This week Athy has the unique privilege of hosting the National Ploughing Championships for the third year in succession. The land at Cardenton owned by the Fennin family will be the focus of all of our attention over the next few days as competitors from every county in Ireland compete for coveted ploughing titles. It is appropriate that Athy should be honoured in this way for it was Athy man J.J. Bergin of Maybrook who was the organiser of the very first inter county ploughing contest held in Ireland. That contest was held 80 years ago over Hosie’s lands at nearby Coursetown.
Ploughing contests, whether on a local or county level, were common features of country life in Ireland for decades prior to the first inter county contest organised in February 1931. J.J. Bergin, an extraordinarily talented man, together with Denis Allen of Wexford came up with the idea of an inter county ploughing match, initially to settle a wager as to whether the best ploughmen came from Kildare or Wexford. The organising committee for the 1931 event held over Willie Hosie’s lands at Coursetown comprised the following Athy folk.
A. Reeves, J.N. Greene, E.F. Minch, P.P. Doyle, J. Gracie, Capt. Hosie, F. White, A.L. Spiers, J. Flynn, W. Cox, John Owens, D.C. Greene, Capt. Redmond, C.W. Taylor, J. Melrose, W.K. Hosie, Jas. Kelly, R. Anderson, W. Duncan, P. Dooley U.D.C., J.J. Keegan, M. Malone, Ted Fennin, Jas. Duthie, Jas. Ashmore, Thos. Carty, Hugh Kane, G. Mullins, Hugh Cogan, Capt. Webb, E.J. Fagan, J.C. Yates, C.W. Henderson, T. Ryan, P. Kehoe, J.J. Bergin.
That first ploughing championships took place on Monday 16th February 1931 with four competition classes, an inter county event, the championship of Ireland, a County Kildare event and an open competition for ploughs pulled by tractors. A gold medal was awarded to the inter county winner, with cash prizes ranging from one guinea to ten shillings for some of the other competitions. A most unusual prize was a ten stone bag of flour presented by Mr. J. Gracie of Kilmead, Athy for a married competitor with the greatest number in family.
The Nationalist newspaper of 21st February 1931 carried a detailed report of the ploughing matches which were attended by about 3,000 people. Nine counties were represented in the inter county competition, with 52 competitors. The champion ploughman award went to Edward Jones of Wexford, with County Wexford winning the inter county contest. The competition confined to County Kildare competitors was won by J.C. Carolan of Levitstown, with his employer John Melrose’s horse and plough. His near neighbour, T. Yates of Grangemellon, came second, with a ploughing team worked by P. Kinsella. The Nationalist noted that ‘one of the outstanding features of the competition was the work done by a young boy of 14 years, James Ryan of Athy, who with a Ransome plough won third prize in the local class.’ For the 1931 competition 34 pairs of horses were provided by local farmers to be shared amongst the competitors who drew lots for the horses to be used by them.
The programme for that first inter county ploughing championship carried a number of advertisements for businesses in the Athy area including Industrial Vehicles (Ireland) Ltd. who were main Fordson dealers for Leinster. E. Nolan of 1 Leinster Street was the local agent for seeds provided by Hogg & Robertson of Mary Street, Dublin, while Duthie Large & Co. Ltd. with an address at The Foundry, Athy, were agents for Ford cars and trucks. Eugene J. Fagan of Duke Street, Athy advertised as the Irish sales and service manager for Beardmore Commercial Vehicles.
Three local hotels had advertisements in the 1931 programme. The Central Hotel, Leinster Street owned by J. Hutchinson boasted electric lights throughout, with baths, while the Leinster Arms Hotel confined its advertising as a ‘first class family and commercial hotel’. The Railway Hotel, also in Leinster Street, owned by Thomas L. Flood, concentrated on advertising its grocery business where ‘finest Irish bacon’ was a speciality. Its advertisement also carried the line ‘official caterer’, presumably a reference to the Coursetown Ploughing Championship. Rather strangely a full page advertisement for Minch Nortons gave its address as Levitstown Mills, Maganey, with no reference to its long established Athy business.
Jackson Brothers of 58 Leinster Street as befitting one of the largest firms then operating in Athy had a full page advertisement. It combined a ‘high class grocery’ with a motor department where a fully equipped workshop catered for ‘all motor and cycle repairs’. Jacksons had a number of dealerships for agriculture equipment, all of which were highlighted in the advertisement. Of all the Athy businesses which featured in the 1931 ploughing championship programme, only one, Minch Nortons, continue in business to this day.
The return of the National Ploughing Championship to Athy for the third year in succession is a fitting acknowledgement of the involvement of Athy man J.J. Bergin in founding the National Ploughing Association 80 years ago.