National Ploughing Championships: A lot more than just ploughing
Music, bread-making, vintage machinery, and sausages keep the crowds happy in Offaly
Emma Ferguson from Trim, Co Meath, with her two-week-old son Paddy after winning the National Brown Bread Baking Competition at the National Ploughing Championships. Photograph: Leon Farrell Photocall Ireland
The skies blackened just before lunch and, sure enough, the rain came. Not enough, mind you, to dampen the spirits of those at the National Ploughing Championships, but sufficient to encourage rural folk on a day off as to the merits of visiting Lynch’s Bar.
Storm Ali forced the closure of the 150-acre site in Screggan, Co Offaly to the public on Wednesday, and the tens of thousands present who returned on Thursday were determined to make the most of the annual festival.
Shane Moore, one of Roscommon’s finest, was serenading the throng from the stage in Lynch’s marquee, while playing a keyboard that also served as a full backing band – rhythm guitar, drums, violin and banjo.
“Your health is your wealth,” sang Shane, “those are the words your father taught me.”
In another part of the exhibition area Derek Ryan and his five-piece band had hundreds of people line-dancing and clapping along. It’s no surprise as the National Ploughing Championships is a riot of fun and community and, with some 1,700 exhibitors, the serious business of farming.
It’s a day off for teenagers (an opportunity to consume epic quantities of burgers, chips and fizzy drinks) and for farmers it’s a chance to look at every imaginable bit of equipment and machinery that might be needed.
One of these is Moocall, an oval gadget about the size of a doughnut, that one slides up the tail of a pregnant cow.
“It’s all got to do with the tail activity,” explains Moocall rep Majella Bergin, from Kinnitty, Co Offaly.
As is well known, the muscles at the top of a cow’s tail tighten just before giving birth, prompting a different sort of swishing than that employed to disperse flies. The changed swish causes Moocall to text an imminent arrival alert to the farmer, about two hours before calving, and another arrives 40 minutes before birth. “Technology,” says Majella, “unbelievable!”
Actually, it is believable – and successful. Moocall was invented by Irishman Niall Austin and launched at the ploughing in 2014. It now sells for €329 and is available in 58 countries.
The vintage section remains a big hit at the ploughing and a reminder of just how far mechanised agriculture has come.
Dan Ryan leans on a fence post and gazes at his and Martin Lenihan’s 1935 Ruston diesel engine like he’s looking at a beloved grandchild.
“This is her first show,” says Dan proudly. “She only started two weeks ago for the first time in 40 years.”
The engine used to be in Mullinahone Creamery near Clonmel, turning a line shaft that operated water pumps, milking and separation equipment. It took four years to restore.
None of the wheezing, chugging lumbering machines of yesteryear would be allowed operate commercially now for health and safety reasons. Not that the modern farm is a place of 100 per cent safety.
Peter Gohery from Galway is holding the crowd’s attention at the Health and Safety Authority stand.
“Show them your party piece, Peter,” says the man with the microphone.
Peter bends down awkwardly, takes off his left wellington boot (with great difficulty) and then swivels his leg like it is a propeller.
“Ooooh,” says the crowd with a sort of collective shiver.
Peter has no left leg from about halfway down his femur – just a prosthetic with a hinge for a knee. His was sliced off one Saturday in 2009, in front of his 10-year-old son, when a piece of loose cloth on his overalls wrapped itself around the power shaft of his tractor.
“I never felt nothing,” Peter said of the split-second experience.
He told the crowd there had been 16 deaths so far this year in farm accidents.
“There’s five more to be killed before the end of the year. Who’s it going to be? Look around you. Is it you?” he asked.
The most popular marquee – by a country mile – at the ploughing is run by Aldi.
“Welcome to my world,” says an exhausted but happy Joanne Byrne from Presence PR. “For the past two days, I’ve smelt of sausages.”
The hungry hordes pile into the marquee where 35 Irish suppliers are giving away samples, while Aldi dispenses 12,500 blue cowboy hats, which appear beloved by almost everyone. There’s more music and waltzing in here.
“Last year,” says Joanne, “we had a man and a woman who literally changed into their jiving gear in the toilets.”
The centrepiece came in mid-afternoon when the winner of the national brown bread baking competition was announced. The honour went to Emma Ferguson from near Trim, Co Meath. Her winning bread will go on sale for a year in all Aldi’s Irish outlets by Christmas . . . and she is guaranteed a minimum of €10,000 from the proceeds.
As the applause erupted, the music and dancing blared on, and thousands squelched from stand to stand, Anna May McHugh, the founding matriarch of the ploughing, sat in the front row beaming.