"God speed the plough" — an ignorant Dubliner's journey to the National Ploughing Championships
God speed the plough.
That's the message that greets you as you enter the National Ploughing Championships, held this year held in Fenagh, Carlow.
Also there to welcome the visitors are the scintillating smells of oil and mulch, the sound of an older lady's voice over a tannoy encouraging everyone to enjoy themselves, and lots of smiling faces.
Full disclosure, I've never set foot on a farm before in my life — or if I have, I can't remember it. The closest I've come to agricultural experience is being chased by a goat in Wexford when I was three-years-old.
I can't stress enough how clueless I am when it comes to agrarian matters. Once, on a drive through the countryside, I realised that I didn't know what bales of hay were for. I was just staring at all this hay, contemplating its purpose, unable to even imagine a use for it. Turns out they use it to feed animals. Long story short, I'm an idiot.
I therefore jumped at the chance to visit the ploughing, in order to get even a faintly better sense of the Ireland I didn't grow up in.
Within a matter of minutes of arriving, I am offered a walking stick for €2. I am too confused to accept the offer. I had already seen people walking around with them, but in my ignorance, I had genuinely assumed that there just a lot of blind people here. I am evidently not in my element. I can't quite see the purpose for the sticks, but there are simply so many people here that I start to wonder if they're for whacking people out of your way.
There is the colloquial idea that the ploughing is "Electric Picnic for farmers" or something along those lines. This is wrong. Simply put, Electric Picnic does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the National Ploughing Championships.
Easily, the ploughing dwarfs pretty much any other event in Irish culture. The sheer breadth and scale of the festival puts it in a different league to any other gathering of Irish people. Typically, around 300,000 people come to the festival each year. There are well over 1,000 businesses present — most of them small, local enterprises.
Parked outside, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of camper-vans. In the sky there are at least a dozen colourful blimps, which double-up as advertising space and reminders to patrons of where they've parked.
Voting for Ireland’s Favourite Prayer concludes in the @KANDLEi Stand 399 in @NPAIE tomorrow at 11am with winning prayer announced after 12noon - a choice of two: ‘O Angel of God’ or ‘The Hail Mary’ @CathNewsIreland pic.twitter.com/oJtdiOp8FS
— Bishop Denis Nulty (@BishopDNulty) September 18, 2019
You'd need a sell out All-Ireland Final and three replays to match the attendance here. You'd need four nights of Garth Brooks. It makes the papal visit look like the parish bake sale. This is no Electric Picnic. This is the Hajj to Mecca.
Parents happily let their children take the day off school to ogle the milking technology and a display in the RTÉ tent that shows off every Late Late Toy Show costume that Ryan Tubridy has ever worn.
Unlike your typical music festival, where undercover Gardaí scour tent villages for yokes and signs of trouble, people are actually drawn to the Gardaí. The force's tent is one of the busiest on site, and dozens of people stand around having a nice old chat with the guards. It's like a Twilight Zone inversion of the festival that takes place less than an hour away in Stradbally.
The Hail Mary resoundingly wins a vote to be named Ireland's favourite prayer. In one of the thoroughfares between stalls, there are no less than 50 people gathered around a man doing card tricks on top of a cardboard box. There is a raffle where the prize is 1,000 litres of diesel. I overhear several people express their excitement at the prospect of meeting "Marty" — whether they mean Morrissey or Whelan is unclear, because they are both, of course, here.
If you were trying to hack into Ireland so you could better understand its mysteries, this would be the mainframe. Once you're in, though, you realise that there's more to Ireland than you could ever possibly understand.
This, not EP, not anywhere else, is where all the major political parties know they have to be if they want to lead the nation. The government has set up four large tents, designated as Brexit Hubs. Tánaiste Simon Coveney hosts a one-on-one on Brexit preparedness. Sinn Féin's stall is set out with a huge sign that says "United Ireland." Micheál Martin shakes hands with a man dressed as a cowboy. Last year, every presidential candidate was in attendance, even as a storm shut down a whole day of ploughing and saw 100,000 people turned away, before they ultimately ploughed ahead — knowing that the festival is simply indispensable Irish economy and society alike.
There was no such natural disaster this week. The sun beat down on Carlow throughout, one man happily noting that we were all getting "nicely burned," in what is probably the most Irish attitude to UV rays one can imagine.
You couldn't have asked for a better gift to the beating heart and working hands of Ireland than yesterday's sunshine. God speed the plough indeed.