4. He might as well have been asking her about the price of eggs in Afghanistan.
It was a moment when cultures of different tribes met on a Kildare roadside.
I think that was the same year one of the blimps hovering over the site broke its moorings in a gust of wind, triggered an official air-safety alert, and led to delightful wild rumours that NATO fighter jets might have to be scrambled to shoot it down.
But the reality was less dramatic. Air traffic controllers and flight captains were indeed asked by the Irish Aviation Authority to look out for the flying object, last seen heading north near Monasterevin, but it was fitted with a safety device to bring it back to earth, preventing it from endangering air traffic.
On that same earth, the Ploughing Championships would not be the same without the mud. It is part of what they are.
Motorists have been entertaining their friends for years with accounts of how powerful tractors were used to tow their cars out of rain-lashed fields.
Help to ease the ground conditions eventually came from the most unlikely places, the theatres of war in the Falklands Islands and Iraq.
Mobile metal trackways similar to those used by military forces in those conflicts, to allow vehicles and people move with ease over difficult terrain, could be commercially hired. They are now a vital part of the NPA’s ploughing site infrastructure.
Next week’s Championships at Screggan (it will be my 20th) will be held in a pop-up town where people can get advice on everything from investing money to saving souls, watch cows being milked by robots, and learn how drones are used to monitor tillage crops.
It will be the largest outdoor agricultural event in Europe, with attendances expected to edge towards 300,000.
It will be unrecognisable in size, scale and colour from the first one I covered in Rathcoole 50 years ago, when all the wellies were black in colour, and old rural traditions were still alive.