The Ploughing Championship for 2009 has come and gone and by all accounts it has been a resounding success. Returning to the area in which the first inter county ploughing contest was held in February 1931, this year’s event brought almost 150,000 visitors, compared to the 3,000 who were reported to have been present at the one day event held at Coursetown, Athy on Monday, 16th February 1931. On that occasion there were ten counties represented in the ploughing competitions, with 52 horse ploughing competitors and six tractor competitors. The winning county was Wexford, with its team captain Edward Jones who used a Pierce plough winning the first prize and the gold medal for all round ploughing. Jones also won the ESMA Perpetual Challenge Cup as the champion ploughman of Ireland.
The Nationalist newspaper in its report of the 1931 ploughing championships mentioned 14 year old James Ryan of Athy who came third in the local class using a Ransome plough and whose work the reporter noted was ‘one of the outstanding features of the competition.’
Local ploughing contests had been a feature of rural life in Ireland for many years prior to then and local Kildare newspapers often carried reports of ploughing competitions at Levitstown, Kilkea and Narraghmore. However, it was J.J. Bergin of Maybrook, Athy with his friend Denis Allen of Wexford who first mooted the idea of an inter county ploughing contest following a ploughing match in the Athy area in February 1930. That first inter county contest was held on the lands of Captain Hosie at Coursetown, Athy on 16th February 1931. The organising committee for the event was chaired by D.C. Greene, with James Duthie as treasurer and J.J. Bergin as Honorary Secretary. Contrary to the oft repeated claims that the first competition was confined to ploughmen from Counties Kildare and Wexford the competitors in fact represented counties Carlow, Kilkenny, Offaly, Leix, Kildare, Wexford, Wicklow, Dublin, Cork and Louth.
Each county was represented by three ploughmen who provided their own ploughs, swings and marking poles, while pairs of plough horses were provided by local farmers where necessary. These horses were brought to the plough field by their owners and the various competitors then drew lots to decide which horses they could use for the competition. A very detailed set of rules were laid down by the Competition Committee including a ban on ‘coulters or any other gadgets’. Each competitor was allowed to avail of the help of the horse owners man at yoking his horses and the same man was allowed to accompany the competitor for the first round, ‘but must not handle the reins or plough’.
The David Frame Perpetual Challenge Cup and a cash price of £12 were offered for the overall county winners while the ESMA Perpetual Challenge Cup presented by Estate Management Supplies Association of Millicent Sallins and £5 went to the individual ploughman who was named champion of Ireland.
The tractor class also attracted prizes, as did the contest confined to County Kildare ploughmen and there were a number of other prizes ranging from best work by an Irish made plough to best turn out of horses and harnesses. However, the most unusual competition prize was that awarded to ‘the married competitor with the greatest number in family.’ That worthy individual was to receive a 10stone bag of flour presented by Mr. J. Gracie of Kilmeade.
The programme for the 1931 event carried a number of advertisements for local firms. Messrs Greene Brothers of Kilkea Lodge Maganey, auctioneers, valuers and livestock salesmen, advised potential clients that ‘all business entrusted to us will be attended to promptly and with care.’
Industrial Vehicles (Ireland) Ltd. advertised the sale of ‘universal trailers’ being part of their business as ‘main tractor dealers and trailer manufacturers’. Jackson Brothers of 58 Leinster Street were agents for Star ploughs and stocked ploughs and harrow fittings, as well as having ‘a fully equipped workshop for all motor and cycle repairs’ in addition to a high class grocery.
The Leinster Arms Hotel, telephone no. Athy 21, was fully licenced with a free garage and advertised itself as a first class family and commercial hotel. Minch Norton and Company Limited of Levitstown Mills, Maganey specialised in Decorticated cotton cake, Yefato yeast cake, standard pig meal and other animal feeds as well as importing American and English linseed cake, Rangoon ground nut meal and many other exotic sounding commodities.
The Central Hotel in Leinster Street owned by J. Hutchinson proudly advertised that it had ‘electric lights throughout’ with hot and cold baths, home comforts and excellent cooking. Thomas L. Flood, proprietor of the Railway Hotel, included in his advertisement the line ‘official caterer’. There was no further explanation, but I assume that this reference related to the hotel’s position as official caterer to the ploughing contest.
Duthie Large & Co. of the Foundry, Athy were agents for all the major plough manufacturers as well as Fordson tractors and Ford cars and trucks. E. Nolan of 1 Leinster Street was local agent for seed merchants Hogg and Robertson of Mary Street, Dublin. An advertiser unfamiliar to me was Eugene J. Fagan of Duke Street who described himself as Irish Sales and Service Manager for Beardmore Commercial Vehicles which were suited for the carriage of livestock, agricultural produce and general merchantise. He had offices in Athy as well as a service depot and stores.
The Nationalist newspaper reporting on the ploughing contest in Coursetown in 1931 mentioned that the weather was ‘extremely cold with rain and sleet, but this did not dampen the ardour of the spectators who took a keen interest in what has been well described as the battle of the ploughs’.
This year’s event, just a stones throws away in Cardenton, (indeed one of the car parks for the 2009 event was the site of the 1931 event) was marked with good weather and the many thousands who travelled from all parts of Ireland over the three days spent several enjoyable hours visiting the nine hundred or so exhibition stands and the ploughing events.
J.J. Bergin, an Athy man of tremendous initiative, was the driving force behind the early development of the National Ploughing Association and was one of the founders in 1952 of the World Ploughing Association. The continuing success of the National Ploughing Association and its annual event owes much to another local person, Anna May McHugh who since 1973 has served as Managing Director of the National Ploughing Association. The huge success of this year’s event is a fitting testament to Anna May’s organisational skills and the wonderful team which is the National Ploughing Association.