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.”
She got the impression from reading about Madame Clicquout that the champagne producer was a workaholic. “Remind you of anyone?” the people in McHugh’s office teased when she pointed that out.
“I suppose I do live and breathe ploughing,” she says. How does she switch off? “I have to say I find talking about ploughing is great for relaxing. I love it.” She smiles then, an acknowledgement that switching off isn’t something she knows very much about. “I always say if you want to achieve great things you must work as if you were never going to die. I work better under pressure anyway,” she says.
The workaholic accusation is one that sticks. Ploughing judge Jim Dunphy remembers taking calls from her at all hours of the morning. “When something comes into her head about ploughing, she’d have to ring you to talk about it no matter what hour.” He talks about her “brilliant brain for business”, and her “incredible organisation ability”.
It’s her natural flair for organisation that means every year she can take a green field site of 700 acres and transform it into a temporary city, with 20 miles of metal track road, plumbing, electrics, security, marquees and 1,200 stands where over the three days you can do everything from make a will to buy a tractor. “To me, she is just like the Taoiseach of a country, but she’s far better. In Anna May we have somebody at the helm who can take complete control, who knows what they are doing, she is a fantastic woman,” he says.
When she started out, in 1952, it was a man’s world. Farmers would ring the office of the National Ploughing Association and when Anna May Brennan (as she was before she married) answered, confused farmers insisted on speaking to Mr Brennan. “It was this idea that a woman couldn’t be up to the job, but I had grown up on a farm, we talked about nothing else but farming at every meal time. It took a few years for them to get used to me, but we work as a team now. I couldn’t do any of it without the support of all the men in farming,” she says.
She rose from her office duties to become secretary of the association and in the early 1970s was chosen to be managing director.
There were three or four men interested in the job at the time. As secretary, McHugh was taking the minutes of a meeting where it was announced that she was the best candidate. “I was so shocked I couldn’t write my name down, my hand just refused to move. I know there were some disappointed people at the time. I was amazed.”
She says there is no resentment or difficulty being a woman in charge of a vast community of mostly male competitors and judges. “They are with me the whole way. If I phone them at 2am there is nothing they won’t do for me. It is a total team effort and they will all be as thrilled as I am about the award, it’s recognition for what we all do not just me.” A big part of her ongoing legacy is creating an event that women are just as interested in attending – 40 per cent of attendees are now female. “I remember in 1984 when I suggested holding a fashion show at the championships there were a few surprised faces, but it’s hugely popular, the marquee is packed for it three times a day.”
She enjoys staying stylish and believes that women shouldn’t shy away from colour as they age. She will wear wellies when the weather gives her no other option but most of the time she wears heels. “I like a solid heel,” she says.
It is her enthusiasm to break new ground – last year she introduced pole climbing to the championships -– combined with the enduring social aspect of the event which have kept the event largely recession-proof, she believes. The championships made just over ¤4million last year, five per cent up on the year before and according to the most recent figures the association had accumulated a profit of €9.5million.
McHugh says that for years the ploughing championships was largely ignored by the main media outlets. “I don’t know why, maybe because it was a rural thing,” she says. “We did feel ignored for years, you would have thought at the time that nothing happened outside Dublin 4.” Now the championships is coming down with reporters and radio stations every year. The President usually makes an appearance, and making his presidential ploughing debut last year, Michael D Higgins “went down a storm”.
RTÉ’s 6pm news is broadcast on the first day of the event and it even featured on Fair City when two of the characters used the championships as an assignation spot for an affair. During the last presidential election, the championships was an important place for candidates to be seen, shaking hands and slapping backs and grinning for photo opportunities. “Once people go to the ploughing championships, they keep returning, that’s what we’ve found,” she says. The next championships will be held in McHugh’s home county, near Stradbally, Co Laois, in September, a few weeks after Electric Picnic rolls out of town. She is active in the community, organising a passion play every five years in her village of Ballylinan, only a few miles from where she grew up, getting involved with the local parish on everything from diocesan finance to altar flowers. Her faith is important to her but as everyone will tell you, she has a broadminded approach. “I don’t see why women shouldn’t be priests, they should have that opportunity, they do so much work behind the scenes, so why not?”.
Everyone you ask says staying straight is the most important part of ploughing. You get the impression that Anna May McHugh is as straight as they come. Straight talking. Straight to the point. A woman with a way with people, the kind of woman people want to do things for. People talk about her “formidable memory”, the fact that she never forgets anybody she has dealt with over the years. “She knows everyone and everyone knows her,” says one of the women in the tent.
She won’t confirm her age – “It’s not the years in your life but the life in your years”, says the septuagenarian – but let’s just say she passed the usual retirement age a long time ago and will celebrate a significant and round numbered birthday next year. “I have as much energy as I did when I started out,” she says, getting ready to return to the fields where competitors expect this Queen of the plough to offer a few words of encouragement. “I still have a very clear mind and no intention of slowing down.”