Politics might fail us, the amazing people of Ireland never do

And all because a few good men and women wanted to do the impossible for a worthy cause, writes Fergus Finlay.

Politics might fail us, the amazing people of Ireland never do

So, how long does it take to harvest 100 acres of grass? A week, maybe, or two — depending on the weather, and the quality of your equipment.

Unless, that is, you’re a bunch of mad farmers from Meath. In that case you decide that it’s possible to do it in 10 minutes or less, and create a new world record.

Yes, you heard me. Ten minutes. 106 grass foragers, accompanied side by side by 106 tractors and trailers, majestically moving through a 100-acre field, all of them in lock step, swooping up the cut grass as they went and spitting it into the trailers.

More than 20,000 people gathered to watch it happen, last Saturday afternoon.

We are all transfixed by the sight of this giant centipede of equipment, from all over Ireland, as it crested the hill above us and left barely a blade of grass behind.

I told the farmers back in 2009 they were mad when they first formed their organisation, called Combines For Charity. Their idea was a simple one then (they think of everything in hundreds).

They were going to get 100 combine harvesters working together in 100 acres, to enter the Guinness Book of Records and raise €100,000 for charity.

I didn’t see at the time how they could possibly persuade farmers and contractors to bring these huge machines the length and breadth of the country to squeeze into one field.

But I was the crazy one, because I didn’t have faith in them. In the end, they had 184 combines working simultaneously, and raised €300,000 for their chosen charities.

There’s a proud photograph of that extraordinary scene, taken from the air, on the wall of a Barnardos project that works with children whose lives have been affected by disadvantage.

The picture may not mean a lot to the children, but it means the world to the rest of us. Their world record changes lives every day.

That record was taken from them by a group of Canadian farmers in 2010 — according to the Irish lads, the Canadians had a bigger field. Not to be outdone, Ireland took the record back a year later with a monstrous 208 combines, working under leaden skies in a huge and pretty soggy field in Duleek.

Combines for Charity is the brainchild of Philip Brady and his father Tony, together with a gang of their friends.

All they want to do is put time and effort into raising money to make decent things happen.

The difference is that they believe in doing it the hard way. They have now set out to do the impossible, not once but three times, and along the way they have raised more than half a million euro, and put it where it makes a real difference.

Along the way they have enabled dozens, if not hundreds of other people to get involved. Last Saturday, and for weeks beforehand, the farm was being prepared.

Eleanor and Paddy O’Sullivan and the rest of their family, who donated the land, spent several days welcoming people from all over Ireland.

Stewards, car parking, marquees, the inevitable chemical toilets, and of course lashings of tea and sausages – the logistics and planning for the thousands of people who turned up on the day was astonishing.

They even managed, somehow, to ensure that there wasn’t a drop of rain for the three days running up to the event.

And all because a few good men and women wanted to do the impossible for a worthy cause.

But that was by no means all that happened last Saturday. At 4.15am, in the dead of night really, tens of thousands of Irish people gathered together to go for a walk.

They’d have been there no matter what the conditions, because they were there, in their yellow t-shirts, to support Pieta House and its Darkness into Light walk.

I know that many had a personal reason to be there. There are very few families in Ireland that haven’t been touched by suicide, and very few of us that wouldn’t want to do whatever we could to alleviate the pain and suffering it causes.

Few have done more than Joan Freeman, the founder of Pieta House. She has forced us to think about mental health and to talk about it, and she has helped to break down taboos in ways that have saved lives.

Everyone who walked through the stillness of the night, into Saturday morning, was joining in a debate that she had done a huge amount to start and sustain.

But each in his or her own way was taking their own position on one of the big issues of our time. (I’m not forgetting the thousands who marched on Sunday to make the simple point that Ireland’s national maternity hospital must belong, in every sense of the word, to the people of Ireland.)

Thousands of people, making huge efforts, aiming really big and trying to make a difference. If you read this column regularly, you know that I can get into despair about the state of things — about unaccountable bureaucracy, or rotten decision-making, or a complete lack of accountability or even intelligence about the way we often do things around here.

You know how often I’ve written about these things, and the failure of politics they represent.

Well, in future, if I’m feeling despair, I’m going to kick myself in the behind and try to think the way Philip Brady thinks.

Politics might fail people. People like Philip or his father never fail anyone.

Ireland is full of people like Philip Brady. Quiet, determined, able, and willing to put whatever skills and talents they have to work. It’s how we get by — very often, it’s how we transcend.

You hear commentators from time to time, especially foreign commentators, talking about how Ireland came back from the brink. What was the miracle, they ask, that enabled us to recover so fast from the biggest crash in our history?

Well, you look at the mad farmers in Co Meath. When they had their crazy idea the first time around, the bubble had just burst in Ireland. When they had to get their record back, our country was in the doldrums.

But this was something that had to be done, and they quite simply didn’t’ know how to take no for an answer.

I suspect a lot of you, as you walked through the night for Pieta House last Saturday, felt a quiet pride in your own achievement, and a huge surge of solidarity with others.

I know that, as I stood in that field of grass on Saturday afternoon in Kiltale, watching the incredible achievement of ordinary men and women, I felt really proud of them all.

But actually, and not for the first time, proud to be Irish. Tens of thousands of Irish people gave up their day last Saturday to do something good, to make a difference, and to show solidarity.

How could you not be proud to be part of that?

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