spacer The Tug 'o War
Brian O'Kane is the Chairman and Coach of the Glens Of Antrim Tug Of War Team. He revealed the truth behind Tug Of War and rural fairs to Ruth Graham one sunny day in Martinstown, just north of Ballymena.
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RG: How did you get involved in Tug Of War?

BO'K: I started when I was about 17, mainly competing in fairs around the Antrim Coast. We progressed onto the Young Farmers Clubs and it just built up from that. There has been a bit of a drop in local terms but we're trying to revive it again through the local fairs. This year we've been to Cushendun, Cushendall, Carnlough and Glenravel. The last one was a couple of weeks ago in Glenravel and we had around 140 participants.
Our club is The Glens Of Antrim and we've just come back from Scotland where we pulled in an outdoor competition. Some of the pullers from this club have represented Northern Ireland in the National Championships. The World Championships are coming up in Killarney in February.

RG: Have you been in the World Championships before?

BO'K: Not as a club, but a couple of our pullers have been. This is our first crack at it as a team.

RG: How would pullers over here rate by World Championship standards?

BO'K: There's a team in Armagh - Richhill - who won the UK Championships this year. They're past World Champions and would be looking to win a medal - preferably a gold medal. There's another team from Donegal which we pull against quite regularly and they're the reigning World Champions.

RG: What would a typical training session be like?

BO'K: We might do a two-mile run before we start or some stepping exercises to build up the leg muscles and then we would progress to rope work. We pull for about an hour and a half, which is fairly intensive. At the moment we are training 2 nights a week but that will step up to 3 when we get nearer to the championships. We also have a pulling night in Craigavon for the Northern Ireland championships and that's done every Saturday night for six weeks. That qualifies the teams to go for the International competitions. We're all weighed - like boxing - you can't put on eight big men to pull eight wee men. Everybody is weighed on the night on a weighbridge and the overall team has to be under a certain weight.
It's a wee bit like Weight Watchers. The idea is to get the biggest men possible slimmed down to get into the lightest weight category. You need to build muscle, but at the same time try to take weight off. This is quite a new team and we are just getting to the stage where we are putting the pressure on everyone to get down to their ideal weight.

RG: How do you toughen your hands up?

BO'K: In the Association, you're not allowed to use anything on your hands - they just get toughened up from use. Outdoors is slightly different and you're allowed to use resin. Your hands are always your weakest point. Whoever said that you 'pull' in Tug Of War was wrong: you actually 'push' with your legs because the legs are the strongest part of your body. You have to get your body long and locked out and it's all about being part of a team: everybody has to move at exactly the same time. We have a gantry for training and we pull this rope and we've got about 720 kilos in the basket which is about three quarters of a ton. A team that hasn't been training together would probably struggle to pull half that weight.
We've a good team and they're fairly committed. It can take 3 years for a team get to a reasonable level and it's a lot of commitment to get men to stay together for that length of time before they start winning. The problem in Northern Ireland is that, barring the fairs, there's quite a small number of teams competing seriously and there's no real 'B' division. You have to be 'A' standard or nothing at all.

RG: It must be difficult to fit in the training in at certain times if there are farmers on the team?

BO'K: Very hard. We find it difficult in the summer with the outdoor pulling because it takes place on a Saturday afternoon and it's difficult for self-employed men to take the time off. We don't find it so bad in the wintertime because we train after dark. That suits our men better.

RG: Do they need to wear special kit?

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BO'K: Indoors we wear flat soled trainers but they take an awful lot of abuse. You could wreck a pair over one championship - that's the sort of pressure that's on your feet. Outdoors we use boots. You also have to wear padded jumpers to avoid rope burns because it can be very hard on your side.
It's a sport that can reduce you to exhaustion in about 3 minutes and it's very humbling because you've trained for ages then you enter a competition and after a couple of minutes you are gone. As soon as one person stops or gives up or even slips, the team just crumbles. It's a chain reaction. That's how most of the pulls are ended. It's all about stamina. You learn to read the rope - it tells you what is happening.
Indoors, on the mats, you'd be looking at an average of 2 minutes for a pull. A very good pull in a championship might last 5 minutes. Outdoor pulling is different because it's more tactical and you can dig your feet in. You wait and maybe don't put that much effort in at the start, then it's just a holding game to see who goes first. As soon as you see somebody on the point of giving up, then that's the time to move. I think on one occasion in the World Championships, there was a pull that lasted 56 minutes.

RG: Would you use a lot of threatening eye contact and psychological staring?

BO'K: Not so much of that... no. Most of your aggression has to be directed inwards so there's very little psyching out of the other team. The coach has a big part to play - he's the man between you and the referee and the other team.

RG: What would constitute a foul?

BO'K: If your team lies down, or if they deliberately bring the rope to the ground, they're cautioned. Sometimes they would take a stumble but as long as they get up immediately they are ok. After 3 cautions, you are out. Everybody has to have their hands on the rope at all times and you can't knot the rope or create a lock in any way. There's even a limit on the amount of padding you have on and a limit to the size of heel on your boots. There are a lot of rules and regulations - it's a tough game.

RG: Would Tug Of War be a big event at most of the fairs?

BO'K: It would have been one of the best supported events around here. At the last fair we filled a 120-foot marquee - about 600-700 people. The Tug Of War was always successful here.

RG: Do you have a big fan club?

BO'K: Oh there's a massive fan club! At the festivals and fairs where there's local rivalry then it's very well supported. When you go to the National stage it's more the diehards that follow it. Compared to a football match, where you're there for an hour and half, at the big Tug Of War events you are nearly expected to stand from morning till night.
It's one sport where the best pullers are probably in their mid-30s or older because you don't have to be young to be at your best. There are pullers in their 40s and very often they are the best, simply because they know all the techniques and have built up their stamina.

RG: How do you think the tradition of Tug Of War started off in Ireland?

BO'K: I don't know really. My father used to do it at a local level and it's something that I don't want to let die, especially because there is a tradition of it in this area. We try to keep the traditional sports going but it's difficult with Playstations nowadays to get young ones to compete in any sport, but it's nice to try and keep some of the old ones going. We do Tossing The Sheaf round here too.

RG: Is that like Tossing The Caber?

BO'K: It's in a bag and you throw it over a bar with your pitchfork. We have some very good throwers round here as well. You would have Tossing The Sheaf at the local fairs. There would be boys interested in Tug Of War and Tossing The Sheaf just to try and keep these sports alive in the area. If you don't try, they just die out. I've had great enjoyment out of it over the years and I like to put something back. If you can spark a bit of an interest with the younger generation, that's what it's all about.

RG: Do you have any winning shouts or whoops?

BO'K: Not really, you just lie down and die...

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