Alison Healy: What I learned from judging a bonny baby competition

If you ever become a judge on the bonny baby circuit, never wait around for feedback

A baby is carried by a sumo wrestler in Tokyo in a 400-year-old traditional event. Photograph: David Mareuil/ Getty Images

Isn’t it a great relief to hear that the crying baby sumo festivals have finally resumed in Japan, following their Covid-19 induced hiatus? Once again, tiny babies in ceremonial sumo aprons are facing each other in sumo rings all around Japan, while people try to make them cry. Demon masks may be deployed if the babies insist on gurgling happily instead of providing a lusty cry.

The 400-year-old tradition is rooted in the belief that a powerful cry can ward off evil spirits. That thought should surely give you comfort as you rise at 3am to attend to your miniature demon-slayer.

When the first events got underway a few weeks ago, tourism official Shigemi Fuji acknowledged that some people may think it’s terrible to make babies cry. “But in Japan, we believe babies who cry powerfully also grow up healthily,” he told AFP news agency.

We in Ireland also like to make our babies compete with each other, except we call them bonny baby shows. They have been the staple of every good agricultural show for many decades, including the very popular, and appropriately named, Bonniconlon Agricultural Show.

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Unlike the Japanese, we prefer our babies to come with a stiff upper lip so bawling babies are frowned upon. And of course, Irish parents are much more competitive than their Japanese counterparts. Bonny baby shows might sell themselves as a light-hearted lark but don’t be fooled. That trophy and €20 prize is more keenly contested than any All-Ireland football final.

I know this because I was once roped in to judge a contest after another judge recused herself. I quickly realised why, when I stood in front of 20 proud mothers holding up their beautiful babies. With a sinking heart, I knew the decision would only please one person and would send the other 19 into paroxysms of rage and tears. And that’s the mothers we are talking about – not the babies. I say mothers, because it was always the mothers who presented their bonny babies at these shows. The fathers were usually clustered around the cattle rings, making insightful comments about the hindquarters of the Belgium Blue bull calves.

If you ever become a judge on the bonny baby circuit, remember two things. Never wait around for feedback after announcing the winner. Veteran judges identify the nearest exit in advance and ensure there are no obstacles to slow them down as they flee to their waiting cars.

Secondly, never ply your trade at a local show. Do you really want to be confronted at the supermarket checkout by a scowling cashier whose baby you deemed insufficiently cute to claim the trophy? The unexpected item in the bagging area could be your head rolling.

Author PG Wodehouse knew all about the high risks associated with the baby judging circuit. In his book Uncle Dynamite, Major Brabazon-Plank was once scarred in the leg by the mother of a bonny baby in Peru. The major had judged the contest and awarded the baby an honourable mention, causing the enraged mother to lunge at him with a dagger.

Ever since that event, the major had developed a strong aversion to marriage. As he rationally explained, marriages led to bonny babies and bonny babies lead to bonny baby competitions.

There is no evidence that award-winning foreign correspondent Fergal Keane ever judged a bonny baby show in Peru, but he has more reason than most to fear the contests. He had a harrowing run-in with bonny babies when he was a cub reporter at the Limerick Leader. Writing about the experience 20 years later, he was still cringing at the memory. The debacle began when he hit on the idea of a bonny baby competition to boost circulation of the Limerick Chronicle, the Leader’s sister paper.

The office was quickly flooded with photographs of some of Limerick’s most spectacular specimens of babies. This was long before mobile phones, and most parents gave strict instructions that the photographs of their cherished cherubs be returned.

Newsrooms have always been chaotic places where the danger of being felled by a towering stack of papers is always imminent. So, it was not surprising when the box of photographs of the charming children went missing. Soon, irate mothers were appearing at the office in their droves, demanding the return of their precious pictures. The young reporter found himself in a bit of a pickle and was forced to leave the office through a back exit until the controversy died down.

“Serb soldiers, Huta militia or loyalist paramilitaries, none could inspire the terror of a Limerick mother hunting for her baby’s photograph,” he wrote.

And I, for one, believe him.