‘I was a woman in a man’s world. I got away with a lot’
National Ploughing Association director Anna May McHugh looks back on her 66-year career
Anna May McHugh pictured at the National Ploughing Association’s headquarters in Ballylynan in Co Laois. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Anna May McHugh is a conundrum. The long-serving director of the National Ploughing Association (NPA) doesn’t ever read books, but has just had her autobiography published.
She has occupied a high-profile job in a man’s world for more than half a century, but is not even lukewarm about feminism. She expects people who volunteer their unpaid services at the annual National Ploughing Championships (NPC), to work as hard as paid employees.
I’m sitting in McHugh’s living room, in rural Laois, not far from Ballylinan. One of her first questions to me is which county am I from. It’s not Laois. She says she has a preference to being interviewed by Laois-born journalists.
“I’m always that bit more relaxed when I’m being interviewed by fellow Laois people, such as Eileen Dunne, Sean O’Rourke and Claire Byrne,” she confesses in Queen of the Ploughing, which was written with the assistance of Irish Times journalist, Alison Healy.
McHugh has been closely involved with the NPA for 66 years. Now, aged 83, she finally said “yes’”when asked – yet again – if she would work with someone to write her memoirs. A PR representative from Penguin Ireland (“a Laois girl”), arrived in March this year to discuss it with her. Within the week, Healy was conducting the first of some 16 interviews, followed up by phonecalls.
The result is a 336-page book, which includes lengthy appendices – some 40 pages – of all the ploughing venues and category winners to date. Many of those winners will doubtless be delighted to see their names in print, and as the book goes on sale in time for this year’s championships, it’s a clever addition to the text.
“It’s a golden opportunity for Penguin. They won’t have the same opportunity again to sell so many books,” McHugh says. I point out that it’s actually her opportunity to sell her book at an event that had an attendance of more than a quarter of a million last year. “And for me too, I suppose,” she says, sounding surprised.
I have to be very careful not to show any political bias in this job”
In 1931, the first NPC took place, or as McHugh refers to it, “the Ploughing.” The running cost was £9, three shillings and five pence. Last year, the cost was €5,144,510, and the record attendance was more than 283,000.
The three-day NPC, which is usually held in the midlands, has long ceased to be just an agricultural event. It is a national phenomenon. It is estimated some two-thirds of the attendance have no interest in agriculture at all: they’re there for the 1,700 stands, the ancillary events, the demonstrations and the buzz of meeting people from all over the country, including those in public life.
This year, the event will again be held near Tullamore, Co Offaly. Although the organisation has experimented with locating the event in different counties in the past, the central location of the midlands has proved most successful – being very accessible for visitors.
Ireland’s population is becoming more urban every year, and yet the number of visitors to the ploughing keeps increasing. Why does McHugh think it is so successful?
“It’s not just the ploughing that people come for. It’s because of the wide variety of the stands that we have. You can see a fashion show, or make your will,” as McHugh puts it.
Every year, visitors are also usually guaranteed to see a politician or 10, and sometimes the President. With such large attendances, the NPC is an invaluable opportunity for those in the public eye, particularly politicians, to be seen. It’s well they know it, and it’s always amusing how many members of Dáil Éireann appear to find rural roots every autumn.
Back to the conundrums and contradictions. McHugh writes that she won’t allow campaign speeches at the ploughing. “It’s our event, and we want to have it that way. It’s nice to have the politicians there, but we control what goes on at our event, we don’t want political speeches at the event,” she says. “I have to be very careful not to show any political bias in this job.”
A few pages later, we discover that she is firmly endorsing former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for any potential future Presidential run. Why? Because she believes “Bertie” is charming, wearing his age well, and would make a “fine president.”
He might have “dirtied his bib”, but “couldn’t we wash it?” she asks the reader.
I ask if she is not breaking her own rule of being politically neutral. “Well, apart from President Higgins, the last lot of candidates were poor enough,” she says frankly, making little swiping, dismissal gestures with her hands.
Then she laughs: “I suppose it’s in the book now, so I will have to stick to my guns what I said about Bertie. I saw a headline lately in the paper that said, ‘Bertie for the Park’, and I thought it was a story about him finally announcing he was going to run, but it was only about his holiday in Parknasilla.”
Catholicism is important to her, McHugh tells me she’s not “a Holy Mary”
McHugh has not moved geographically far from where she grew up, on a farm, as the fifth of eight children. Household tasks were the remit of women. McHugh and her sisters knew as small children that it was girls who made butterscotch, because it was a “delicate process” and they were afraid their brothers would burn it.
I ask when she first became aware of the distinctive roles that Irish society placed girls and boys in. “I think it was instilled into us from the beginning,” she says. “We girls would polish the boys’ shoes for Sunday Mass. It was taken for granted that the mother and daughters would do the cleaning and cooking and clearing up. We always did the washing and the ironing in those days; girls always did that kind of work.”
Does she consider herself a feminist now? “I got away with a lot in my job because I was a woman in a man’s world, and there are certain things men wouldn’t say to a lady,” is how she puts it.
“I think men and women are equal these days. I know there are very few ladies in politics, but if we can deliver as much as the men can, then I think we are equal.”
There is still a competition at the NPC for “farmettes”; a category name that hasn’t changed since it was established in 1954. “I don’t think it’s demeaning,” McHugh writes. “It’s part of our history now.”
She writes: “It’s just as well the dowry system is gone or the feminists would go mad!” That’s a reference to a former practice of the NPC awarding a “dowry” of £100 to the Queen of the Plough if she got married before her 25th birthday.
The week I visit McHugh, Britain’s national debate about gender pay inequality at the BBC has hit the headlines. It has also become a topic of controversy at our own national broadcaster, RTÉ. McHugh says she is aware of this ongoing discussion, but is cautious about being drawn into it.
“There is so much in the air at the moment about women getting paid less,” she says. “If a girl doing a job has the same output as a man, there should be equal pay. Sometimes we are to blame, the women: we are a little bit shy about going forward and we should be pushing ourselves forwards for more executive jobs, and be in the political world more.
“I’m a firm believer that women are great organisers and great for getting people together. If they are doing a project, they will always conclude it.”
‘Not a Holy Mary’
There is a whole chapter dedicated to “Me and my faith”, and McHugh makes it clear that “religion was, and still is, a huge part of my life.” Although she makes clear that Catholicism is important to her, McHugh tells me she’s not “a Holy Mary.”
“What’s a Holy Mary?” I ask.
“Someone that would always be talking about religion, and nothing else. Someone who would pray on their knees all the time. That’s not me. I love my prayers and I never miss Mass. I say my prayers at night, and if I’m driving, I’ll say a few prayers in the car, and I’d always use the holy water.”
How did the church scandals in recent years affect her faith? “Mass is very important to me” she says. “I did ask myself, ‘where do I go from here?’I felt that something was telling me, you will be stronger in your faith from this.
“But things have changed. Years ago, the priests were all up there on cloud nine. Now they are walking with their flock and not being above them like they used to be.”
When I see people retiring at 65, I think it is a pity. If I am honest with myself, I would miss the association, very, very much”
McHugh makes it her business to sometimes attend other festivals in Ireland, to keep an eye on what other big events are doing, and the kind of audiences they attract. She went to Oxegen music festival in 2010. “What I learned from Oxegen was that the girls were wearing more on their feet than on their bodies and there was all sorts of music thumping.”
The most recent festival she had attended was the day before my visit: the Scarecrow Festival at Durrow in Co Laois. “I brought my grandchildren, and what I learned from that one was that the success was due to it being such a community effort. Every one of the stewards was voluntary.”
She writes in Queen of the Ploughing that she expects the same standards of the unpaid volunteers who work each year at the championships as she does of paid employees. Why?
“It’s only for the three days,” she says. “We hotel them, or get them some kind of digs. If it was longer than three days, we would pay them, but I’d say as it is, if we offered them money, they’d refuse.”
The NPA offices are literally in McHugh’s house; some in an extension and another part in a wooden cabin in the garden. Her daughter, Anna Marie McHugh, also works here, having worked with the NPA since 1997: she is one of three assistant managing directors.
Anna Marie has also made history within the ploughing organisation world. In 2013 “with some considerable pressure from me,” as her mother says, she successfully applied for the job of general secretary of the World Ploughing Championships, and became the first woman in its 63-year history to do so.
At 83, McHugh is almost two decades past the age when most people retire. Like Queen Elizabeth II, whom she cites as the person she would most like to meet, she has no intention of retiring in the near future.
“When I see people retiring at 65, I think it is a pity,” she says. “If I am honest with myself, I would miss the association, very, very much. I love to open the office door early and start working. I don’t know what I would do if I retired. I’ll be there as long as the Lord gives me good health, or until the NPA tell me it’s time to step out.”
Queen of the Ploughing by Anna May McHugh, with Alison Healy, is published by Penguin Ireland