Queen of the Plough is Business Woman of the Year
Anna May McHugh has helped make the National Ploughing Championships one of the largest agricultural events in Europe
Anna May McHugh, managing director of the National Ploughing Championships. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
In a high field on a farm just outside Carlow a woman in a bright red coat is scrutinising a corner of freshly ploughed earth. “Nice and straight, it’s ploughing up lovely and dry,” she says, her voice rising over the industrious hum of machinery. “There’s plenty of soil there and if that was tilled there’d be good crops afterwards. It looks good now. He’ll be somewhere in the prizes depending on how he finishes.”
If anybody in the world knows what an expertly ploughed field should look like, it is Anna May McHugh. She has been involved in the business of ploughing for just over 60 years and has been managing director of the National Ploughing Championships since 1972. In that time, she has overseen the transformation of an event that began as an inter-county challenge between neighbours, growing the championships into one of the largest agricultural events in Europe.
Gary Ireland from Kilkenny, the man who worked this corner of land as part of the Co Carlow Ploughing Championship, looks across, laughing, pleased by the close attention being paid to his labour. There is an outbreak of earthy banter between ploughman and inspector. The woman in red is in her element.
After only a few minutes in her company it becomes clear that she is the rock star of the Irish ploughing scene. You may not recognise her face but there are few parts of the country where McHugh will not be sought out for her opinion on matters of ploughing or the harvest.
In a small white tent down in the lower field, where ruddy cheeked women are serving sandwiches, cream buns and pots of tea, McHugh is greeted warmly. Men with gnarled faces and twinkly eyes want to talk to her, women approach, all smiles, to shake her hand. “You’re a great woman,” says a woman who is a former Queen of the Plough, a winner in the ladies’ “farmerette” part of the competition.
The first ploughing championships was held in 1931 as a bit of competitive fun between two friends, Denis Allen from Gorey and JJ Bergin from Athy, to see which county had the best ploughmen. According to McHugh, that event cost nine pounds, three shillings and five pence to run. It costs around ¤3million now and attracts around 200,000 people over three days.
McHugh was only 17 years old in 1952 when Bergin asked her father if he knew anyone who could help out with the event in his office. She had just finished a commercial course in school and thought the secretarial job might last a few weeks. But she fell in love with the ploughing world and the ploughing world fell in love with her and she’s been up to her neck in it ever since.
McHugh is a woman who insists her ideal holiday is an annual trip to the World Ploughing Championships – they have taken her all over the world from New Zealand to Croatia. This year’s contest in Alberta, Canada, will have added interest because her daughter Anna Marie McHugh, press officer for the National Ploughing Association, has just been appointed as secretary of the World Ploughing Organisation.
“We’re still getting over the shock of it,” says her mother. As the representative from Ireland, Anna May was the first woman on the board of organisation. Now her daughter will be the first female secretary and they will both sit on the board together.
“Yes, ploughing is definitely in the family,” smiles Anna Marie, whose brother DJ and husband Declan Buttle are champion ploughers. Outside the tent, her toddler son is having a small tantrum because as his mother says “all he wants to do is get up to the field and watch his Daddy plough”.
Earlier this week, in a unanimous decision by the judges, Anna May McHugh was named the 2013 Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year for her “entreprenurial spirit and innovation” and for her “leadership, vision, courage and charisma”. Sipping coffee in the Fighting Cocks pub down the road from the ploughing fields, she says she has been reading up on Madame Clicquot, founder of the champagne house. “She was some woman,” says McHugh, a lifelong pioneer who has never tasted Champagne in her life and despite the win has no inclination to start now. “When I was told about the award I made sure to tell them I didn’t drink alcohol,” she smiles. “They didn’t mind.”