How do you explain the enigma that is ‘the Ploughing’?

The success of the event lies in the fact it’s about a lot more than ploughing

 A section of the large crowd this week at the ploughing championships at Ratheniska, Co Laois. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

A section of the large crowd this week at the ploughing championships at Ratheniska, Co Laois. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

The papal nuncio is a fan. Russell Crowe knows all about it. National Geographic lists it as one of Ireland’s top 10 must-see events. In a country where a very small minority actually plough, how has the National Ploughing Championships grown into one of Europe’s biggest outdoor events?

The answer lies in the fact that it’s about a lot more than ploughing. President Michael D Higgins summed it up well this week when he called it “the most beloved rendezvous in the rural calendar”.

It is a place where you can see the finest pedigree animals, watch the latest innovations in agriculture and stock up on supplies. Not to mention eat. With 1,400 exhibitors, it is the place to go if you have money to spend. Some €36 million was spent at last year’s championships and this year’s figure will undoubtedly be higher.

Some people have used them as an opportunity to kit out their new homes, buying everything from beds to stoves to sets of pans. And of course there’s the “ploughing discount” to encourage people to place orders.

The large supermarket chains have clearly cottoned on to the ploughing effect and they have used the event to capture the hearts and wallets of consumers. The Aldi marquee stood out from other exhibits with its living wall of herbs and flowers and abundant garden sprouting radishes and spring onions. Multinationals like Aldi and Tesco would not spend so much effort on their presence at the Ploughing if it was not reaping rewards at the till.

Seeing the event through the eyes of an outsider is instructive. Papal nuncio Charles Brown was full of superlatives for the event when he made his first trip to Ratheniska on Wednesday. The New Yorker could not believe that so many people made the annual pilgrimage to the ploughing. He said it encapsulated what he loved about Ireland. “This is what makes Ireland great, the rural culture, the farming culture. It’s a place where I feel very much at home.”

The brains behind the operation, Anna May McHugh, believes its attraction lies in the variety it offers. “There’s everything from machinery to forestry to the cookery to vintage traditions,” she says. “The ploughing enthusiasts just come for ploughing and there have been huge numbers out at the plots.

“The horse ploughing is a major attraction too. I think all those things make it attractive for rural and urban people.”

Best of all for children in the surrounding counties, it’s a day off school – if your parents are so inclined. One ploughing enthusiast said there were only two children in his child’s class on Wednesday as families decamped en masse to Co Laois.

Several events conspired to make this year the most successful to date. The National Ploughing Association returned to a tried and tested site that is surrounded by a network of roads. The fine weather and a good harvest also encouraged people to make the trip. The decision to double the walkways around the exhibits made it more comfortable to move around and added to the relaxed atmosphere.

There will be years when the rain keeps the crowds away or when a choice of site leads to traffic gridlock but today, Anna May McHugh and her footsoldiers can rest assured that they still run Ireland’s most successful festival, by a country mile.

And the advice for anyone trying to emulate them? Keep calm and carry on ploughing.

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