Metropolitan sophisticates holding forth on livestock, urbane presenters recalling their rural roots and notables falling over themselves to pay homage to the "real Ireland". It can only mean one thing: the National Ploughing Championships are upon us again.
The most anticipated date in the farming calendar, the annual show is a trade fair, a social event and, as listeners are regularly reminded, the biggest agricultural exhibition in Europe. It’s also the time when national radio stations migrate en masse beyond the Pale to broadcast from the championships, in order to renew their connection with Ireland’s authentic soul, and in no way to cravenly court a rural audience that might otherwise get overlooked by the Dublin media.
Hence on Tuesday's Today With Seán O'Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), President Michael D Higgins tells the host that the championships, held this year in Ratheniska, Co Laois, are an "encounter with real Ireland". Just how real becomes clear in Marie-Louise O'Donnell's item setting the scene at the event. Using poesy so fawning and florid that a sycophantic court bard might consider it excessive, she rhapsodises about "the golden plains of Co Laois".
O’Donnell says she is in “the real capital” – a description Corkonians, if not Dubliners, may take umbrage with – adding that the event represents “everything that is best about who we are”. Egged on by O’Rourke, who peppers his conversation with rustic terms such as “the tilt of his cap”, O’Donnell catalogues the sights around her in rhythmic fashion, imbuing phrases such as “bale-wrapping technology” and “slurry tanks” with an awed wonder.
If the delivery is affected, her enthusiasm is genuine. O’Donnell has made this kind of rural vignette her trademark on O’Rourke’s show, and, as with her other postcards from middle Ireland, her gushing affection is spiked with a mischievous eye for realism. She talks with gusto about a company that sells, well, bull semen. “That might sound a bit odd to people coming from the city,” she says. “At nine minutes past 10, it surely does,” replies her host, suggesting he has forgotten the many years when early-morning listeners were confronted with massed ads about icky bovine ailments. Undeterred, O’Donnell describes a particular bull whose “semen is well in demand”, noting approvingly that the beast has “a beautiful pelvis”.
Otherwise O'Rourke speaks with the GAA commentator Marty Morrissey, who has become RTÉ's go-to shorthand for quirky country characters. "We probably overuse the word 'legend', but how else would you describe Marty Morrissey?" says O'Rourke, overusing the word. Compared with this inane Montrose backslapping, which features the revelation that Morrissey's on-air lines about the nonmilking of cows were inspired by his rural background, O'Donnell's self-consciously earthy contribution is entertaining, memorable and, yes, real.
Pat Kenny, on the other hand, cheerily assumes the mantle of the fish out of water during his stint in Laois. Opening The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays), he admits his bemusement at the agriculturally themed signs he has encountered on the drive down: "For a Dub like myself, it's quite an education." He starts to ask guests about the acreage of their farms before reminding himself that such questions are breaches of countryside etiquette. (He then asks anyway.) And while he gamely gets out and about among the crowds to sound out opinions on the state of the farming sector, he sounds most engaged when interviewing the likes of Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney.
For all that, Kenny has a relaxed air. Talking to his fellow broadcaster Brendan Courtney during a discussion of the benefits of online dating, he says he has never tried to digitally alter his onscreen image, adding: “I’m dreading HD. It’s going to kill me.” When a young farmer talks about hearing good and bad accounts of internet dating, Kenny gets to the point: “Tell us the horror stories. They’re the only ones we’re interested in.” Even allowing for the more easygoing manner Kenny has adopted since moving to Newstalk, he sounds in remarkably fine form. Maybe he should get out more.
There are some notable absences from Ratheniska, however. One of the radio fixtures at previous championships was the former 2FM breakfast presenter Hector Ó hEochagáin, who would chatter endlessly about "the Electric Picnic for farmers". This year, however, his successors on Breakfast Republic (2FM, weekdays) are conspicuous by their absence. Indeed, so keen are its presenters, Jennifer Maguire, Bernard O'Shea and Keith Walsh, to differentiate themselves from their predecessor, who was deemed to alienate young urban listeners, that they produce a comic skit poking fun at the ploughing championships. The event they paint is a hotbed of overpriced B&Bs and men lusting over farm machinery. (By way of balance, they also have a sketch about the fair's fictional Dublin equivalent, full of even dodgier Jackeen stereotypes.)
The sketch is funny, mainly thanks to O’Shea’s comic sensibility, but is also telling. Those presenters in search of the real Ireland flock to the ploughing championships; those who covet the younger version of the country do everything to avoid it.
Moment of the Week: Sign of the Grimes
Seán Moncrieff (Moncrieff, Newstalk, weekdays) normally conducts interviews with laconic coolness, but he cannot contain the bundle of squawking hyperactivity that is John and Edward Grimes, aka Jedward. The twins talk over each other like toddlers on a glucose bender, telling how their new songs are about "serious stuff" and how they "keep it real" by going to charity shops. The host attempts to rein this in but knows resistance is futile: "Every time I meet you I wonder, are they on drugs or am I?" It's an exhausting spectacle. As Moncrieff says: "They are lovely. But they'd wear you out."