As I approach the IPA (Irish Ploughing Association) Headquarters in Ballylinan, County Laois, I realise I am not entering an office but a home. Anna May’ McHugh’s house is of course the home of the Ploughing, only a few kilometres from Ratheniska where the Championships take place. There are scores of people upstairs and down, huddling over laptops, filling envelopes and answering phones. With the three day event only weeks away, it’s busy, but there’s a homely, cozy feel to the place that makes you want to pitch in and help if you’re asked! As I sit down with Anna May for our interview, I am struck by her gentle and adorable eyes. Her daughter Anna Marie offers some tea, and when the tea arrives brack arrives, it feels like home.
Europe’s largest outdoor agricultural trade show
The National Ploughing Championships has grown to become Europe’s largest outdoor agricultural trade show, hosting approx 300,000 visitors over three days. When I ask Anna May how she manages it all, Jillian, who is stuffing envelopes beside us, answers for her, “It is family, she is surrounded by family and a great team.”
Recently the working hours are seven-day weeks, starting at 7am until midnight. Her daughter Anna Marie is the General Secretary, and her son DJ is a farmer. Anna May is surrounded by a full-time team who work all year round to get the enormous event underway. Last year when she got a roof-top view of the event from Enterprise Centre last year, she tells me she felt “sick with shock” at it’s enormity and wondered “am I really responsible for all of this?”
The Ploughing Championships cost €6.5 million to run in 2022
Raised on a farm in Ballylinan, County Laois, Anna May has been with the National Ploughing Association for 71 years, serving as secretary for 21 years before being appointed Managing Director in 1973. In 1954, coaxed by her father, she started working at 17 as an assistant to the founder JJ Bergin, who lived down the road. Three years later she was the company secretary and hasn’t looked back since. At the age of 89, she tells me, smiling, “did you ever notice it’s always the busy ones who get asked to do everything?” There were 25 stands at the first event in 1954, “now there are 17,000,” she says, quoting data from her active mind. It cost £9, 3 shillings, “The event cost €6.5 million to run last year.”
She is proud it is now a more family-friendly event
I ask her to recall some of the highs and lows over the seven decades. She is quite proud of making it a more family-friendly event. 1984 was the first year for fashion shows and brown bread making. Today there are 3 fashion shows a day and Aldi donate €15,000 to the winner of the brown bread making competition, she explains, “these events all bring a different audience”. 2018 proved a difficult year with heavy downpours and gale force winds from Storm Ally, causing the event to shutdown on Day 2. Due to dry weather, it re-opened for Day 3. Her son DJ recalls, ”we had brilliant people working through the night. From 3am we had 120 loads of bark mulch delivered and it was all hands on deck.”. He also recalls meeting two Kerry farmers in the carpark on the morning of the windstorm. Asking how they arrived in such terrible conditions, they responded “Sure we’d often spray our fields in this weather.”
I ask her about her late husband John. She chuckles “apparently I kept him waiting.” Gay Byrne interviewed Anna May for his program ‘The Meaning of Life’ in the Clonard Court Hotel nearby. “He was really lovely, and when he asked me about John and how long it took us to get married, he said I had kept him waiting!” John was a farmer who lived just two miles away from her family farm. They married in 1966 and John died in 2007. I ask her again what keeps her so energetic and positive and she tells me “I get up early, my health is good and as long as it’s good, I’ll keep on going. Health plays a big part in it. If I hadn’t got good health, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. I was blessed. I can never remember being sick and that’s the truth”.
As she waves me off (and tells me to drive home safely), I’m thinking of words to describe her. She is a one-of kind ‘force.’ And with her daughter Anna Marie and strong team by her side, they have created a one-of-a-kind phenomenon in Irish culture.