Wicklow’s 85-year-old plough master embodies tradition

Horse ploughing master began competing in national championships in 1950s

Edward Dowse (85) from Wicklow  competing in the Special Horse Class on the third and final day of the National Ploughing Championships in Offaly. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Edward Dowse (85) from Wicklow competing in the Special Horse Class on the third and final day of the National Ploughing Championships in Offaly. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

For Edward Dowse, competing in the National Ploughing Championships at the age of 85 is something of an act of thanksgiving.

It is, in no small part, to give thanks for the good health that allows him to represent Wicklow in a long-running competition when so many of his contemporaries have passed away.

He takes out a photograph taken in 1953. It shows him competing in the national championships in February of that year in Mullingar. He became the first youngster to win the under-21 category twice, at a time when horse rather than tractor ploughing was the most competitive category.

He competed again in 1954 and then gave up horse ploughing for decades. He won two national championships with a tractor in the 1960s.

For most of his life he farmed 160 acres in Kilcavan outside Carnew in Co Wicklow, some of it in tillage, the rest in cattle and sheep.

He is now a retired farmer. It has been a good life, he acknowledges. “One of the things I liked about it was this: I was getting up every day to do something that I liked to do rather than something that I had to do. I wanted to do it.”

The horse ploughing takes place within earshot of the fairground at the championships, its spinning amusements spitting out a kaleidoscope of colour and cacophony of noise in contrast with ploughers making steady and silent progress up and down the furrows.

Dowse competes with a plough his family bought in the late 1940s for £15 and two borrowed horses, Fred (6), an Irish Draught, and Roxy (12) a Clydesdale cross.

Perfectly straight

He pronounces himself well pleased with his first row. It appears to the untutored eye perfectly straight, the first requirement for any serious contender. Uniformity is another.

“We’ve the first two sods up now and we have the middle brushed at each side and a nice mark on it. We’re going to put up the second sod to match the third sod that you haven’t seen yet,” he explains.

Horse ploughing demands patience, involving as it does short bursts of intense activity followed by long periods of adjustment for horse and plough. Keeping the handles straight also involves physical strength and nerve which would task a man half his age.

“I was never in a hospital in my life except visiting,” he says proudly. “I thank God every day that in my 86th year I am able to compete today. This is in memory of all the men who helped me.”

These men include his twin brother Henry who died four years ago.

Sometimes, with the throngs of vendors and growing commercialisation, it feels as if the National Ploughing Championships is about everything expect what it is supposed to be about, which is the ploughing. Men like Edward keep the tradition alive.