When someone describes a ridge of hand ploughed soil as “a sculpture” you know they’re passionate about it. Kathleen O’Reilly’s passion for the traditional craft of loy digging has seen her become a two-time All-Ireland Champion.
The Mullagh farmer will make a first step in her bid to unearth a third national title on Monday, May 5, when she takes to the fields of Gerry and Patricia Galligan for the Cavan Ploughing Championships. Kathleen will be favourite to retain her County Cavan title in Carrick, and secure herself a place alongside Ireland’s finest exponents the craft in Stradbally come September.
She’s eager to get back to winning ways as three years have elapsed since her last national title, having come third last year, and second in 2012.
So, is she in the midst of a gruelling training regime in preparation?
“Do you want the truth?” she asks with a laugh. “I don’t have much time to practise, but coming up to an All-Ireland I do a bit of practising - obviously an All-Ireland is serious stuff, and there’s a couple of people at the top and they are so good at what they do. In the shake-up, the same people are always at the top.”
Kathleen shared her love for the world of ploughing with her late father, Patrick O’Reilly, who was her coach when she competed in the conventional tractor-pulled ploughing. Patrick represented Cavan at the nationals numerous times in tractor ploughing and was an organiser of the Cavan championships.
“I’ve grown up with it in the house,” recalls Kathleen, “it was all about the ploughing championships, there would be meetings throughout the year, organising the championships.”
When Patrick passed away Kathleen, who is a suckler and beef farmer, turned to loy-digging.
“I didn’t have anyone really to help me, so I switched over and started doing the loy digging.
“It meant that if I was travelling to a match I could throw my loy in the boot of the car; if you were to use a tractor you’d need to organise lorries to transport your tractor there and it’s a much bigger deal.”
Kathleen found the loy digging fraternity a welcoming bunch.
“The kind of guys at the loy, they’re really really good - if they see someone new coming along, they will actually show them how to do it and help you to do it - encourage you and coach you along. That’s how I got into it.”
Kathleen refers to it as a “traditional craft”, and stresses that while it looks simple, it’s actually “back breaking”.
“This would have been used pre-Famine times when people couldn’t even afford to feed a horse to plough their land - so they were doing this work themselves, and back then you had nobody complaining with obesity because they were physically working, and their diet was different. A bit of work’s not going to kill anybody.”
So which is more important - strength or technique?
“Probably technique I would say, but you need to be fit as well because it is physically hard. It depends on the type of ground as well. In this part of the country here it is so suitable for loying, a lot of it is done in Longford and Westmeath and the ground is just brilliant to do it. Then you go down to the south of Ireland to compete in the National Ploughing Championships and you go into a field of stones and it’s just impossible to do it. That’s why the loy was traditionally used in this part of the country years and years ago, when they needed it to feed their families.”
Asked how people react when she discloses her past time, Kathleen says:
“Most people have no idea what it is, and then when they actually see it being done, they are in awe of the job you are doing - how well you can make a ridge of turned soil, to get it ready for a crop, with a hand-held wooden implement with a metal tip on it.”
A glance at the rules applicable at the national championships, which help to distinguish the best from the loy polloi, shows just how exact a science it is:
‘On a base of 3’ 10” a ridge shall consist of two rows of sods turned towards each other, with a space of 4” being the centre verge, which will be clean of loose soil. A plot shall consist of two complete ridges i.e. four rows of sods, three furrows and two centre verges. The outside furrows being the half furrows, and the centre furrow being the main furrow. Total base of plot 7’ 8”.’
Bamboozled? Well the upshot is, the rows of sods a competitor digs up must be identical. To the uninitiated it comes as a surprise that female competitors have three hours to complete this exercise in precision.
“You wouldn’t waste a minute at it,” assures Kathleen, “because you are turning over your sod and perfecting it. It has to be straight and it has to be the correct depth - they [the judges] will actual measure it with a little marker to see if it is deep enough. When you see some of the good jobs done it is absolutely amazing, you’d wonder how someone could do that with a piece of soil - make such a sculpture out of it - it’s amazing. You have a centre where the green grass is showing and there wouldn’t be a crumb of soil in there. Some of these men are total craftsmen.”
‘Craftsmen’ almost doesn’t do it justice - the end results appear to be the work loy surgeons making incisions in the soil. Accordingly, all good muck-surgeons need a scalpel.
“Your loy is handmade and it’s made for you, so you can’t go into a shop and buy a loy. It goes on the size of your hand and your height as well - because obviously you don’t want the handle to be higher than your head.”
Kathleen’s grown attached to her own loyal loy.
“I’ve won two All Irelands with it, and it has been all over the country with me.”
She won’t have far to lug her loy for the eagerly anticipated Cavan Championships, come the first Monday of May; just the half hour jaunt from St Kilian’s country to the banks of Lough Sheelin.
Organisers are hopeful for a great crowd for the event, which will raise money for St Paul’s, Church of Ireland Ballymachugh, and St Mary’s Church in Carrick.
“When you go to a new area people are intrigued by it, and if you get a nice day there’s an amazing turn out. You have vintage ploughing, and there’s a huge interest in vintage machinery and tractors, so you get an awful lot of vintage followers coming to it and there will be horse ploughing at it as well - and God they just draw the crowd. They don’t have to do anything the crowd just turns up! If you advertise horse ploughing the crowd will be there because it’s such a natural, beautiful thing to see two horses walking the field, ploughing it.”
Kathleen has huge admiration for the organising
committee behind the
Cavan Ploughing Championships.
“We have a very dedicated, hard working team behind the scenes, this match just doesn’t happen. There’s a team of guys behind the scenes working and they do such an amazing job, and are probably not half rewarded or thanked enough for what they do.”