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
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.”