Ploughing a furrow at the national championships near Athy

'I'll tell you something, if the McHughs [the family who run the event] were running the country we'd have no problems!" says Mary Smith at the Irish Countrywoman's Association tent. "The Ploughing Championships have replaced the Spring Fair as the place where country people gather."

As a townie, I do feel a bit out of place as I stroll among the multi-generational crowd. While watching the efficient manoeuvres of a sheepdog at the early morning sheepdog trials, I don't say, "That's one fine efficient bitch!" (as one chap says). Instead I think: "How adorable!" And when I pass the livestock section where cattle gaze out at a kiosk selling quality Irish steak, I find myself thinking, "How insensitive... I hope none of those cows can read!"

The National Ploughing Championships began in 1931 when JJ Bergin of Athy challenged Denis Allen of Gorey, Co Wexford to a competition to prove which county had the best ploughmen. The competition now includes modern ploughing techniques, the horse-drawn variety and also, intriguingly, the manual kind practiced with a 19th-century implement called a 'loy'. Indeed, for four hours a mix of young men in AC/DC T-shirts, young women in fashionable jeans and older men in more traditional caps, slacks and shirts, all compete to till a bit of stony ground without the aid of beast or machine.

"These are tools which would have been used in the pre-Famine times," says George from Sligo, who was competing. "And they'd have been used right up until the 1960s in the poorer lands."

"They were used a lot in Leitrim," adds his wife Violet, who was also competing. "You could take the loy places you couldn't take a tractor."

Violet marks out a line on the ground with some twine and a couple of pegs and George demonstrates how it's done (Violet skilfully manoeuvres me out of the path of her husband's swiftly moving loy when it becomes clear I've no common sense).

"It's good to keep the old traditions alive," says George. "And I'll tell you what, you don't need to go to a gym if you do this!"

In the next field, a number of horses that look like they're wearing legwarmers are pulling ploughs. "This is a Clydesdale and that one's half shire and half Clydesdale," says Dermot Mohan from Monaghan, who's assisting his father Benny. "The judges are looking for depth and straightness and width."

But nobody actually farms like this anymore though, right?

"Well, my dad still does this at home. That's his tractor," says Dermot proudly, pointing at the horses. "He loves it. Now, would I do it? That's the million-dollar question."

'Let the dog see the rabbit!'

Although there are a plenty aficionados of ploughing techniques, many punters stick to the vast exhibition area, where vintage tractors sit next to state-of-the-art machinery, delicious food stalls and industry exhibitions. The combination of old and new is best demonstrated at the ICA tent where Mary White's and Cait Chlinse's expert demonstration of lovely old-school recitation and storytelling is drowned out by the too-loud DJ at the fashion show next door.

"It was bad timing," sighs White. "But generally we had a great turn out. We had craft displays and butter making and a whole lot of traditional stuff. We have this image of being old fogies who knit and drink tea – but sure Madonna knits now; it's very fashionable!"

Over at the bandstand some teenage girls ask country band Hillbilly Porter to play a reel, to which they exhibit some expert Irish dancing. Later the stage is dominated by the country 'n' Irish stylings of PJ Murrihy and grey-haired jivers show the youngsters how it's done.

Nearby, Richie Kavanagh is singing: "Did you ever have a ride? Did you ever have a ride? Did you ever have a ride... in a tractor?" He's hollering along to a horrible synth backing track while dressed like a colour blind toddler. The tent is packed with perplexed-looking people.

I suppose every well-attended event has its shysters. "I repeat," sighs a voice over the Tannoy, "do not give your money to three-card-trick merchants!"

The crowd of people huddled around the three-card trickster don't care. "If you're not in you can't win! I've more money to give than Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan put together! Let the dog see the rabbit!" he says, surreally.

"There's only one rabbit here," mutters a middle-aged man. He's referring to the innocent-looking youngster, to whom the fraudster is directing most of his banter.

"I'll take the bet!" says a man out of the blue, melodramatically handing over a ¤50 note. He picks a card from the three cards laying face down on a cardboard box. Lo and behold it's the missing queen. The fraudster feigns disappointment.

"Let it not be said, that I do not pay up!" he says with a saintly expression and hands both 50s to the newcomer, a man who looks remarkably like him. Half of the people are in stitches.

"He's clearly your brother, man!" says a voice from the crowd.

Bait-and-switch techniques

The card sharp ignores this, switches the cards around and again addresses the youngster. "Here's 50 quid," he says, holding out a note. "You show me 50 and pick a card."

"I'm pretty sure that's the card," he says nervously, pointing to the one on the left. "But I'm also pretty sure it won't be the card when you turn it over."

"Well, you'll never know unless you put some money down," says the older man shamelessly.

"Don't do it... It's a scam!" call several voices.

The three-card trickster looks hurt. As I'm sure did Brian Cowen when his appearance at the championship was greeted by similar heckles from 'No to Lisbon' campaigners and those uncomfortable with the bait-and-switch techniques of Nama. There's an undercurrent of hard times beneath the good vibrations.

"We saw some feed-bins today which we'd like to buy, but we're going to have to wait for better days," said George Hayes from Lisburn. "Like many farmers we're coasting at the minute so we can't spend too much money."

But neither George nor his wife Gwen look glum. "We guessed the young handlers competition spot on!" says Gwen. "That's a competition to see how well young people can show and handle cattle and we guessed the winner. It's not the best time for farmers. But then it's not the best time for anyone. We'll ride it out. Sure the sun is out and it's a great day."