Volunteerism is the bedrock of rural communities striving to defend their services, culture, and way of life against threats from growing centralisation and urbanisation.
It is also the heartbeat of towns and villages as they work to develop their economies, hold on to their young people, and build a brighter future for all. They have made much progress but a lot work remains to be done to ensure the survival of many rural places.
Rural Ireland has many monuments to the selfless work of volunteers who
devote much of their time to the welfare of their own communities. One example is the committee that went against tradition in Charleville, Co Cork, 40 years ago to start an agricultural show where there had never been one before.
It will celebrate that anniversary this coming Saturday and Sunday (June 29-30) with a programme that balances serious competition in cattle, horses, sheep and other classes, with other activities that have a broader public appeal.
Charleville Show, now regarded as the country’s largest two-day event, costs some €250,000 to stage on a 70-acre site.
The story of how it all began reflects the character, resilience and vision of rural people, but it is also an account of how a community can tackle and overcome challenges with volunteerism, dedication, and support.
A local curate, the late Canon Donal O’Driscoll, who was later parish priest of Cloyne, was the driving force behind the move.
The late Jerry Lyons, who had a long association with the event, clearly remembers the priest telling those at a meeting to forget about tradition.
Charleville was the centre of one of the best agricultural areas in the country, the home of Golden Vale Co-op, and should have a show of its own. He was clearly persuasive.
It was decided to go ahead with organising a show. Fr O’Driscoll was elected chairman, with William Biggane vice chairman, Maura Sheehan secretary, Dan Murphy treasurer, and Pat O’Riordan public relations officer. Three members of that first committee, Ian Doyle, Nora Leahy, and Mr O’Riordan, are still office holders today. Jim O’Callaghan, who served as show secretary for many years from 1982, is also a committee member.
The first task was to secure a site for the show. The late Joan Binchy offered the use of her lands. A date was secured from the Irish Shows Association and the last weekend in June 1979 was chosen.
The success of the inaugural event was due to generous sponsorship, primarily from Golden Vale, now part of Kerry Group, the goodwill of the town traders and voluntary help.
It cost £22,000 to stage. More than £3,000 and 45 cups and trophies were on offer in 101 classes. There were 1,038 entries from five counties. And it encouraged the organisers to stage a two-day show in its second year.
But it poured rain the night before that expanded event, making the site a quagmire. It was decided, however, to proceed.
Tractors were used to bring trade stands and other equipment on to the site.
The weather improved and a big crowd on the second day, combined with the overall high standard in the 200 classes, made the event an outstanding success. Entries were up 35%.
One of the events showed the visionary outlook of the organisers. It was a waste recycling competition, the first of its kind in the country. Today, there is hardly a show in the land without some focus on the environment.
Over the years, the show has earned a reputation for the quality of its exhibits, especially in dairy. The All Ireland junior cow championship continues to attract entries from the country’s top breeders.
Early on, the organisers realised there was a need to broaden the programme. Sulky racing, tug o war, sheaf tossing, lawn mower racing, Formula One cars and exhibitions of rare animal breeds were introduced.
A Famine Pageant, initiated by the late Michael McCarthy (‘The Hiker’) from Buttevant was a
particular crowd puller.
Charleville Show was the first to introduce music for the Sunday afternoon, with the Bairds, Dublin City Ramblers, Louise Morrissey, Kathy Durkin, and Johnny Barrett performing.
That tradition will continue next Sunday with Mike Denver topping the bill. A book celebrating the event’s history is being published by the Show Society.
And there will be a pop up museum in the showgrounds by Charleville Heritage Society, which will also host a visit from its twin, Croesgoch Heritage Society in Wales.
Goodwick Brass Band, the British and Welsh national brass band title holders, will be also guests of the Heritage Society. The band will perform on Sunday and headline a concert that night in the Park Hotel.
The vintage section, part of the show since the beginning, is now one of the largest in Ireland.The late Dick Bradley, a key organser, will be remembered this weekend with a perpetual cup in his name.
Permanent grounds were purchased at Pike Cross, Ballyhea, in 1991 with the help of a shareholding drive. Two years later, Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, competed in a show jumping class at the event.
Selected on two occasions (2013 and 2016) for the “Show of the Year” award, the organisers headed by chairman Thomas Blackburne, secretary Eleanor Fleming, treasurer Gerard Cott, and PRO Billy Biggane are all aware of what makes the event so successful.
They say it would not be possible to run the show at such high standards without generous support of sponsors, especially that of the main sponsors, Kerry Agribusiness. Many sponsors have been with the event since it was founded.
The show attributes its success to its community base. All committee members work voluntarily and it receives a lot of help before and during the event.