Leo Varadkar took his first bold step onto the pristine furrow — time stopped, breaths were held, and ploughing matriarch Anna May McHugh put her hands to her face in shock.
The Taoiseach had put his foot in it — literally.
You can take the man out of leafy Castleknock, stick some new black wellies on him, and a pair of beige chinos to top off the country gentleman look, but you clearly can’t teach a city boy the ways of rural Ireland.
A day down at the National Ploughing Championships in Screggan, Co Offaly, proved to be another learning experience for the Taoiseach, who has been working hard at getting up to speed on his new brief over the summer.
Irish people have a great knack of ‘just knowing’ — key information like which pub will serve a sneaky after-hours pint, or the fact that a dock leaf cures nettle stings — so maybe it was a case that the gaggle of handlers and press advisers who accompanied the Taoiseach thought Leo would ‘just know’.
Rule number one of ploughing: Do not go anywhere near the neatly turned and perfectly straight ridges of ground that have just been dug. Leo’s first act was to plough straight through the furrows.
Despite the faux pas, ploughman David Mulcahy from east Cork still indulged the urban Taoiseach and gave him a brief lesson on how to turn the sod.
And the Taoiseach’s first naive blunder had thankfully and ironically made things slightly better for Mulcahy, who was competing in the senior conventional plough class.
“It actually might improve it,” he said. “There was a mistake inside so I kind of needed that, but say nothing now.”
The educational experience continued as Varadkar waded through the mud.
Having gained a deep knowledge of the more modern form, Leo asked David King from Ardee, Co Louth, about the task of ploughing with his horses Jack and Jill.
King explained that the horses have been in training for many weeks in preparation for the competition.
“Just like a man, if you have him lounging around, put a bit of hard work to him and he could get sour, so the horse is the same.”
Perhaps a coded message for the Taoiseach.
In years gone by, Leo’s predecessor, Enda Kenny, would have pressed the flesh of every man, woman, and baby who turned up at the ploughing.
The Mayo TD always appeared with a glint of glee in his eye as he defied his minders and stayed at least two hours more than had been allocated to mosey about every tent and stall, chat to farmers and high-five teenagers.
It was a more awkward, if not terrifying, affair for city slicker Leo as he was whisked around the muddy tracks.
While Enda clearly had the gift of the gab, especially when among his own people, Leo is a man of few words and even less small talk.
But his language skills were put to the test when he was pounced on by Sean Ó Coistealbha who was keen to test the Taoiseach’s knowledge of Irish.
“Táim ar bís a bheith anseo ag an National Ploughing Championships,” a nervous-looking Taoiseach said as he tightly wrung his hands.
“Tá an ghrian ag taitneamh.”
With that he was given an invitation to Connemara by Ó Coistealbha, who then questioned him in strongly accented Galway Gaeilge about his time in the Gaeltacht as a teenager.
“Maith thú,” he concluded, approving of the stab the Taoiseach had made at conversing in the native tongue.
Varadkar — who has faced grief in recent weeks for setting up a strategic spin unit (or strategic communications unit) — then went on a selfie tour around the massive site.
It was photo op after photo op as Leo posed on a tractor, smiled with a pair of new socks, and even threw caution to the wind with a shovel of sand, which he happily aimed at the media.
With so many snaps, the Taoiseach had no time for chat — luckily he had a clatter of rural TDs, including Michael Ring, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, and even Independent Alliance TD Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran to talk to the country folk.
But, while shy of engaging in chit-chat, perhaps Leo knows the time for needless prattle is over and he will now begin ploughing into action.
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