Farmers and ploughmasters will be hoping for a sunny day on Sunday next, March 8, when the 2008 Westmeath County Ploughing Championships take place on the green fields of north Westmeath.
Castlepollard will be the venue for this illustrious Westmeath competition, with local farmer Andy Boyhan of Bigwood, Castlepollard volunteering to offer his lands to the Ploughing Association for their use.
This is the second time a ploughing match has been held in this particular field. The first time - 1946 - was an all-horse event, with the exception of one tractor and plough.
Tractors were a new feature on Irish farms in the late 1940s, and you only have to look at a farm in Westmeath nowadays to see how much farming practices have changed over the years.
The 1940s were years of much interest in ploughing in the Castlepollard area. Names that come to mind include James Murtagh of Cummerstown, Collinstown; Barney Ivory and Patrick Briody of Fore; James Rooney of Ballycomoyle, Sam Shirley of Castlepollard, James McDermott of Ankerland and many more.
Others of that area included James Gavigan, Tom O"Neill, James McGuinness, all of Collinstown; John Hannon, Liam Mulligan, Bellaney; Pat Brynes, Ballycomoyle; the Robinson brothers, Tullynally; Pat Simons, Oldcastle; Batty McEnroe, Liss; Owney McDonnell, Dungimmon and others of note.
Tee Bruton of Whitehall, who passed away in 2001, was instrumental in organising ploughing competitions in the 1930s. An accomplished farrier, Tee had a wonderful relationship with horses, and was a masterful ploughman in his day.
John Coyle of Hilltown, Castlepollard was another very able ploughman, and his team of Clydesdales was a sight to behold. His helper was Paddy Reilly from Ballinacree. His ploughing was described as a work of art, and he still ploughed with horses as late as the 1960s.
James Rooney of Ballycomoyle was one of the best men in the area to handle horses, and he collected many prizes for putting them to plough. Jim Ward of Loughpark could plough an Irish acre or day, and ploughed with horses until 1955, when he moved to the diesel tractor.
The late James McDermott of Ankerland, Fore, travelled all over the country with his plough on the roof of Bill (Curate) Briody"s car. Bill was his helper, and they collected many prizes. Well known county councillor Frank McDermott is James"s son.
The Tractor and the Loy
On Sunday next, the majority of ploughing carried out in Castlepollard will be by tractor, with the exception of the loy digging category, which will see an antiquated tool known as the loy plough brought into action.
Loy digging - the old way for 'turning the sod' is still a popular pastime in Ireland, to the extent that a national Loy Digging Association exists, involving a number of men from Westmeath, including Castlepollard"s Tom Egan (a founder member).
Loy ploughing took place on very small farms or on very hilly ground, where horses couldn"t work, or perhaps where horses couldn"t be afforded by the farmer.
The loy, a one-eared spade, was a tool much used during the dark days of the Irish Famine. It varied in shape and size, as did the ridges made with them. The loy which was used in the Castlepollard area was known as the 'big loy', the most specialised and efficient of these tools.
While narrow ridges are most often made with it, 'sets' of around twelve sods are possible, and they are indistinguishable from conventionally ploughed land.
The reigning national loy champion is Collinstown"s Paddy Boyhan, and he will be demonstrating his skills in Castlepollard this Sunday.
Westmeath horse ploughmen who have won national titles include the late Luke Bracken, Derrygolden; Stephen Lynam, Ballybroder; the late Tom Wrafter, Shureen, and Pat Minnock.
In the tractor classes, names like PJ Lynam, Coola, James Evans, Ballynacargy, and Paul Daly come to mind.
Fourth in "Pollard - The the 2008 Westmeath County Ploughing Championships is the fourth to have taken place in the north Westmeath area since 1946. In 1948, the championships took place in the area for a second time in a row on Cruise"s farm in Collinstown.
In 1995, after almost fifty years of an absence from Castlepollard, the championships took place at Eugene O"Neill"s farm outside the village, and in 2001, the competition was held at Seamus Ward"s farm at Loughpark.
Sunday"s championships will kick off at 12 noon at Bigwood for senior, junior and Under 21 classes, with a farmerette category also open to the ladies, with prizes in all classes for both open and confined competitors. There will also be a vintage class and, of course, the loy class. The winners will go on to represent Westmeath at the National Ploughing Championships.
The 2008 Westmeath Ploughing Championships will be a wonderful day out for all the family, with a dog show, vintage tractor display and other attractions also scheduled. For more details, contact Secretary of Westmeath Ploughing Association, PJ Lynam on (086) 2513787.
The Westmeath Ploughing Association Executive Committee is as follows - Chairman: Paul Daly (Kilbeggan); Secretary: PJ Lynam (Kilbeggan); Treasurer: Michael Halpin (Castlepollard); PRO: Tom Egan (Castlepollard).
The organisers hope that Sunday"s event will be a terrific success, and blessed with good weather. God speed the plough!