Jesuits 'put their hands to the plough' in Ireland

The Jesuits' stand at the National Ploughing Championships in Ireland
The Jesuits' stand at the National Ploughing Championships in Ireland

Several British Jesuits have been among the 1,700 exhibitors at the National Ploughing Championships that have been taking place near Tullamore, in County Offaly (Ireland) this week. Records were broken on the first day of the event, with more than 100,000 visitors coming through the gates.

The display set up by the Jesuits in Ireland has been among hundreds of trade stands at this annual ploughing occasion that was last held in Tullamore nine years ago. Hundreds of acres have been ploughed by the 350 entrants taking part in 20 ploughing competitions since Tuesday. But Ireland’s National Ploughing Championships are about far more than agriculture, machinery and farmers. Alongside motor cars, food and craft stalls, garden displays, fashion shows and sheep dog trials, the Jesuits’ stand – complete with a life-size cut-out of Pope Francis – has been displaying the wide range of ministries in which the Jesuits are involved. These include homelessness, working with people affected by substance abuse and social disadvantage; leaflets for young people about making life choices have also been popular, as well as visitors expressing an interest in vocations.Earlt morning Mass in the Jesuit marquee in Tullamore

Early morning Mass in the Jesuit marquee got the day off to a reflective start, before the crowds started to flock into the site. Among the British Jesuits in attendance has been Fr Tom McGuinness SJ, who is currently on the team at the Manresa Spirituality Centre in Dollymount. He was particularly impressed by the number of people who came in for a blessing with the cross of Fr John Sullivan SJ in the Sacred Space prayer room in the Irish Jesuits’ marquee. Fr Sullivan (1861 - 1933) was an Irish Jesuit who was received into the Catholic Church at Farm Street, London, in 1896. In 2014, Pope Francis declared him to be known as ‘Venerable’ – a man who had “lived a life of heroic virtue” – which is the stage before beatification. Among the visitors to the Jesuits’ stand was Kathleen Murphy from Horseleap, Co Offaly, whose mother remembers Fr Sullivan going round on his bike visiting the poor and the sick.

Working at the coalface

Among the politicians who visited the Jesuit tent was Ireland’s Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Simon Coveney. He praised the work of the Peter McVerry Trust – formerly the Arrupe Society – which has been working with homeless people in Dublin for more than 30 years. It was set up by Fr Peter McVerry SJ after he witnessed first-hand the problems of homelessness and deprivation at Summerhill, in Dublin’s north inner-city, in the 1970s. Mr Coveney praised the work of the Trust which he said was “working at the coalface … with the many, many hundreds of people who need the support services they provide.”

Young visitors to the Jesuits' stand take selfies with Pope FrancisOther Jesuits from Britain who staffed the stand at the National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore were Fr Peter Scally SJ, parish priest of Sacred Heart Church in Edinburgh, who contributed musically to the Jesuits’ presence; and Fr David Stewart SJ of the Apostleship of Prayer/the ‘Hearts on Fire’ project. He described it as “an absolutely amazing event”, despite the rather wet weather. “We’ve had a large number of people from all parts of Ireland – and beyond – coming to visit us here in this Jesuit pavilion,” he said. “Many have come, especially younger people, because they wanted to have a selfie taken with … Pope Francis.”

The numbers expected at the National Ploughing Championships, which conclude today, are expected to be an all-time high. And even the inclement weather hasn’t been able to spoil the occasion, according to the National Ploughing Association’s Managing Director, Anna May McHugh, halfway through the event. “We expected large crowds again today given the positive reports and great feedback received yesterday, and even showers in the afternoon didn’t dampen the party mood and festive spirit,” she said.

Visit the Irish Jesuits' Facebook page for more photos, videos and personal refelections from the National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore, Co Offaly.