National Ploughing Championships grind to halt

World ploughing champion Eamonn Tracey prepares to defend title in Denmark

The National Ploughing Championships has morphed into something so huge that it would be easy to forget its origins.

Many of the visitors who arrive at the championships park their cars and proceed towards the main arena without ever looking sideways at the reason why it exists in the first place.

At one end of a large field, men with loys dig the earth as our ancestors did during the Famine.

Next to them, the horse-drawn ploughs provide a timeless and stately spectacle, and at the other end of the field the tractors with their ploughs make slow progress.


This elemental activity is as old as human civilisation and remains as important today.

In the middle of it all is Ireland's world ploughing champion Eamonn Tracey, who stops every so often to adjust the blades on his plough.

Though it all looks mechanical, there is physical work involved.

“I wasn’t fit a few years ago. I didn’t try to keep up my fitness and I learned the hard way,” he says.

Last year, in Bordeaux, he became the first person from the Republic of Ireland to win the world title in nearly 20 years.

There is no such thing as the perfectly ploughed furrow, he says, but the quest for perfection goes on.

“Every day you learn something new and you come away saying, ‘I must remember not to do that again’,” he says.

He pronounced himself pleased with his efforts on Wednesday and Thursday.

“When you are at the top, you have to be scoring well.”

As soon as the event was over, his tractor and plough were taken away from Ratheniska in Co Laois, bound for Dublin Port.

Tracey will defend his title at the World Championships in Denmark next week and he is flying out on Friday morning.

Third generation

One of those observing and judging Tracey is Conor McKeown, the third generation of his family to judge the National Ploughing Championships.

He is just 15, should be at school and is not even old enough to drive a tractor, but his love of it all is apparent.

“I’ve been going to it since I was a baby,” he says.

He walks around from plot to plot, marking the competitors out of 10 in each of the 16 different categories.

Uniformity, weed control and straightness are just three of the criteria involved.

Watching the horse-drawn ploughing is Louth man Gerry King, a 12-time national champion.

"With 12 wins I'm beginning to think I'm the Pat Spillane of ploughing," he says with a laugh.

He is watching his two draught horses pull the plough.

He bought them in France, where they were trained to pull trees out of a forest in the Jura mountains. He calls them Jack and Jill.

“They did have French names when I bought them, but I couldn’t pronounce them.

“We’ve had them seven years and they are working well together. If you don’t have a good pair of horses, it’s like driving a tractor without any steering.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times