New ploughing book captures characters and traditions

‘A Ploughing People’, a book celebrating farming life, including stories, traditions and the championships, was recently published. Written by journalist Valerie Cox, it set out to journey into the heartland of rural Ireland, in words and images, from the 1930s to present day.

After the highs and lows of the 86th National Ploughing Championships, which took place last week, this book might be the ideal ‘pick-me-up’ for those suffering ‘ploughing withdrawal’.

The book records stories from a changing way of life, where community spirit and the nod and the wink of a business deal still remain central. Cox journeyed across the country to discover what the ploughing means to people, whether it is vintage tractors, a pair of Clydesdales, or a plough handed down from a grandfather.

Among those featured is three-time world champion, Martin Keogh. Readers are also brought on a trip to Thady Kelleher country in east Cork. A further trip down memory lane is taken with the first ever Queen of the Plough, Anna Mai Donegan, who was crowned in 1955.

Cox, who lives in Co. Wicklow, has worked in newspapers and on radio and television. Over 11 years working on the Today programme on RTE Radio, she travelled around the country covering stories and events, including ‘the Ploughing’.

A real sense of enjoyment in compiling this book comes across. Cox recalls dropping in to a ‘hooley’ in Dennis Kelleher’s kitchen in Banteer, and going to Abbeydorney in Co. Kerry, a village, she said, that has produced more champions than anywhere else. They included the first Queen of the Plough, Anna Mai Donegan.

This is a landscape profiled, that is rich with characters such as 74-year-old horse ploughman, Gerry King, said to have more All-Ireland horse ploughing titles than anyone else.

There’s also Joe Fahy from Galway, whose two greys, Paddy and Johnny, star in the Angelus on RTE. Zwena McCullough is hailed as the “first and only” woman to plough against men in the nationals.

JJ Bergin is remembered as the man who invented the controversial ‘farmerette’ and who also ran the National Ploughing Association for 27 years until his death in 1958. Sean O’Farrell, Cox outlined, continued to grow the championships until his own passing in 1972.

‘A Ploughing People’ is published by Hachette Books Ireland, at €19.99.