The history of the plough is closely linked to the development of settled agrarian lifestyles. The domestication of cattle in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, perhaps as early as the 6th Century BC, provided the power behind the simple scratch plough which, with adjustments, was the main form of the technology until the advent of the tractor in the 19th Century. Before this time, all ploughing was small-scale and done by hand.
In Enlightenment-era Europe, oxen were generally replaced with heavy horses, and ploughs became more weighty and improved in design, aided by technology imported from China by the Dutch. Later, as steam and internal combustion engines emerged, able to bear multiple-furrow and rotating ploughs, the use of livestock sharply declined, especially in the West.
Since proficiency in ploughing is directly correlative to successful sowing and food production in general, there has always been a competitive element to the discipline, usually as a matter of pride between neighbouring ploughmen. In 1931, two farmers (one from Co. Kildare, and the other from Co. Wexford) sought to settle their debate on which of the Irish counties produced the best ploughmen by instigating a national competition. Forty entries were received from across Ireland, with Wexford ultimately beating Wicklow and Kilkenny into second and third positions respectively. This successful event spawned others around the country, making the formation of a national ploughing association a necessity.
Under the auspices of the NPA, the championship has grown from a curiosity of small note to being the largest agricultural event in Europe, attracting nigh on two hundred thousand visitors over its three days. Until 1949, all competitions were for horse-drawn ploughs, but this has diversified widely in the last sixty years.
The National Ploughing Championship has no permanent location, there having been over thirty different venues over its eighty year history, but is held over the penultimate weekend in September each year. There are presently around twenty classes or disciplines of ploughing which one may enter – including competitions for age groups, vintage tractors, horse-pulled ploughs, and types of furrow – as well as many other attractions and sideshows.
A competition plot is 100m (roughly half a furlong) x 20m, with variations for reversible ploughing. A set period of time is permitted both for the opening furrow (which thereafter acts as a guide) and for ploughing the remaining plot, with penalty points given for over-running. Achievement is not, as might be expected, a mere matter of speed, but is determined by a complex judging process, in which furrow shape, depth, and straightness are all taken into account. Nine sets of measurements are taken per plot, and points awarded or deducted for the individual measurements and averages.
Due to the scale of the event, appropriate venues are now hard to come by. A minimum three hundred acre site is required for the ploughing, parking facilities, and accompanying village of trade stands and livestock exhibitions. The championship has become a truly national event, attracting visitors from all walks of Irish life – including many ingratiating politicians – and not just the farming community.
The World Ploughing Championships have been held as part of the NPC on five occasions – 1954, 1973, 1981, 1996, and 2006.
Scoring System, Conventional Ploughing
1. Opening Split:
Completeness of cutting through the sod throughout the whole length and width of the split. Uniformity and Neatness. 10 points.
No stubble, grass or weed (trash). Furrow slices close. No wheel marks. 10 points.
Uniform furrow slices. No high ridge. Soil made available. 10 points.
4. General work: [Weed control]
No stubble, grass or weed (trash) Skimmers must be used. 10 points.
5. General work: [Weed control]
Furrow slices close and firm. No holes. No wheel marks. 10 points.
6. General work: [Seed bed]
Soil made available for seed bed. 10 points.
7. General work: [Seed bed]
Uniformity and conformity of furrow slices. 10 points.
8. Ins and Outs:
Neatness and regularity. No wheel marks. 10 points.
Neatness and weed control. 10 points.
Closeness and uniformity of finishing furrow slices. Narrowness and shallowness. Only one wheel mark allowed. 10 points.
Measured four times: (i) Opening Furrow, (ii) Crown, (iii) General Work, (iv) Finish. 20 points.
12. General appearance:
All aspects and workmanship. Clearly defined and uniform furrow slices. No pairing of furrows. 10 points.
Non-farming events to take place during the Championships include ‘most appropriately dressed’ man and woman for which there is a prize of a holiday.