How friendship keeps the championship ploughing on

Dancing in the mud and high fives at the entrance are part of last-day high spirits

Edward Allen and Les Hanbridge from Wicklow, compete in the Special Horse Class on the last day of the National Ploughing Championships in Screggan, Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Alan Betson

Edward Allen and Les Hanbridge from Wicklow, compete in the Special Horse Class on the last day of the National Ploughing Championships in Screggan, Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

As you drive into Screggan for the 85th National Ploughing Championships, the promotional blimps in the blue sky look like something from a science fiction film.

The ground, however, is a little more like a Vietnam war film. There is mud everywhere.

“Runners? An interesting choice,” says Dan Curry, a welly-wearing Wicklow sheep farmer, as he examines my mud-caked feet.

Then he spies a mud-splattered neighbour.

“How’d you travel in?” Curry asks her. “I swam,” she says.

“I danced,” says Curry and he does a little jig in the mud.

We are at the final day of the Ploughing Championships in Screggan, Co Offaly, and everyone is in high spirits.

It’s the biggest championship yet, with a few hundred thousand visitors and 1,700 exhibitors.

Hector Hugo Romero, from Mexico, is checking tickets but he has another requirement for entry.

“You must high five to pass,” he says and children enthusiastically slap his hand. “I love this,” he says, “all the families, all the kids.”

Cyborg cows

The championship began in 1931, when JJ Bergin of Athy challenged Denis Allen of Gorey to a plough-off.

Nowadays, the event also hosts craft installations, new-fangled gadgets, vintage machinery, supermarkets, health promotions, political parties, fun fairs, an Irish Water tent, straw-bail sculptures, milking machines that make cows look like cyborgs from the future, environmentalists, lobby groups and a whole tent dedicated to disturbingly dungareed man-toddler Richie Kavanagh. “My uncle’s got a broken ass,” he sings.

Next door six tractors are playing a football match with a giant ball. This part of the site is designed to make you feel like you’re going mad.

You can also go back in time if you want. Glen Hunter is representing Co Sligo in the loy competition.

The loy is a backbreaking spade used since medieval times in areas the plough couldn’t reach.

Hunter has an oyster farm and a dairy farm so doesn’t need the loy for his day-to-day work, but he uses it in his garden where he grows potatoes.

He loves it.

“It’s a sort of sickness,” he says, leaning contemplatively against his loy.

Nearby a number of men are manoeuvring horse-drawn ploughs and I introduce myself.

“Hello, I write for The Irish Times . . . ” I begin.

“I’m fecking delighted for you,” says Brendan Lydon.

He phased out his tractor in order to use two cob-shire cross horses, Jack and Jill, on his 30-acre farm in Moycullen.

Why? “I’m stone mad,” he says, but then he elaborates – it’s for partly environmental and lifestyle reasons and he likes the physicality of it.

How is farming these days?

“If you’re managing to feed your family you’re doing well, but that’s all I’m trying to achieve.”

The parlous financial position of farmers is a recurring theme. Michelle Lyons at the Money Advice and Budgeting Service’s stand tells me that a significant number of people have “discretely taken a leaflet.

There is a stigma about debt, people don’t want their neighbours to know.”

Nearby, artist Deirdre Dunne has assembled an art gallery in an old horse-trailer.

“Art is for everybody,” she says.

One man came in because he liked horse trailers, she says, “he didn’t even look at my paintings”.

Another gazed for a while at a painting of a man and a horse-drawn plough, then said “that grass is too long for ploughing”.

Outside, people are milling around.

There are lots of blue cowboy hats and multicoloured walking sticks.

Salesmen declaim. One of them enthusiastically demonstrates a pesticide sprayer.

“There he is again with the sprayer,” says a passing man.

“He has a great passion for the sprayer,” his friend agrees.

Olympic rowers

Jennifer McGrath, from Waterford, who I meet when she and her friends stop to study a map, thinks the event has got too big.

“You can hardly find your way around,” she says.

Her friend, Libby Whooley, from Naas, says she still likes seeing how her cattle compare to those on display.

“Mine look pretty good,” she says proudly. “Though there’s a bull over there that was very impressive.”

They all like the bull. His name is Kye Rodge 553. Which is, I think you’ll agree, an excellent name.

At the Electric Ireland tent, Olympic medallists the O’Donovan brothers are having photos taken with fans.

Transition-year students from west Cork are checking if their photos look okay on their phones.

“We’re just here to miss school,” says Joe Arundel McSweeney.

He’s joking. They’ve been busy. They’ve been learning about farming in Africa and how to set up a business and also researching a project for the Young Scientist Exhibition.

“It’s about how cow excrement affects our road surfaces,” he says.

He sighs. “It involves a lot of testing cow poo.”

‘Reunion’

Watching the junior ploughing competition, I meet father and son Tom and Anthony Greaney who have a dry stock farm in Connemara.

“Some of these tractors wouldn’t even be able to drive on our land,” says Tom.

Why? “Do you know Connemara?” he says and laughs.

They’ve come here to relax. There’s been a bit of a squeeze on prices recently, says Anthony, “and there’s a lot of anxiety about Brexit as well”.

Why do they come every year?

“You meet friends, you see new developments and you always go home having learned something,” says Anthony.

“I suppose you could say it’s the Mecca for Irish farmers.”

Nearby, John J Donnellan, a National Ploughing Association director and judge, explains how to adjudicate good ploughing.

He discusses “neatness” and “straightness” and then we talk about how important the championship is as a hub for farmers who are often more solitary now than in the past.

“It’s a reunion,” he says.

“Half of them come here to meet up with one another. It’s nice to get back to your roots.”