Six competitors turned out to the under 40 horse plough class on Tuesday morning, all vying for the title at the National Ploughing Championships.
“We started at half 10, we finish at half two, but we’re after getting stopped there — so we’ll get an extra half an hour added because the president is after landing to us,” one of the ploughmen and regular competitor says.
And indeed he was — President Michael D Higgins paid a visit to the ploughing plots this week, posing for pictures with working horses Larry and Elton, on his way to address those competing, spectators, and members of the media.
There for the trophy but not the bells and whistles of it all, Jeremiah Delaney, one of the six competing in his category, spoke to the Irish Examiner while Mr Higgins spoke to the crowd that had grown around him as the ploughing action came to a brief halt.
Mr Delaney was being helped by his father JJ, and former ploughing champion Zwena McCullough, as he keeps the “tradition” of the sport in his family.
“I’ve been ploughing since I was 15, local matches that were around at home; and then we got a little bit more brazen and we wanted to go places,” Mr Delaney, representing the Cork East region said.
“With the father at it all his life, I took it over then.
“We’re happy to carry it on — it’s tough, but it’s tradition.
“It’s a dying trade but we suffer on and we try and do the best we can.” Mr Delaney admits he “should do a lot more practice than we do, but we don’t”.
“I suppose four days maybe last week we were at it; you should be doing up to a month of it really and truly but we don’t,” he said.
“It’s just hard to buy time.” The day this ploughman was in action, a crowd of 91,500 was attracted to the National Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska, Co Laois, and punters were blessed with comfortable weather - something Mr Delaney was also grateful for.
It’s certainly not his first rodeo, being a well-established member of the ploughing community in Cork and further afield, and he knows how heavily the elements can affect your performance on the day.
“The weather is a big plus if you get it dry, if you get it wet it’s a mess, everything’s heavy, earth is sticking to your boots, to the board, it makes it way, way harder,” he explained.
“Years ago [for a ploughing match] there was a flood in our furrow, we could hardly see where we were ploughing, we could hardly see where we were going — but we were told to plough on.
“It was tough, but we did it.” 20-year-old Jonathan Trant, also competing in the under 40 horse plough class, said he is aware that “there’s hardly any young fellas” doing the activity nowadays, but he doesn’t let that deter him.
“My father was ploughing, Mossy [uncle] would be ploughing, everyone was ploughing and it got passed down again and again,” he said, speaking about the tradition of it in the family.
“It’s interesting. Everyone loves the horses, fellas might not go down to the tractor ploughing but they’ll always come up to the horse ploughing.”
His horses — Larry and Elton — are a French breed of draft horse, Percheron.
“You’d need a stronger pulling horse for this, you wouldn’t put a race horse in here pulling,” Mr Trant says.
“They’re easy enough keeping; we keep them out in the field and they come in, do their work, there’s no fuss with them, they’re happy to do their work.
“Some horses when you pull them in off the field they can be a bit hot but these fellas, they take no notice.” Mr Trant can see himself keeping up the ploughing long-term — but as long as “people keep coming” to enter the competitions, and to show support.
“If you’ve no interest, you wouldn’t be long getting interested once you’ve tried a bit of it, it’s kind of addictive, you’d kind of start and you might not be going great but you’d see yourself getting better and better,” he said.
“You should be doing a good bit of practice — but we do hardly any of it.
“We show up anyway.” Mr Trant had the help of his uncle, Moss Trant, for the competition.
Moss Trant said he has worked horses “since we were children — we were cutting hay with a mowing machine at eight years of age, you’d hardly leave a child go to school at eight years of age now!”.
“We had horses up to the 70s, and we went out of them into tractors and then we went back into horses in the 90s again.” Mr Trant has coached people all over Ireland and abroad, he said, and has “ploughed in several countries”.
“My own son Seamus [did] ploughing as well and he’s good at it but he just doesn’t have time; we have no time either because we’re all working,” he said.
“We’re trying to fit in all this and the problem is we have no time for practice and we don’t have much ground to practice with either.
“Hopefully Jonathan will keep it going.” Mr Trant, who is from Tralee, said that “sometimes, we don’t have a competition in Kerry, we’re the only ones that are there, which isn’t much good”.
He and his family certainly missed the National Ploughing Championships the last few years, and so did the horses.
“Our animals would miss it as well because they’re kind of doing nothing and it’s hard to get them back thinking to the way we’d be trying to get them thinking, working the same way.
“Their care is very important, the animals are taken care better than myself nearly. They’re part of the family, you see. And when something goes wrong, it’s like the family is gone wrong.
“If you want them to do what you want them to do, you’ve got to look after them, and they’ll work for you.” He feels there will have to be “something done” to revive interest in horse ploughing, “because there’s no young fellas coming in and if you don’t have the young, old lads like me when they’re under the sod, that’s it, there’s going to be no one to teach them”.
“Simple as that,” he added.
Hard at work, Mr Trant still made time to catch up with an old friend who came all the way from Hampshire in England to show his support for him, and the event itself.
Ploughman John McDermott has visited the National Ploughing Championships maybe five or six times before, he told the Irish Examiner, and it was his father-in-law who first introduced Mr Trant to Percheron horses “nearly 30 years ago”.
“It’s a good community, you know everybody, you might be competing against them but you know them,” Mr McDermott said.
“I’ve ploughed with horses for probably 40 years.
“Ploughing is enjoyable, it’s nice to look back and see that you’ve done a good job of it.” And with that, President Higgins was led away, and the competitors were to “plough on”.
In first place in the u40 horse plough class was Eoin Hand from Co Monaghan, followed by Jonathan Trant in second place, and Killian Lydon from Co Galway in thir