Ploughing a crowded field

The first thing you notice about the Ploughing Championships is that it lacks both the soil cultivation techniques and competitive sporting element implied by its name.

There is precious little ploughing being done, which makes it very difficult to rank the efforts of the entrants on either a league or knock-out basis.

I wasn’t the only person confused by this. A large man sidled up to me and after a moment of uncomfortable silence moved his lips.

‘Where’s the ploughing?’ he asked.

I didn’t know what to say. He was wearing wellington boots in anticipation.

‘Somewhere over there,’ I said, pointing in a non-committal fashion towards the row of tents occupied by financial multi-nationals.

The Ploughing Championships is neither a sporting event nor is it a display of agricultural prowess. Uniquely for an Irish event held in a field and attended by more than 10,000 people, it is not headlined by The Flaming Lips.

The Ploughing Championships is essentially a trade show. It is a gigantic field with 1,400 stalls, most of which are staffed by people trying to sell you tractor equipment, fencing, or a better banking experience.

The best business appeared to be done by a handful of men selling light-coloured plastic walking sticks, the sort mountaineers use to guide themselves over treacherous terrain. It was a dry day in Laois and the walk-ways were all in perfect condition, the only obstacle being that most of the 90,000 people there insisted on walking with sticks.

‘Anyone for a stick?’ the sellers could be heard shouting, as if they were selling low level explosives on the eve of Halloween.

Which, of course, it is lucky they were not given the unusually large Garda presence. The Gardaí themselves were a source of fascination for some. An unmanned Garda car was left parked outside one stall, leading to passers-by cupping their hands against the window to get a look at what mysteries may lie inside. Not many, as it turns out, but it certainly itched a curiosity for a group not traditionally known to Gardaí.

The political arms of the State were also in attendance. The Fine Gael tent was located beside a large financial institution, while the Sinn Fein tent was close to a stall selling fertiliser. All the political bases were covered.

At lunchtime the crowds headed for the burger vans, which were somewhat cruelly located beside tents where different varieties of cow were on display. It was a morbid production line but at least you knew the produce was fresh.

Close to the burgers were the radio stations. The Ploughing Championships is a source of absolute fascination for the Irish media, with most current affairs radio programmes broadcast live from the event and each newspaper carrying extensive daily coverage. This agricultural trade show dominated the news agenda all week, relegating to the back pages the UN Climate Summit at which 120 heads of government attempted to save the future of humanity.

There is, of course, a fair degree of politics being done at the Ploughing. From the motorway to the car park, the roads are festooned with angry demands for everything from fairer prices from supermarkets to a complete rejection of wind energy.

They’re an affable bunch, the farmers, but not a particularly happy one.

And as the evening draws in, the radio stations pack away, the banks lock-up and the few remaining cows breathe a sigh of relief. They have all survived another year, and with 90,000 others they make their way home.

Off to plough some other field.

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