We slipped Rashers Tierney into a pair of wellies back in September and sent him off to report from the muck on how the country cousins were faring at one of Europe’s largest agricultural events.
There’s a few gatherings in Irish society that send our media into full on bombastic broadcasting mode. Events where each and every outlet competes to bay with excitement about excruciatingly irrelevant competitions, hashtags and en route traffic jams that snake slowly through the midlands.
Oddly enough, two of these events take place in Laois. Literally within minutes of each other. One is the Electric Picnic and the other is well, the Ploughing Match. The Ploughing what you ask? Yes, the ploughing bloody match.
It’s a generations old battle with roots as far back in The Great Depression. Competitors from counties far and wide, mark out plots with bits of stick and vie to produce the finest of furrows. Consider it a determined effort to fast forward technological innovation in Irish agriculture by the sheer good example of driving in a straight line.
The origins of it all lie in a pissing competition between two friends in 1932, when Denis Allen of Gorey and JJ Bergin of Athy found themselves in a sharp squabble over which county had the best ploughmen.
A challenge was called and like all these things, a set of rules were codified and soon the National Ploughing Association was born declaring its mission to “bring the message of good ploughing to all part so of the country and to provide farmers with a pleasant, friendly and appropriate place to meet and do business.”
And business they do. 36.5 million euro is reported as the spend that goes into the area during the event. Every conceivable Irish brand pile on to vaunt their wares and curios. Streams of lesser ones gaggle in arcade tents – salesmen with microphones strapped to their faces run through routines for various useless miracle kitchen utensils and the like.
Growing up in the midlands, the event created colossal car congestion which meant time off school – as a kid it held the promise of fireworks and cheeky nagins. Two large signs announced that these were things promptly banned from the get go unfortunately.
In a way, it’s a bit like a giant Freshers Fair – Galway Girl, Wagan Wheel and all things country and Irish are on a loop from nearly every stand, while the civic societies of rural life hawk for fresh blood. TTIP campaigners brought together by campaigning organising Uplift are handing out leaflets to passing farmers with varying success. Some kids are keen to have their photos taken with the activists dressed in cow outfits, with leaflets pressed into the hands of their parents in return.
So I set out to temperature check what issues face the country cousins, mooching around from tent to tent trying to grab words with who I can. I started off with the Eddie Punch, the general secretary of the Irish Cattle And Sheepfarmers Association who’s having a quick tea and biscuits at the back of their modest tent. I’m curious how his organisation distinguishes itself from the Irish Farmers Association?
“We’re funded entirely by our members fees, it’s a voluntary contribution they make, and we’re there because they want us to be there and they want an alternative voice to just IFA. IFA have a role to play obviously I guess but they can’t represent all of the people all of the time and that’s why ICSA has grown to an association with ten thousand members with representatives in every county in Ireland and we represent their interests with government and in Brussels.”
I remark on the leaflets being distributed outside by Uplift and ask him if TTIP has any relevance for Irish farmers
“No more than anywhere else in society the level of awareness on the TTIP deal is not huge. Obviously with TTIP as well you have this dispute resolution process which is extremely like a trojan horse.”
“We’d be very concerned that TTIP would be a very bad deal for Irish farmers. In our view, free unfettered trade is not necessarily a solution to putting more money into the pockets of the Ordinary primary producer, whether in Ireland in Europe, in Africa or the USA. And the difficulty we see from the point of view of American beef coming into Ireland is that it’s not coming in on a level playing field.”
He explains how TTIP will erode standards of animal welfare or safeguards against the use of hormones in beef production. The conversation turns to farm incomes and the downwards pressures applied by the mega retail chains and food companies on beef producers. Many of these have a huge presence at the event – with punters lapping up the freebies from Tesco, Aldi, Lidl and Supervalu.
“When you look at farm incomes they start on the assumption that a farmer will work 60- 70 hours a week and that his family will also put in some free labour and this is never accounted for when the likes of retailers assess how much they can get away when paying farmers, they say look it a farmer can survive, he doesn’t need to be paid for working 60 hours a week, his wife and kids don’t need to be paid at all. This is terribly wrong from our point of view. It’s not a fair wage for fair work.”
My memories of the ploughing match from childhood consist of shitty bars with sawdust and muck carpeted floors with country and western roaring, there’s less of that now – but one ritual remains, roaming from place to place looking for free sandwiches and biscuits. People here are mad for freebies. So much so that nearly every body is carrying around plastic bags stuffed with brochures, newspapers and whatever else they can make off with.
For all the Bord Bia tents, the food is total shake down. Given this is rural Ireland’s biggest event, that’s kind of shocking. For all the talk of primary producers being ripped off by the large chains, the organisers are obviously keen to take their dosh. The artisan and gourmet food scene is completely absent. Rather than showcasing Irish culinary greatness a series of familiar branded chipper vans fire out muck.
The punters sit around on benches scoffing with seriously disappointed faces. A worn down looking woman serves me a scalding burnt coffee. She says it’s about three thousand euros for a pitch .
“The abuse the abuse” she mutters, nonplussed about a never ending sequence of customers disgusted at the prices.
One place where quality food is on the agenda is at the Irish Countrywomen’s Association tent, which compared to a lot of the sterile corporate tents is a right hive of activity, there’s gorgeous quilts hanging off the walls. Scones, bread, cakes and jams in abundance. Tea and more tea.
I get chatting to a group of women at one of the stalls. They’re up for the day from Wexford where the ICA has over 500 members organised in 33 guilds drawing from both rural and urban areas.
“We’re obviously into crafts like produce, jam and brown bread and those sort of things, but we are also into everything really. We like yoga, palettes, swimming, bowling and writing books which you can see here, recipe books especially, history books and debating, quizzes.”
As well as providing a social outlet for people, the woman tell me they are constantly trying to tackle social problems.
“The whole time we are pushing social issues, especially women’s social issues, single parents families, money and supplements that they are getting, computers for older ladies – we try and encourage older people to get involved with young people, like transition year students. They teach us computers or iphones and we show them crafts in exchange. We’re starting at the moment younger transition year guilds which we are hoping will take off.”
The scale of the event is hard to impress on people, but suckers for statistics are usually blown away. The site measures 700 acres, failing just 200 short of the Glastonbury music festival site. 180 acres of that are given over for to the ploughing, with another 80 acres taken up by trade stalls and exhibits. 200 cops have been dragged away from Irish water installations to patrol the lot too.
Ireland with its crap public transport solutions, means 400 acres of is given over for car parking. Machinery demonstrations eat up another 25 acres. Finding it hard to visualise? Put it this way Temple Bar is 26 acres. The ploughing is massive.
One of the more entertaining stalls caters for the rural boy racer market. It’s hugely popular and does a roaring trade in stickers and t-shirts emblazoned with “eat sleep plough repeat”
In another area the Environmental Pillar are handing out leaflets about Ireland’s government commitment to sustainable development goals and trying to combat notions that it will undermine profitable agriculture. The Good Energies Alliance Ireland, based out of Ballinaglera Community Hall in Leitrim carry materials on fracking. Explaining the multitude of alternative operations available from wind, to Solar, to tidal and biomass that could be utilised ahead of the multinational monster that is fracking.
The back of one leaflet outlines the success of local campaigns. Describing how “since the 2010 round of licenses in Ireland, North and South no deep borehole or exploratory well has been drilled.”
There’s a host of religious media stands too, manned by wide eyed evangelical extremists who have managed to gather weird local area licenses or use satellite networks to broadcast . Groups such as Radio Maria radio, are giving out a goodie pack of leaflets one of which asks us to “prayer for Radio Maria.”
Tucked away on one corner are the GLEN Network and the LGBT Helpline. I strike up conversation with the two lads manning the stand about how the gay community fares in rural Ireland and what the overall crowd is like.
Anthony Mangan tells me that they “feel more visible because of the marriage equality referendum that passed and among the hundreds of stands it’s easy to get lost.”
The GLEN stand is is also doling out the freebies.
“Lots of people are taking badges and pens, lots of chit chat nothing major. A few people have talked about their own experiences or experiences in their families. Only a few, nothing untoward.”
Anthony works on the LGBT Helpline and finds that rural isolation is one of the bigger ills among those that call in
“Lots of people within the LGBT community feel very isolated and that’s probably the biggest problem because there really isn’t much of a scene and there aren’t many groups. While we do signpost and direct people that live in rural areas to groups that are operating out the country, like down west or in Galway or Cork or different places like that, many people are still quite a distance for them to travel from a social point of view.”
Loneliness is a facet of rural life and adversely affects the on older generation.
“There is of course also elderly LGBT people, from rural areas that are elderly, in their 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s and for them it’s very very difficult, there isn’t much of a support network there. Us on the helpline we try to do as much as we can to support via phone or by instant messaging service which is a new service we have but it’s a symptom of being in rural Ireland having that isolation for many different aspects of life that people in urban communities take for granted.”
One thing the ploughing represents more than anything is an opportunity for politicians and celebrities to pose. And that they do in abundance. You can get up close and personal to all lego haired politicians of all stripes.
It’s just days since Cameron’s dalliance with a pig broke, yet Simon Coveny has no problem with a few unfortunately timed pictures of himself holding one. Similarities with the Electric Picnic continue unabated, with photographers seizing every chance to picture young ones legs in wellies. Politicians and celebrities of minor and major bent all jump on board with this, including Enda himself who was snapped posing with the Macra Na Ferime “cheeky” charity calendar that consisted of cor blimey shots of women around a farm. A fundraiser for mental health don’t you know?
Down the innovation stand, Richard Bruton is due to give an award to some new smartphone app. Meanwhile up in Dublin, Paddy Cosgrave has just set off the bombshell that the web summit is moving to Lisbon. Like most Irish politicians, The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation knows which side of his bread the butter is on. There might be jobs but very few votes among a few thousand visiting foreign web geeks. Not compared to the 280,000 people waiting to have their flesh pressed at the ploughing.
Siobhan O’Donoghue and the rest of the Uplift team are intent on wrecking his buzz by handing over an open letter on TTIP signed by a couple of thousand of their members. After a narrow near escape, the Minister is finally pinned by the campaigners and presented with the letter. Siobhan tells me how the whole day went for them.
“Richard Bruton is known for not wanting to meet his constituents or anyone around this issue so we actually went to him under the eyes of the farmers of Ireland with our open letter directly and managed to put it into his hands. He very reluctantly took it. It was a very important step in terms of transparency, democracy and political accountability that we could do that. We handed out an awful lot of flyers to people. We had a lot of people asking questions about TTIP . They’d never heard of it, which is really worrying when you think of the impact it’s going to have on farmers of Ireland. We met organisations like the beekeepers associations, small businesses. Once they hear about TTIP they are really interested and want to know more so from a tactical point of view we were quite successful in bringing some awareness of TTIP to the farming community.”
After a long mucky day, a tractor and trailer (sponsored by The Irish Independent…) ferries gangs of people out across a few freshly cut corn fields to car parks brimming with SUV’s and their lifts home. Two old boys are gossiping as they walk. It’s the last year the whole affair is going to be taking place in Ratheniska too with the organisers seeking new pastures for next year. Too much traffic hassle.
Would I go again? Hard to know, the childhood memories are better than the realities.