Ploughing championships 1996: ‘Drawn to the plough’

From the archives: On the last day of the 1996 national championships, Eileen Battersby looks ahead to the world competition and talks to NPA director Anna May McHugh

From the Archive: Reports, previews and photographs from 1930’s National Ploughing Championship reports. Photograph: The Irish Times

From the Archive: Reports, previews and photographs from 1930’s National Ploughing Championship reports. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

Eileen Battersby - Thursday, October 3rd, 1996

APPROACHING the neoclassical style arch entrance to Oak park Research Centre outside Carlow town it is easy to imagine life in another era. The expected long driveway leading to a great house is another reminder of the now almost lost way of life that played so large a role in Irish social history. But there is no sense of time warp created. The austere elegance of the entrance dating from 1840 quickly opens onto a busy modern scene. It is a bit like entering a military installation. Security is strict, the officer is friendly and businesslike enough even to cast a quick glance into the car.

Sheets of metal road are stacked, waiting to be laid. Many shed and strands have been erected, but many more will be introduced to the area before preparations are completed. The rain remains sporadic. Some teenagers wander about, wondering if there might be some temporary work available. “Come back next week” they are told, “there’s bound to be something you can do.”

“Next week” was still a week away. The Cairn of Peace, incorporating stones from each of the 28 participating countries, is still shrouded in a canvas wrap which is being lifted by the wind. Tractors, vans and jeeps are causing a minor traffic jam but there is no trace of petulance. The atmosphere is one of patience and deliberation. Teams of workmen are busy erecting some of the stands and various marquee suppliers have arrived. A restaurant is already completed. Phone boxes have been installed. Many flags and banners are already being hoisted by the wind.

The 43rd World Ploughing Contest has come to Oak Park. It is the fourth time the championships have been held in Ireland, and two days of international competition involving teams from 28 countries, including the Netherlands, Austria, New Zealand and Kenya, begin tomorrow with Wexford man, Martin Kehoe, winner in 1994 and 1995 looking for his third victory. Fifty six ploughmen are competing for one trophy, the Golden Plough. No cash accompanies the prize. But there’s gold, silver, and, bronze medals for the top three finishers - the Olympics of ploughing.

Kehoe, a farmer and agricultural contractor, has won nine national titles - eight of them successively. His toughest threat could come from Northern Ireland in the form of Derryman Des Wright who has also twice won the world title. Joining Kehoe on the Irish team is Jackie O’Driscoll from Cork who is representing Ireland for the fourth time.

Meanwhile, today sees the completion of the 65th National Championships which began yesterday, involving 357 competitors from the 32 counties. The winner of the National Championships conventional ploughing takes the Esso Supreme Trophy, two polished steel plough shares mounted on bog oak. It is the sixth time Co Carlow has hosted the national championships. Running in conjunction with the competition is probably the largest agricultural show in Europe. Some local schools have been closed this week to enable the children to see expert practitioners of man’s oldest art in action. Later this afternoon, the President, Mrs Robinson, unveils the Cairn of Peace. Made by stonemason Declan Nolan, it is decorated with a Celtic motif and with images of figures linking hands.

Flashback again to last week, with the preparations entering the final stages. Sunshine and rain vie for dominance. “The ploughmen want rain the exhibitors are praying for sunshine,” says Anna May McHugh, managing director of the National Ploughing Association and the Irish representative on the World Ploughing Board. Everyone defers to her, everywhere she turns, there are men waiting to ask her questions. Everyone knows her while she, on nodding to a short, sturdy looking older man, remarks “That’s Wilf de Lint, he’s Dutch. He was the World Champion in 1955. I think he’s here as a coach.”

For a woman who has a larger than life reputation, the formidable Anna May McHugh is a charming, gentle character wit, an open face, a child’s candour and wonderful physical presence. What sport did she play? Camogie? “How did you know that?” she asks, pleased by the question. Even in the incongruous high heeled shoes, she is wearing “only for the photograph”, she has an athlete’s walk. “I played camogie for Laois, I have five interprovincial medals.” They were all winning Laois teams, she played centre field. “I loved the game, I played for ages. You could say I played it until it gave me up.” Then she adds, “I tried golf, but I didn’t have the patience for it.”

At 62 she is a sturdy, active figure, dynamic without being forceful; involved, and seems more like an enthusiastic team captain urging her side on, than a boss issuing orders.

Five years after J.J. (John James) Bergin (1880-1958) of Athy, Co Kildare, had founded the National Ploughing Association, Anna May Brennan was born in Clonpierce, Ballylinan, Co Laois in 1934. Bergin had masterminded the first National Ploughing Championships in 1931. At the age of 17 in 1952 on finishing a commercial course at her old school, Anna May began working for the association as a secretary. Within three years, she had been appointed secretary of the association and became managing director in 1973. “I was the fifth child of eight. My father was involved in mixed farming. We had cattle and corn. We were happy children. The memories of the eight of us with our parents are very happy ones. It was a time when people didn’t expect much. Things weren’t important. What you had you shared and that was it. I think life and people have become a lot harder.”

She married John McHugh, a local farmer in 1966. They farm in Ballylinan, about three miles from where Anna May grew up. “We had known each other for a while. We got married when I was 32. I thought to myself I’d better get a move on.” She and her husband have two grown children.

Anna May is a natural organiser. “I wouldn’t say I was ever a lover of school, but even as a young girl I knew I liked organising.” She is very good at it, probably because she gets personally involved in the work. Her daughter, Anna Marie, a former youth worker with a marketing background, has inherited her mother’s flair and is the co ordinator of the World Ploughing Contest. “My mother works all the time, she has a great love of farming and is very involved in the community. She is very selfless. Her idea of a holiday is, attending the World Ploughing Contest. The McHughs’ son, D.J. (Dominic James) works on the family farm with his father. Again, it is mixed farming, dry stock and tillage - mainly wheat and barley with some turnips.

While the contest is a huge organisational undertaking, including three miles of temporary metal roads, facilities must be provided for more than 150,000 visitors, she seems excited by it. “You have to feed them (the visitors). They need toilets, telephones.”

Speaking about the dramatic changes in farming in her own lifetime, she says, “I love farming, it’s the only life I’ve known. I wouldn’t have rathered any other. It’s a wonderful sight seeing a field being ploughed. A good ploughman is an artist. Well aware that Ireland though still agriculturally based, has become increasingly urbanised and that for a huge percentage of the population farming means relatively little, she believes events such as the championships possess a value often overlooked.

“Ireland has changed even young people from the country seem to have accepted that their futures are in the cities and the factories and they can walk away without taking a second look. They don’t expect anything from the land and so they don’t feel all that close to it. I think it’s a pity. Of course it’s sad. It is a way of life - that has been totally changed, in many ways, lost.”

Situated in a triangle in which counties Carlow, Kildare and Laois meet, Oak Park is an impressive place. Now owned by Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority for Ireland, Oak Park is, the national centre for tillage crops research, including the development of new crops and the exploration of non food uses for crops. About 100 people work at the centre.

UNTIL 1954 it had been the home for several generations of the Bruen family who had lived there from 1775. Even the spartanlooking mansion has assumed a businesslike demeanour. Its grandeur has become submerged in the practicality of the operation it now houses, although the interior plasterwork is still impressive. Outside, the woodlands are dominated by oak and beech trees. Flat fields create an impression of space. Co Carlow is a flat, flat heartland and is traditionally a tillage crops centre, achieving high yields of sugar beet, wheat and barley.

In a nearby field, three men are working with a tractor, practising for the competition. The photographer wants a picture. But the ploughman sitting in the tractor doesn’t understand. He is a member of the Italian team and looks as if he would be more at home as part of the pit stop team at a grand prix. The girl sitting in the car is their interpreter. They come from Milan, in industrial northern Italy. “You are right,” the girl says, “there is little farming where we come from. So it is important to be at an event like this.” A lone tractor appears on a nearby lane. It is one of the English competitors, heading off for a practice session.

As we drive around Oak Park’s 300 acres, much of which will be involved in the competitions, either as ploughing areas or parking lots, Anna May speaks about the historical and educational value of the events. “Some of the younger children coming will never have seen horse ploughing, something people like me would just take for granted. My background is in farming, I saw horse ploughing from my early years. The tractors came in, I think, about 1948. Ploughing is a great craft but there is an added side to it during a competition. When you see how the men who are driving their horses can control them with the extra pressure of having such large numbers of people too&ing on. Tractor ploughing made its debut at the National Ploughing Championships of 1949.

Horse ploughing is of course far slower than the mechanised version. But then the tractors can not aspire to the grace, beauty and quiet dignity of horse ploughing. This year’s ploughing features the first international horse class with competitors coming from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic. Whether using horses or tractors, the objective is the same to prepare an ideal seed bed for the following crop. Traditionally soil was ploughed in the autumn, late winter and very early spring in order to sustain it against the effects of frost and rain.

Ploughing also served to bury the previous year’s waste or stubble and to combat weeds. Increasingly sophisticated machinery, chemicals, advanced farming techniques and early ripening seeds have revised many farming practices. There is a harvest in August and most cereals are sowed in September and October. Regardless of scientific improvements, the fundamental objectives of ploughing have not changed and the original skills are still incorporated in the rules of competitive ploughing. The judges are looking for evidence of an intimate working knowledge of the machines, a full understanding of soil conditions, precision and timing. The ploughman is watched while at work and then his finished work is judged. The judging is as deliberate as the ploughing itself.

Tractor ploughing was seen to mark a decline in traditional ploughing standards, so the introduction of ploughing competitions not only added the competitive element but served to improve and sustain ploughing. So behind the glamour of these contests lies an extremely important, practical dimension.

Millions of pounds worth of agricultural machinery is on display. On the road down to Carlow, two trucks hauling bright green ploughs were travelling faster than one might have thought possible. Bright greens, reds, yellows and blues, all brand new examples of tractors, tillage equipment, combine harvesters, silage harvesters, ploughs, seeders, beet harvesters - the various manufacturers have the perfect showcase for their goods. Hard to think that within a year, six months even, of becoming working vehicals, they will be muddy, their colours faded, all the gloss gone for good.

ALONGSIDE the new equipment is an exhibition of more than 100 vintage pieces. The Irish Vintage Engine and Tractor Association is celebrating a century of Irish farming history. Working demonstrations of harvesting, threshing, blacksmithing, as well as oil engines/water pumps and other items are continuing through the championships. Anna May consistently stresses the educational value of the championships and the emphasis seems to be on balancing the old with the new.

Farming has changed. From an ancient tradition, it has become a major industry. Even small scale farming is now a business. “It is a business,” she says. “You have to keep records, do your accounts, watch your progress. You need to be a step ahead and know what things are going to be three months in advance. It has made farming that bit more difficult for the older farmers. While the younger farmers are learning the scientific aspects, they don’t have that sense of tradition.” It is not offered as a lament. Anna May is a practical woman, she makes no secret of her love of firming, yet nor does she romanticise it.

Two women in a shop in Castledermot are discussing the championships. The younger woman has decided her three boys are going - “I’m sick of the sight of them watching the television. Their uncle is a firmer but they think of farms as some kind of foreign country.” Both women agree that Carlow “isn’t going to know itself for the week”.

As for Anna May McHugh, her daughter reckons, “the morning it’s all over, my mother will be up at 7 a.m., busy working on something else. There’s no stopping her.”