Miriam Lord: Ploughing, celebrities and the papal nuncio

Almost 125,000 turn up at Carter family farm in Co Laois for day two of ‘the Ploughing’

Alison Healy reports from the 83rd National Ploughing Championships taking place on an 800 acre site in County Laois, featuring 390 competitors, 1400 stands and lots more. Video: Bryan O'Brien


There is nothing like this. Nothing. Here, you get the real deal. This is the mood your vintage oilcloth artisan types strive to evoke in their carefully-styled business ventures. All about being authentic and close to the land, with a sense of soul and seasonality. Or some aul guff like that. At “the ploughing” they don’t have to try. It just happens.

Anna May McHugh and her daughter Anna Marie have put together a spectacle on a grand scale in Co Laois this week. Almost 125,000 people turned up at the Carter family’s farm in Ratheniska yesterday for day two of the National Ploughing Championships, a record number, up from last year’s attendance of 90,000.

The sunshine helped. Although conditions were so pleasant yesterday (not a hint of muck), visiting urbanites will have come away with the impression that farmers complain a little too much about the vicissitudes of the Irish weather.

It’s one hell of a crowd-management exercise but it works. This annual event is one of Ireland’s biggest good news stories, and the two McHughs deserve full credit for their efforts.

With such a huge audience in one place, big business rubs shoulders with small enterprises, while the supermarkets have set up a PR battle along one stretch of the trade stands.

German multiple Aldi has been getting a lot of press attention, perhaps following on from protests earlier this week from vegetable growers who claim they face “extinction” if the firm continues to put the squeeze on them. The supermarket, for its part, has pumped a lot of money into its huge stand.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald was so taken by their stand that she tweeted on Tuesday “great hospitality in the Aldi tent”. Her former Dáil colleague and TD for Louth, Arthur Morgan, is one of their seafood suppliers.

Needless to say, the politicians have descended in force. Joan Burton got a very good reception for a Dub when she visited the Labour stand – it returned to the ploughing after a controversial no-show last year. Local Senator John Whelan kicked up such a fuss that it has been reinstated.

The Tánaiste visited the Irish Countrywomen’s Association tent, where she was mobbed by wellwishers in front of the knitting wool. “I can’t believe it. She’s being swamped. She’s very popular on the ground,” marvelled Willie Penrose.

ICA president Betty Gorman introduced Joan to Imelda Byrne, star of RTÉ’s ICA Bootcamp show, before rushing off towards the stage. “Breda and I are going to make butter now and its going to be great,” she said as she left.

Speaking of RTÉ, there was a huge queue waiting to have their photos taken with Mary Kennedy from Nationwide. Not everyone was happy with their Montrose experience.

“They were charging a euro for the RTÉ Guide on the way out. How mean is that? They can get stuffed.”

Big beasts

George Hook

Meanwhile, Micheál Martin toured the exhibition area, dapper in his city suit and baby pink tie. He met a group of girls from the Sacred Heart Secondary School in Clonakilty who are finalists in the Certified Irish Angus Beef Schools Competition. Sixteen-year-olds Laura Clancy, Meabhdh Sexton, Aoife Dullea and Clionadh Condon have been given five calves which they will raise sustainably for the next 18 months on Clionadh’s family farm. And what then? “They get slaughtered.”

MEP Mairead McGuinness won’t be around today to meet Enda Kenny when he visits. She will be representing the EU at the official opening of the Ryder Cup in Gleneagles.

Damien O’Brien (74) from Killimor near Ballinasloe came up to say hello to Mairead, saying he has an eye for a good-looking woman. She generously introduced him to the reporter from The Irish Times. “Are you the girl who wrote the piece about the Offaly hurlers being smelly?”

Damien, who has a farm “with road frontage”, is on the hunt for a wife and had come to Laois from Lisdoonvarna. Not married so? “I’ve no experience, no – the bonnet has never been lifted. I’m in mint condition.”

Huge demand

George Lee

At teatime, a beaming Anna May arrived into the pressroom with a small group of people and called for some quiet. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, with no small amount of pride. “The Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin.”

And a tall gentleman in a grey suit smiled at the dead-eyed hacks slumped over their laptops. “Well done.” said Bishop Denis Nulty. “Well done!”

The papal nuncio was there too. Archbishop Charles Brown told us that the pope would love the ploughing. Then the VIP party made its way to the main stage, where, at 6pm, Anna May announced the result of the ploughing competitions.

In the meantime couples crowded on to the grass in front of the platform for some old-time waltzing.

Where would you get it?