I’m reading the first instalment of Barack Obama’s memoirs at the moment. Entitled ‘A Promised Land’ the book is over 700 pages long, not counting the index and the trimmings. For a slow reader like me a work of such length is a daunting prospect. However, I am really enjoying it. Obama has a reputation as a ponderous policy wonk but he is also a lively writer, a great storyteller and his book zips along even when he wades into the minutiae of policy.
Among the many difficulties he faced as president was the inheritance of a country at war, with troops deployed on active service in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. During his first term the Arab Spring saw Libya implode and Syria explode. He had never served in the armed forces and felt this to be something of an impediment when it came to dealing with the military brass and making decisions that involved ordering military action. The fact that he had never been ‘that soldier’ weighed on him.
All this is by way of introduction to today’s topic, – the habits of tractor drivers on public roads. It will obviously take some leap of imagination to connect the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Straits of Hormuz with monitoring the progress of a John Deere on the roads of rural Ireland, but hang in there with me.
When it comes to commenting on the habits of tractor drivers, unlike Obama, I have served. I was once that soldier and campaigned in the driving seat of many galloping diesel-powered machines as they barrelled along rural roads hauling trailers a few times their size and weight.
More than a few of my youthful summers were spent drawing silage around the roads of west Limerick. Indeed, my brothers would claim that farms from Ballinacarriga to Ballysteen are littered with monuments to my less-than-careful driving skills. I am held responsible for leaning piers, buckled gates and rickety stone walls across four parishes. A certain farmer in Stonehall never loses the opportunity to remind me that my driving exploits rendered his gates bent beyond usefulness. The results wouldn’t look out of place in an exhibition of contemporary sculpture.
As time has gone by the legend has grown legs. I will admit that I may have altered the angle of one or two piers and, perhaps, an odd gate mightn’t be as well hung as it once was, but, contrary to family lore, I didn’t treat the farms of West Limerick like the set of Fast and Furious.
The machines we drove at that time were not the behemoths that ply the fields and roads of today. What we called tractors were simple machines, not much bigger than modern lawnmowers. Four wheels, an engine and a functioning hydraulic pump was as complicated as they got. Brakes were an added extra and any tractor with working lights was less than two weeks old. As for indicators, even cars didn’t have those luxuries.
Thankfully things have changed and the modern tractor is a sight to behold. To meet one coming towards you on a winter’s night with lights blazing from every angle is like encountering a craft designed and launched by NASA. It has every accessory and refinement imaginable; mirrors, brakes, wipers, indicators, heaters, air conditioning, a radio, even brake-lights.
However, I have issues with some of the people who pilot these rural space rovers. As they bomb along the public roads they need to remember that, even at full tilt, they’re only capable of travelling at between 40 and 50km/ph. I want to say to them, “just look into one of the multitude of mirrors at your disposal and see the line of cars behind you. Even Aunt Agartha in her 1 litre Toyota Yaris is capable of going twice as fast as you can. Find the next gap and just pull over.
The biggest bone of contention I have with the pilots of these modern contraptions is their failure to turn off the white lights at the back of the tractors when travelling on the public roads. These powerful lamps are generally installed high up on the rear of the cab, with perhaps two more attached to the rear mudguards. They are meant to cast light on whatever machine is operating behind the tractor when working at night on the land. If they remain switched on while driving along the public road they completely dazzle drivers coming behind and are most dangerous. I’m sure it isn’t a huge effort to turn them off, so lads, draw in the ego and hit the switch.
I’ve wanted to say these things for a long time and I don’t feel the slightest bit uneasy doing so. Unlike Obama I have the stripes to prove it and monuments scattered all over west Limerick to testify to the fact that I was that soldier.
First published in the Farming Independent, Tuesday, March 20th 2021