Plough and its stars

Anna May McHugh, right, managing director of the National Ploughing Championships, is now assisted by her daughter Anna Marie. Picture: Michael O'Rourke

Anna May McHugh, the organiser of the National Ploughing Championships, has helped to steer the event through tough economic times and, with the help of her daughter, establish it as a hardy annual, writes Kyran Fitzgerald

EVERY two years the leading French champagne company Veuve Clicquot hands a gong to a businesswoman considered to have achieved excellence in her field.

This year’s winner, Anna May McHugh has literally devoted her life to excellence in the field in her capacity as the long serving MD of the National Ploughing Association.

These days, Anna May, in her 70s, operates in tandem with daughter, Anna Marie, but there is little doubt as to who is the boss.

The duo have the work ethic of a pair of dray horses, but their organisation has adapted with remarkable success to changed times.

The Laois woman has become something of a legend in rural Ireland and beyond as a result of her unstinting efforts with the group.

Her own association with the organisation dates to 1951 when her grandfather offered her as an assistant to the then director, JJ Bergin.

Bergin was a pioneer in Irish agriculture, an unsung hero operating in a world which largely predated mechanisation and rural electrification.

Ploughing encounters between localities have been observed as far back as 1816.

However, it was only in 1931 that the first formal competition between nine counties was organised under the aegis of Bergin and the association was formed.

The association can be compared, in a sense, to Macra na Feirme, the young farmers’ organisation, in fulfilling a dual role aimed at boosting both people’s social life and bringing about improvements in farming techniques.

JJ passed away in 1958, but his protégé just kept going, combining her NPA work with the busy life of a tillage farmer’s wife.

The ploughing championships has grown in scale and variety over the years since its unpromising beginnings during the Great Depression and the economic war between Ireland and Britain.

Times were extremely hard — exports had halved to just £17.5m by 1934.

The association sought to spread new ploughing techniques aimed at producing a well-skimmed sod turned many times over.

A firm bed suitable for modern implements is the aim.

These days, the National Ploughing Championships is a major gathering attended by the country’s political leaders. It takes place after harvest time as summer gives way to autumn.

In 2012, more than 180,000 people attended an event which, in ways, now resembles the sadly departed RDS Spring Show.

There were more than 1,300 people exhibiting their wares.

This compares with just 25 exhibitors back in the early 1950s.

Many food and craft firms now participate while last year, at the event in New Ross, the major supermarkets had stands.

In 2011, the association had accumulated profits of €9.5m, an increase of €800,000 on the preceding year.

Numbers have held up well through the recession while the amount of space taken has been reduced marginally.

In the late 1980s, Anna May managed to persuade the organisers of the Nissan Classic cycling event to pass through the ploughing event, bringing, in the process, a whole new group of people to the event, many of whom continue to return.

While the core exhibits are farming related, machinery in particular, visitors are tempted by fashion stores. State bodies and finance companies also now take stands as they seek to promote their wares.

Fashion has been on show since 1981 while livestock has been promoted since 1987. In 1988, the event was extended to three days to ease traffic congestion.

According to Anna Marie, the National Ploughing Association PRO, the recession has not affected exhibitor sales. Rates have held firm, though payments are now staggered in some cases.

Space is sold by the metre. An outdoor stand, 5m x 9m, costs €660. An indoor stand, 3m x 3m, costs €1,000.

It costs between €3m and €3.4m to stage the event. Much of the spend goes on steel and gravel roadways, on tow trucks and diggers, and insurance, as well as payments to local and public authorities for services.

The association relies on hundreds of volunteers to literally keep the show on the road.

Things can go pear shaped easily enough. In 2001, the threat of Foot & Mouth brought about a last-minute cancellation of the championship, setting the association back financially.

Even when the event goes ahead, transport congestion can be a huge bugbear as happened last year in Co Wexford.

It is likely that future championships will be in the Midlands where it works best for logistical reasons, says Anna Marie.

The McHugh daughter believes that tenacity is the key characteristic of her mother.

“She is never up later than 7.30am, never retires before 12.”

The association also organises Irish participation at the World Ploughing Championships which comes to Ireland every 15 to 20 years.

Anna May believes that her late husband, John McHugh’s willingness to help out with the children when they were young was crucial.

It allowed her to travel the world with the ploughing teams. She has visited Kenya, Zimbabwe, and North America, many times.

The association has between 2,500 and 3,000 members and invests its funds. Five staff shared €377,000 in 2011.

The association has a strong financial structure and a board of directors drawn from outside farming as well as from the land.

Anna May has spent all her life within a two to three mile radius within Co Laois, close to Athy.

From tillage farming stock, the Brennans, she married into a tillage family.

A onetime camogie player with caps from her county, Anna May’s real hobby is her work, though she gardens, keeps hens and attends to her four grandchildren during less hectic winter periods.

The pair do not plan any radical changes to the format. It is a case of steady as she goes.

Next October, the ladies will head for Reims, the French city that is the home of champagne and Veuve Clicquot.

Both are pioneers so while champagne will not cross their lips, no doubt they will still toast the 28-year-old widow who revived a leading champagne house two centuries ago.

Getting to know: Anna May McHugh

- Born: Co Laois, 1930s Anna May Brennan.
- 1951: Started work as an assistant to JJ Bergin, founder, National Ploughing Association.
- 1966: Married John McHugh. Second working life as farmer’s wife.

- 1973 to-date: Managing director National Ploughing Association.
- 1990: Winner, Laois Woman of the Year award.
- 2013: Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year, Ireland.


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