The Ploughing: politicians give it lots of welly on day one

Micheál Martin, Gerry Adams and Michael D Higgins led the political posse at Tullamore

Almost 300,000 people will travel to Screggan in Co. Offaly over the three days of the 2017 National Ploughing Championships.

 

Have a guess which Dáil constituency had the highest turnout of TDs at the National Ploughing Championships yesterday.

Yes, you have guessed it. That rural heartland otherwise known as Dublin Bay South.

After extensive research (a quick Google search) we have ascertained that there are zero farms in either Dublin 4 or Dublin 6.

Still, for all that, three of the four TDs from this well-heeled constituency were at “the Ploughing” yesterday: Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy and Kate O’Connell; as well as Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan.

Murphy was even sporting a pair of wellies (last seen, we suspect, at Electric Picnic). Seeing them here, you wondered did they look ever so vaguely out of place in the country, a little like the main characters of the classic English comedy film Withnail and I.

In truth, there are few of our people, including our city dwellers, who are too far removed from the soil (O’Callaghan’s mother was from Kildare; his father from Kerry.) So it’s not quite as strange a sight as seeing Danny Healy-Rae (who was there yesterday too) rocking up to the Body & Soul festival.

Somewhere in the fine soil of these vast fields near Tullamore in Co Offaly, serious ploughing competitions have been taking place. But, like outdoor music festivals where music is an optional extra these days, the actual ploughing seems incidental to all the action in this huge temporary metropolis and its daily population of over 100,000 people.

Twins Róisín and Jana Egan (5) from Shannon Harbour, Co Offaly, at the National Ploughing Championships in Screggan, Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Twins Róisín and Jana Egan (5) from Shannon Harbour, Co Offaly, at the National Ploughing Championships in Screggan, Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The considerable presence of all political parties at the event underscores its growing importance. There is a vast exhibition area (sporting €45 million worth of massive, complicated high-tech farming machinery), regular concerts (country music is the order of the day); and nearly 1,000 commercial marquees and stalls. The site sprawls forever.

Zeppelin balloons

So much so that a whole flotilla of colourful helium zeppelin balloons are tethered hundreds of metres above the site. They provide the guiding stars to navigate people back to their car parks or sections.

Even the political parties have got into the act, each with a large marquee and all offering free tea, biscuits and a chance to press the flesh with their big players.

With Taoiseach Leo Varadkar not due until Thursday, political anoraks had to console themselves with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams on Tuesday. Martin was sporting a pair of strange wellingtons that only came up to the ankle. But he certainly gave it the full welly when it came to attacking the Government’s record on housing and health, and laying down a strong marker for the budget. Less than 24 hours earlier, at the Fianna Fáil think-in in Longford he had (again) ruled out categorically (again, again) any coalition with Sinn Féin.

Shane McCarthy, Cork West, during the U40 Horse Plough class at the National Ploughing Championships in Screggan, Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Shane McCarthy, Cork West, during the U40 Horse Plough class at the National Ploughing Championships in Screggan, Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Over in the Sinn Féin tent, Adams was wearing a dark tweed suit and stout shoes. He didn’t sound like a spurned lover. Martin, he claimed, had a “fetish” about his party.

“No one should get the impression that Sinn Féin is waiting and fretting like a reluctant lover waiting to be embraced by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.”

Outside in the sunshine, the walkways were more densely packed than a Tokyo train. There were hordes of transition year students parading up and down, wearing wellingtons, leggings, GAA tracksuits, with many sporting paddy caps (traditional tweed flat caps) which was this year’s ironic fashion statement.

More celebrities were scattered around the site than a team of sheepdogs could herd in. They included rugby player Jamie Heaslip, almost every imaginable country music star (well, except Daniel), most of RTÉ’s frontline presenters, cooks Neven Maguire and Rachel Allen, and hurling stars Séamus Callanan, Lar Corbett and Joe Canning (who spent the entire day signing hurls and posing for snaps).

Four decades

And, amid it all, there was the formidable Anna May McHugh, who has run the ploughing championship for four decades.

She was at the bandstand to greet the first day’s biggest draw, President Michael D Higgins. He spent almost half a day there, viewing the ploughing, talking to competitors, going over to see the horses, being interviewed by Sean O’Rourke (where he did not rule out the possibility of another seven-year stint) and performing the official opening of the 86th championships.

Patrons are ferried around the site by tractor at the National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Patrons are ferried around the site by tractor at the National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

In the process he gave a rousing stump speech raising his deep concerns about rural decline and unbalanced urban development. He argued strongly for a return to serious regional planning to breathe life and vibrancy back into rural communities.

As a politician and as an academic President Higgins was seen as urbane and cosmopolitan. But he himself, of course, comes from humble rural roots and told a great little anecdote to prove it.

A great granduncle of his, Patrick Higgins, had emigrated to Queensland in 1862 along with his wife Mary Ann. She was a seamstress and on the ship’s manifest he was described as a ploughman.

What’s more, said the President, Patrick went on to win local draught horse competitions and ploughing championships in the Darling Downs in the 1870s.

For a few days in September each year, we are all ploughmen and ploughwomen.

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