A year of meticulous planning came to fruition for the National Ploughing Association last week when they hosted their biggest ever championships in Ratheniska, to resounding success.
It was the perfect storm - the harvest was in early, the rain stayed away and Ratheniska was easily accessible by road and rail, with traffic kept moving by 135 Gardaí on duty daily.
With visitors and staff, an estimated quarter of a million people from all corners of Ireland descended on the Carter farm and surrounding farms, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny and President Michael D Higgins.
While ploughing competitions are still the core of the event, a city of 1,400 trade tents and side attractions offered everything from designer dog clothes to designer baler wrappers, with banks, colleges, supermarkets, political parties and religion all vying for shoppers’ attention.
The average spend is €36million, but is sure to be more with the unprecedented number of visitors.
Laois County Council made the most of their shop window, with staff from all departments on hand with advice, as well as Laois Partnership and Laois Enterprise Board.
The Leader food and craft village had stalls by local producers, who had been grant aided by the agency.
Daily fashion shows included local boutiques Fifty Seven from Portarlington and N01 Boutique from Mountmellick, compered by the Holman Lee model agency, with prizes for Most Appropriately Dressed won by Sharon Foley from Carlow, and Mark Flood from Kildare.
A new attraction this year was the ‘Laois Ploughing Village’ where visitors were advised on genealogy by Henry Healy, cousin to President Obama, while céili dancers whirled around, and a playground sponsored by Laois company Kompan proved a great attraction for kids.
The tent was the venue for the wrap party on day three, when organisers finally paused for breath and gave themselves a deserved pat on the back.
“We all went back there for a couple of hours, including the site owners, it was a lovely conclusion,” said managing director Anna May McHugh.
She has delightedly announced the good news that the event will remain in Ratheniska next year.
“Feedback form landowners, the local community and the wider public has been very positive and all were enthusiastic to see a return,” she said.
Praise came too from exhibitors and visitors, she said.
“All were very vocal about their wishes to have it staged here again,” she said.
The decision to return depended on how traffic flowed.
“By and large most people have been travelling to and from the site with relative ease and the minimum of traffic delays. This has certainly helped the event in being such a success this year and we hope to repeat this again in 2014,” said Anna May.
Her highlight was the visit by guest of honour President of Ireland Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina for the opening ceremony on Tuesday September 24.
The President and Mrs Higgins first walked about the site, chatting to ploughing competitors, before arriving to the bandstand to cut the ribbon.
In his address, President Higgins spoke of the need for land for young farmers.
“The greatest of all challenges is enabling young farmers to access the land to make a living, only 6 percent of farmers are under 35, and 51 percent are over 55,” he said, adding that less than half a percent of land was sold each year.
He noted that latest CAO figures showed agriculture had the “steepest rise of all courses” while praising Macra’s efforts to help young farmers through land leasing and shared farming.
He praised NPA head Anna May McHugh as a “great heroine of Irish ploughing”, and congratulated world champion ploughers John Whelan and Eamon Treacy.
NPA chairman James Sutton called on the crowds to support their countrymen in action over the three days.
“Your attendance is what makes this event a success,” he said.
Following blessings by Bishop Nulty, Archdeacon Murray and Dr Heather Morris, the President snipped a bright green ribbon with the help of NPA president Jimmy Grainger to launch the championships.
Afterwards, Ratheniska Marching Band playing the Presidential Salute and National Anthem, Aideen Morrin singing the ‘Song of the Plough’, while Tommy Fleming sang ‘A Song for Ireland’.