Brian Cowen at the National Ploughing Championship on Thursday

The cops were taking no chances. Out in the ploughing fields, far from a potentially maddened crowd, they began to appear as An Taoiseach stepped from his Range Rover. It was 10.42am and Brian Cowen looked to be in fine fettle for the time of day.

Last Thursday, Cowen walked among the people for the first time since his recent travails. He attended the National Ploughing Championships in Athy, an annual jaunt for party leaders and taoisigh, in which they throw on the wellies to meet and greet.

Some, like the gardaí and the media, foresaw great strife in store for the leader in these precarious times. How would the national anger manifest itself in this great coming-together of rural Ireland? Would somebody lob mud bombs from a greasy, grassy knoll? Could a bullock be lying in ambush, driven on by the angry plain people of Ireland? Are you going for a pint?

First stop was the ploughing, which actually attracts few of the 200,000 or so patrons. Cowen was accompanied by his parliamentary batman, John Maloney, and a platoon of cops who stuck to the fringes of the entourage, ready at a moment's notice to tackle any rampaging bull attacking from over the horizon.

A few on their way in to the stands stopped to see what all the fuss was about. One woman moved in close, saw who it was and turned and shouted back to her young son. "Jack, Jack, come over here." She didn't wait for him, but ran over, scooped him up and brought him forward to catch a glimpse of the national leader.

"I thing he's doing a good job in bad circumstances," Nora Newman, who's from Kildorrey in Cork, said. "It's unfair that he's criticised for the way he looks and that and he is entitled to his privacy." Jack was of a like mind, or at least he appeared starstruck.

After perusing a few furrows, the caravan moved onto the real action, the acres of commercial stands. Inside the food and craft village, Cowen was greeted with open arms by all manner of people trying to sell their wares. Everywhere he went, he was accosted by people wishing to shake his hand. One craftsman handed him a bottle of apple juice, but alarm bells went off at the mere sight of a bottle. The offending article was passed to Maloney, who held onto it before offloading it to somebody else. No bottles to be seen in the vicinity of the leader.

Further on in the procession, Maloney guided Cowen towards a bakery stand called Lynn's Pantry, which is in Cloneygowan, Co Offaly, in the heart of both men's constituency. After doing his duty, Cowen's natural instinct was to move to the next stand, which happened to be O'Hara's of Carlow brewing company. The PR honchos in attendance nearly seized up. Terrible vistas of booze-mad headlines flooded their imaginations. The Taoiseach's elbow was seized and firmly moved away from possible headline. This was going to be a booze-free photo op.

From there, Cowen ventured out to meet and greet in the muck. Everywhere he went there were handshakes, children brought forth for an audience, photographs. The cops looked on, beginning to relax to the notion that this was not going to be a day of strife.

Betty Delaney ran forward to greet Cowen. She thinks he is Taoiseach at the "wrong time; the harm was done before he ever came in". Her friend, who declined to give her name, disagreed vehemently, but she didn't express her ire to the Taoiseach.

There were a few snide comments around the fringes of the Cowen caravan, but nobody confronted him. In one instance, a man shouted something indecipherable, but was taken politely in hand by a uniformed garda who told him to move on.

Despite the foreboding, there was no need to call the cops into action. For a few hours there, we could easily have been back in the bubble years, when leaders could do no wrong.