Ploughing on despite being out of my field

Barbara Scully headed to Laois for the ‘farmers’ festival’ and concluded that New York is easier to negotiate

I COULD NOT find my car. My feet were sore. I was panicking. It was as crowded as Grafton Street at 5pm on Christmas Eve. I headed towards the portaloos that shimmered tantalisingly in the middle distance, because I remembered there were loos near where I parked.

But as I neared, I realised that these were not my loos. I was close to tears.

The place was huge... what if I had to wait till everyone else had gone home and my car was the only one left?

What seemed like days earlier, but was only hours, I had watched President Michael D Higgins, who was wearing a fetching, tweedy-green suit, as he opened the National Ploughing Championships. He said ‘The Ploughing’ was a phenomenon. “Suffice to say,” he said “your education is incomplete until you’ve been here”.

That’s what had tempted me out of my comfort zone, in suburbia, for a day with my country cousins in the depths of Co Laois. Michael D knows of what he speaks. The ‘Ploughing’ is like nothing I have ever experienced.

The scale is mind-blowing. Like a rustic, temporary Dubai, Plough Town (it’s way bigger than a village) springs forth every autumn from rural fields.

This year, the venue was Ratheniska near Stradbally, on the farmland of the Carter family and their adjoining landowners. Overhead, hovering like globular, celestial guardians, floated mini blimps, presumably as aerial navigation aids.

Navigation was a huge issue throughout the day for this directionless scribe. Before I arrived at the site, I had studied the map to get some bearings. But I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. During the day, I attempted, again, to understand the unique grid system.

It must be something only farmers understand. Suffice to say, I can negotiate the grid that is New York City easier than I could the Ploughing Championships.

The event had the air of an old-fashioned funfair-cum-village fete, albeit on a gigantic scale. There were ‘test your strength’ and welly-throwing competitions. There was an Irish Countrywomen’s tent full of baking, knitted goods and, when I visited, a flower-arranging demo. And, of course, there were the political-party tents, full of what I assume are the ‘grass roots’ of each organisation, topped with a layer of local politicians.

A stroll through the tent that showcased artisan produce was an assault on the senses, with the scent of essential oil candles followed by the mouth-watering aroma of handcrafted sausages. Our artisans make lots of ice cream and chutneys, too.

I met monks and nuns in full regalia, vicars and rectors. The Catholic diocese of Kildare and Leighlin had an impressive tent that floated peacefully, amid the commerce of modern agriculture, like an oasis in the desert. I was tempted to go in for a rest at one stage, but my belief in karma prevented me from pretending I was praying.

There were children everywhere — city kids should know that their country cousins seem to get special dispensation from school to attend ‘the Ploughing’.

I was stopped by a mother, who asked me if she might borrow my pen.

As I handed it over, she wrote a mobile number on her toddler child, who was sitting in the buggy. I wondered about the ethics of a mother using her child’s arm for this purpose, when she had two arms of her own.

She sensed my unease. “In case he wanders,” she said. One can learn things at ‘the Ploughing’.

Gangs of older teenagers roam about in highly charged groups of excitement. There was a queue of them around the Road Safety Authority Stand, which allowed people to sit in a car as it was rolled through 360 degrees. I wondered if the safety message was lost on them. “Was that scary or just great craic?” I asked the four girls who had just exited the ‘ride’. “That was scary,” they answered in unison. Mission accomplished, it seems.

I did find my car... eventually. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I didn’t make the pilgrimage to the outer reaches of the event, to see a field actually being ploughed. I guess I just might have to go back again, next year. I definitely need to work on my fitness beforehand, though. And make a note of where I park the car.


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