Still ploughing the Rocks of Bawn


Joe Fahy (right) and his brother Michael, who leads the horses, are pictured at the Mayo Ploughing Championships in Kilmaine.?
?Joe Fahy (right) and his brother Michael, who leads the horses, are pictured at the Mayo Ploughing Championships in Kilmaine.?Pic: Ray Ryan

Still ploughing the Rocks  of Bawn

- A day at the Mayo Ploughing Championships

Willie McHugh

“My curse upon you Sweeney, you have me nearly robbed. You’re sitting by the fireside, with your dúidín in your gob.?You’re sitting by the fireside, from the clear daylight till dawn.?I’m afraid you’ll ne’er be able to plough the rocks of Bawn.”
– The Rocks of Bawn
THE stewards in the hi-vis vests were busy from early noon funnelling cars into mearing fields. Huge tractors hauling massive earth-turning appendages shook the narrow winding roads of Killernan to their foundations as they manoeuvre their way to Denny and Bridget McDonagh’s farm. Today the Killernan lea lies at the disposal of the ploughmen and ploughwomen of Mayo.
And if rumour and innuendo can be relied on, then it was a woman who first turned a sod in this very hamlet when it was part of the Stapleton Estate. Lady Stapleton harnessed modern technology rather than the horse. She summoned (ladies only summoned back then) two steam engines to opposite headlands and linked with cables they ploughed 500 acres. Mrs Stapleton’s grandiose notion proved too costly and she abandoned the project thereafter.
When the members of Kilmaine Macra na Feirme decided in 1980 to revive the Mayo Ploughing Championships, they went for the long furrow. Gerry Burke is Chairman of Mayo Ploughing.
“I’m involved for 33 years. There was ploughing matches in the 1960s but it fell away and Kilmaine Macra got it going again in 1981. Getting a suitable site is the big challenge, but we’ve been lucky and we always manage to get a venue around south Mayo. After that it’s fitting all the other bits of the jigsaw as regards the organising and so forth. But the committee work well together. Lads like John Joe Hughes, Davey Macken, Ger Regan, Billy Staunton, Pádraic, John Joe and Andy Walsh and others put a huge effort. The weather is important, but we more or less have the day to ourselves. Nobody organises anything else around the time of the ploughing because they claim we break the weather.”
Noel Walsh is secretary and knows what it takes to win, having won the competition outright three years in a row. “In 1993 I won it first in Brendan O’Mahoney’s farm in Cross. Then in 1994 in Tierney’s of Carramore and the following year was in Mohan’s of Roundfort.
“It’s something I’m very proud of. I’d a few seconds and was beginning to wonder if I’d ever win it. One year I thought I had it and I didn’t, but to eventually win was an amazing feeling. It takes a lot of effort. Winning the second year proved the first wasn’t a fluke and the third was just about rounding off the achievement.
“There are some top-class ploughmen around. Lads like Kevin McGrath in Cross, Mike Burke in Ardmoran, the Sheridans in Tullyduff, Andy and John Joe Walsh in Turin, Pat Burke in Milford and of course the king of them all Liam Loughlin above in Ballyhenry. If you walked into a ploughed field after the ploughman left, you’d know straight away by the turned sod if Liam ploughed it. He had his own trademark.”
The 2013 ploughing catalogue essays a poignant reminder of the passing last January of Liam’s son Michael. Adorning the mantle in the family home are the numerous awards Michael won in competitive ploughing. He’d learned from the master while sitting on the tractor as an awe-struck gasúr watching Liam apply the same technique he acquired from his own father Ned growing up in Cloonamealtogue. Ploughing down a tradition through the furrows of time.
In Killernan, competition gets under way. Kilmaine’s Ger Canny adjusts the guide wheel and tape measures the turned sod. Down the furlough, Paddy Sheridan from Tullyduff is deep in concentration. He’s the senior of three generations of the Sheridan family ploughing here today. “Aaragh, at my age maybe I should be down in the nursing home, but I love this crack and I’ll keep going at it as long as I can,” he says, and in a jiffy, springs sprightly on to the tractor.
Paddy Fitzgerald from Mochara outside Shrule, who provides farmers with stock dosage, has one of the many trade stands here. “Sales are something I was always interested in and I went into this line of business because it’s to do with farming and what I knew best,” he explains. “I completed all the courses, and events like this are an ideal opportunity for me to meet customers and get to know their requirements.”
Denny McDonagh is the landowner. “I was glad to be able to do something because it’s nice to hold it in the locality and good for Kilmaine and the region to have it here. I told Noel Walsh if it was suitable they could have it. They jumped to it straight away because it was also ideal as regards access and traffic flow. It serves a purpose for me too because, now that it’s ploughed, I’ll re-seed it and I mightn’t have bothered otherwise. I’ll have new grass for a few years more or for as long as I’ll be around anyway.”
Teams of horses are put through their paces too as onlookers gather to watch man and animal work in unison. Over at Peter McHugh’s canteen, someone suggests there’s a fella ploughing with a donkey, but then Peter’s customers can be a bit liberal with the truth. A case of believe nothing you hear and half all you see.
Gerry O’Brien is Safety Officer, and his task is made easier by a committee who sacrifice no hostages to chance. “We meet on Monday nights most of the year and the last few months have been given over to organising this,” he says. “To find land is the biggest problem especially since the sugar factory in Tuam closed, because there’s not much tillage work done. But somehow they always seem to find a field and Denny’s farm here is as good as you could get. Putting the event back a week was a right decision because the land wasn’t suitable for ploughing last week and we’d only have ruined both the site and the roads around it.”
The day turns without a hitch – just as it always has since they first revived this annual spring event in 1981. But that happens only because a dedicated and long serving committee plough well together. The sort of men Lady Stapleton might have summoned had they been around.