The Ploughing: no country for a young Dublin Taoiseach
The flesh-pressing is a work in progress for Varadkar – but he is trying very hard
Ploughman David Mulcahy from east Cork was competing in the senior conventional test category. So was Leo Varadkar.
The Taoiseach is in the big league now, and yesterday he faced his first major meet-the- people challenge: the annual wearing of the wellies and walkabout at “the Ploughing”.
This day out was a doddle for his predecessor, happy out among the crowds, kissing babbies, manhandling mammies, back-slapping farmers and kicking tractor tyres for hours on end. Enda Kenny was a natural.
Leo is not. Different personalities. You’d have been a bit worried for him.
He arrived in a motorcade of 4x4s. When the vehicles turned in to the top corner of the field, the large media contingent moved as one towards him, like a herd of cows heading for milking.
As ever, Anna May McHugh and her daughter Anna Marie, the twin driving forces behind the phenomenally successful National Ploughing Championships and agricultural show, were on hand to guide their VIP visitor through the finer points. They took him to meet David Mulcahy, who stopped his tractor beside a newly opened seam so the Taoiseach could examine his work first-hand.
Like David’s furrow, Leo played it straight. His wellington boots are shiny and new and he is wearing what might be described as sensible urban casual.
Good call. No point in trying to blend in with the others; Ministers Michael Ring and Kevin “Boxer” Moran are on hand for that. They know how to wear the shirt and tie and suit, with trousers spilling over the top of old distressed boots. Leo wears tan chinos and the weatherproof Irish Coast Guard jacket he favours when out inspecting flood damage.
He was a day late in that regard yesterday; the grounds in Screggan had been deluged in Wednesday’s torrential rain but the sun shone for his visit. Conditions improved so much that the going was soft to watery. It was like walking in porridge .
Out of his comfort zone
The ploughman took out his tape and explained how to measure the furrows. Leo, hands dug into his pockets, seemed like a man way out of his comfort zone as he balanced on a mucky tussock.
“Taoiseach, can you come down a bit [towards the soil]?” pleaded the photographers. He hunkered carefully, gingerly touching the clay but making sure not to get his knees dirty. Then he turned to the cameras and flashed a smile. He’s good with cameras. It’s a generational thing.
On to the horses, where David King from Ardee enticed Leo to stand between two enormous beasts. “French heavy horses” he explained. Leo took hold of a leather noseband. “He’s very calm there,” he remarked, sounding relieved.
And then it was back to the jeeps. People jumped in for selfies – Leo is familiar with them. He posed happily, but still seemed a bit awkward. Never mind. The Ringer was bellowing enough for two in the background.
“How are ya! Sure of course I knew him,” he was saying to a woman. “I knew him well, God be good to him!”
A small boy with a hurley materialised. “Look, the hurley,” said Anna May, with an encouraging nod towards Leo. “It that a Joe Canning one?” He managed a selfie, then smiled again for two girls from Cahersiveen who were wearing flat caps, the big trend among youngsters.
On the way to National Ploughing Championships headquarters, an official mused: “He didn’t really want to be there, did he?”
“Ah no, it just that he’s not that great with people yet,” said a journalist down from Dublin.
After a bite to eat and a press briefing, the Taoiseach set off again through the porridge. This time, he was joined by a host of Fine Gael politicians, local and national, all clamouring for selfies. Michelle Mulherin, over from Mayo, tried to get into all of them but was trumped by local TD Marcella Corcoran Kennedy.
At the Macra stand, they tried to get him into a big “smart” tractor that plays karaoke, among other things.
“Ah no. No, thank you,” stuttered the Taoiseach politely, but he eventually gave in.
“Put your hands on the wheel there,” encouraged Marcella. “Ten to nine.” Leo grabbed the iPad attached to the dashboard and held it for dear life.
On the way to the Department of Agriculture stand, a woman shook his hand, leaned in and whispered: “Don’t lose any more weight.” He was delighted.
Outside a Farmer’s Journal seminar on cattle prices, he was offered a microphone. Leo took it and gave an impromptu speech – something Enda never did. The milling crowd stopped, grew and listened. Leo told him he would fight for them in Europe and also stand up for them when he meets Theresa May on Monday.
“So even though I’m a Dublin Taoiseach, you can be absolutely sure that I’m going to keep very much in touch with agriculture here in Ireland.”
He got a generous round of applause. And of course, since that Justin Trudeau moment, there was the obligatory gift. Liam Quinn, the Fine Gael cathaoirleach of Offaly County Council, gave Leo a pair of Offaly socks. “Big long ones they are too, for the winter. And we gave him a bottle of Tullamore Dew, too, in case the socks don’t work.”
The flesh-pressing is a work in progress for Varadkar. But he is trying very hard.
Last night, the Taoiseach was back on more familiar ground at the annual Ibec dinner.
Not much muck on show there, but plenty of brass.