The ploughing: ‘Have you ever seen a flower pot?’

An entertainingly eclectic experience – with biblical rain, mud and plenty of animals

Almost 300,000 people will travel to Screggan in Co. Offaly over the three days of the 2017 National Ploughing Championships.

 

Beneath the branded blimps at the 86th Ploughing Championships, 87,000 people are soaked by the rain.

People wander around in ponchos and cowboy hats holding sodden and disintegrating paper maps. A few people sell umbrellas but disappear when officials round the corner. Some lunatics line-dance in the rain.

A jeep from the Irish coastguard goes by. “A sign of things to come,” says a woman ominously and everyone laughs.

Wet people can still have fun. “Oh look!” says a gleeful little girl named Aisling Keighery, before rushing to where John Hayes is carving a totem-pole-like structure with a chainsaw. “It’s one of those ancient standing things!”

Bart Gozdur, dressed like a Viking, explains that this is, “the biggest wooden sculpture in Europe [and] tells the story of the Vikings coming to Waterford.”

The Ploughing Competition is an entertainingly eclectic experience. As well as the ploughing, there are tents representing corporations, NGOs, churches, craftspeople, small businesses and community groups. PA systems blare country n’Irish music or ecstatic product demonstrations as wayward politicians and journalists try to reconnect with the Irish heartland.

I wander into some sort of sheep hairdressers, where young men in singlets are styling sheep as men in white coats look on. “Very tasty work!” says an announcer. I’m totally lost, so a 29-year-old sheep farmer called John Hynes explains how sheep styling works (he calls it “shearing”).

Does he do this himself? He laughs. “There’s a man does it for me.”

I find some older farmers gazing at vintage machinery. “That’s a pulper,” says DJ Courtney from West Cork, pointing at a sort of funnelled metal contraption. “[Operating] that was my job when I came in from school.”

Courtney has only missed one ploughing competition since 1960. He competed back in the day, and one of his adversaries, John Tracey, still competes today. “But I never relapsed.”

Back to basics

By mid-afternoon many areas have been flooded and some are unpassable. I watch a teenager knock his brother into the mud. “Daddy’s going to kill you,” gloats the one who’s still standing, clearly a master of both physical and psychological torture.

I watch with Donegal-based farmer Joe Harley as the fire brigade pump water from outside the ironically-named Hurricane Cattle Care. Harley says: “I thought this didn’t happen on the good land.”

John Hanley and Pauline Lavin from Roscommon at the National Ploughing Championships. Photograph: Tom Honan
John Hanley and Pauline Lavin from Roscommon at the National Ploughing Championships. Photograph: Tom Honan

Back at the press tent I ask assistant MD Anna Marie McHugh if any of the competitions needed to be halted. She looks at me like I’m mad. “Nothing would stop ploughing other than snow.”

Indeed, Tom Donnelly has rain dripping down his leather cowboy hat. He’s ploughing for Wicklow even though he comes from Wexford. A controversial situation, he admits, particularly given that he’s competing against his brother. “[If I win] he might not come back with me,” he says.

He starts explaining what makes good ploughing with reference to “weed clearance” and “a good seed bed”. He sees that I’m not following and finds that he has to go back to basics. “Have you ever seen a flower pot?” he says and starts again.

Nowadays, he says, farmers can just programme the new machinery to plough the land.

Is that a sad thing? He laughs. “Well, if I had a few thousand acres it wouldn’t be a sad thing.”

The pig zoo

Nearby, Joe Murphy and his 72-year-old uncle Peter Healy look on. “I’d be curious what some of those tractors cost,” says Healy. “Big farmers I’d say.”

What’s his farm like? “Ah it’s just a cabbage garden,” says Healy.

“It’s the last of the Land Commission farms,” explains Murphy, who goes on to lament contemporary farming practices. “I just want a few chickens and a few ducks and I’ll be happy.”

“But you have to be able to make it pay,” says Healy.

The rain is intermittently biblical. At one point, I take refuge in what I can only describe as “a pig zoo” run by the Irish Pig Society. There are big pigs, small pigs, spotty pigs, furry pigs, baby pigs and a pig I’m just going to call “Big Balls” (sorry, I don’t know the breed names). People “ooh” and “ah”. Some say, “Ah would ya look at the furry piggies!” and others say, “There’s a good meat-to-fat ratio on that sow.”

Nancy O’Sullivan from Bandon, Co Cork and Rosemary Gash from Innishannon Co Cork at The National Ploughing Championships, Co Offaly. Photograph: Tom Honan
Nancy O’Sullivan from Bandon, Co Cork and Rosemary Gash from Innishannon Co Cork at The National Ploughing Championships, Co Offaly. Photograph: Tom Honan

The human master of these rare pigs is Dermot Allen, who I later see shrieking encouragement as two girls herd spotted pigs over a pig-themed assault course. “Yez are doing mighty!”

People call Allen “the Piggy Man”. He has a pig named Marty who recently “sh*t all over” Marty Morrissey’s radio studio. Another of his pigs raced PJ Gallagher as part of a radio stunt. And the massive pig in his “guess the weight of the pig” competition was formerly the tiny pig from the Vodafone ads. “But she’s so big!” I say.

“They grow,” Allen explains and I write this down in my wet notebook (“Pigs grow”).

“She’s a bit of a diva now,” he adds. “Her name is Peggy Sue. ”

“Piggy Sue?”

He laughs. “A bit obvious, I think.”

Allen’s aren’t the only animals with notions. The 70-year-old Tom Clair proudly displays identical quadruplet calves. These unique beasts are apparently causing quite a stir. “Aren’t their coats fierce even,” says one awestruck bystander. “They are very docile,” says Clair, before adding improbably. “You could lead them upstairs to bed if you wanted.”

People ask him questions and he answers each politely.

Outside, 87,000 people and a lot of animals brave the mud and rain.

Does Clair like the attention? “Ah it’s nice, but I’d just as soon be out on the bog.”