Ratheniska gears up for National Ploughing Championships

Charlie Flanagan launches ‘festival of rural Ireland’ which kicks off in under two weeks

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan with Christy Doherty of FBD and the first prize Belgian Blue Heifer at the Tullamore Show at the official launch of the National Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska, Co Laois. Photograph: Jeff Harvey

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan with Christy Doherty of FBD and the first prize Belgian Blue Heifer at the Tullamore Show at the official launch of the National Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska, Co Laois. Photograph: Jeff Harvey

 

Poor Charlie Flanagan. As a Minister he must be fairly used to posing for photographs of varying degrees of ridiculousness but everywhere he turned at the launch of the National Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska, Co Laois on Tuesday there was another photo opportunity and every one of them involved either unco-operative animals or children.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs smiled gamely as he was sandwiched between a displeased heifer and three models made distinctly nervous either by the cow or the politician. He was asked to pose with a pack of malodorous hounds and stand beside a skittish horse and then a pony and then a disinterested child in a plastic tractor as photographers snapped at him.

He was taking it all on the chin. “This is in the heart of my constituency,” he told The Irish Times.

“I’m not a farmer but I did spend many enjoyable vacations on my grandparents farm and over the last 25 years I have never missed the ploughing.”

There are just under two weeks to go to the National Ploughing Championships, one of Europe’s largest outdoor events, and at the site, a stone’s throw from the Stradbally fields which have just played host to the Electric Picnic, things are starting to take shape. The marquees are up and the corrugated metal walkways are in place.

All that is missing are the exhibitors and the hundreds of thousands of people who will stream through the gates here over the course of the three-day festival which starts on September 22nd.

Mr Flanagan described the championships as “the festival of rural Ireland” but pointed out that “city dwellers are coming to explore it too. At the height of the Celtic Tiger, agriculture was not fashionable but today it is fashionable,” he said.

It wasn’t fashionable when the National Ploughing Association managing director Anna May McHugh – described by Mr Flanagan as a “legend in her own lifetime” – came on board.

She said: “I have been working with the championships since 1955 and have seen massive changes. I remember when there was only 25 exhibitors, today if you spent just two minutes looking at every stall it would take you a full seven days to see the whole thing.”

Her relationship with the ploughing championships began when she was 12 or 13 when the original organisers asked her father if they could recommend somebody to work part-time in the office.

“I was appointed secretary in 1956 and in 1973 I was made MD to the astonishment – and I have to say the disappointment – of the men.”

She has ruled the roost ever since and no one involved had a bad word to say about her on Tuesday.

Wild Geese Lodge film

William Murphy was less interested in the ploughs than his stars. He is the producer of the Wild Geese Lodge film which will get its premiere at the championships. He had brought some of the cast to the press launch. The movie has it all he said.

“Unrequited love, betrayal, burning and murder all culminating in the crown convicting and hanging the guilty. It’s got love, it’s got passion.”

It also has Leo from Fair City as a priest trying to bring the warring parties together.

As Dave Duffy spoke of his religious role, John Kelly drove past in an impressive tractor. When asked what brand his tractor is he says it’s a John Deere. His father also called John said he was looking forward to the craic of the ploughing.

“It’s huge. We are so lucky to have it here beside us. We have the Picnic and we have this and it is a great boost to the local economy it has been a great few years and they have been breaking all sorts of records.”

There will be food, fashion and farm equipment on display over the course of the three days of the championships but the star, as always, will be the ploughing. And few stars will shine brighter than Eamonn Tracey, the current conventional ploughing world champion.

“The ploughing championships are very important and it is great to see them getting more important with each passing year,” he said.

“Everyone wants to be here now it is the main event in Ireland. A lot of people talk about the Electric Picnic but you can’t compare 50,000 over three days to 200,000.”