After Storm Ali cancellation, exhibitors will plough on for extra day
Storm inflicted serious damage to many structures across the 150-acre site in Creggan
The wind blowing hard at the Ploughing Championships in Screggan, Tullamore Co Offaly. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds
Some of the damage to the portable toilets at the Ploughing Championships in Creggan. Photograph: Tom Honan
The decision wasn’t taken lightly, but it had to be done.
It was around 11am, the time at which it was hoped the public would be allowed back on site after a scheduled two-hour weather delay, when they decision was taken. The expectation that the storm would abate had proven incorrect.
Thousands of people, many of them bussed in from far-flung locations like Donegal and Kerry, were waiting. But they had to be kept off site for the day for safety reasons.
The storm had inflicted some serious damage to many of the temporary structures dotted across the sprawling 150-acre exhibition site.
One large structure, known as the Blackwater, a marquee-cum-arcade filled with commercial stands, was blown over. A bar in the exhibition complex was reported to have sustained significant damage.
Numerous smaller stands, many of them tented or pagoda-like structures not built to withstand severe storms, were blown over by mid-morning, and the site was strewn with upended portable toilets and wheelie bins.
As stiff winds buffeted the area and the sky darkened, a large dark metal sheet was ripped from a large-scale display screen.
The weather had deprived tens of thousands of people of their chance to visit the championships, and several politicians, including the Taoiseach, had to call off what would have been an opportunity to mingle with a captive audience.
Initially it seemed as though Met Éireann’s Tuesday night forecast for the day would pan out as expected, said National Ploughing Association spokeswoman, Anna Marie McHugh.
At 6am, “there was no doubt but that we would open at 11am”, she said.
“The process of the storm going over was slower than anticipated but then, in addition, when the direction of the wind changed, it had more of an effect on the site than anticipated. It actually managed to go down the \[site’s central] driveways and that only started happening at quarter to 10,” she said.
Such was the force of the wind coming up to the delayed opening time of 11am that members of An Garda Síochána and the emergency services believed that had people been on site during such a gale, an order to evacuate would have had to be given.
“So the emergency services said to us if we opened the gates to let people in, we’d have had to evacuate them an hour later,” Ms McHugh said.
The cancelling of the day was unusual but not unprecedented. The 2001 championship was cancelled because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease and in the mid-1960s, the event, then taking place in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, was postponed for a week because of snow.
The contemporary championship is the largest outdoor show in the country and involves more than 1,700 exhibitors. Each pays fees to the association starting at €700 to €800 for a small stand and running into many thousands for larger ones. According to Ms McHugh, the largest scale exhibitors can lay out up to €100,000 in fees and related costs for display equipment.
One of the smaller exhibitors, Stephen Kelly from Swords, Co Dublin, spent about €1,500 on his Little Windsor fashion display and business had been good on Tuesday.
“I brought stock for three days and yesterday was the best first day in six years,” he said, adding that an opportunity to make up for lost time on Friday would be welcomed.
With up to 100,000 people expected on Wednesday, most of them adults and each paying €20 (online beforehand or at the gate on the day), the association face a considerable loss of revenue as a result of Wednesday’s cancellation.
Ms McHugh said the financial implications of closing were unknown but “it wasn’t about finance”, it was a simple question of safety.
While some competitive ploughing took place on Wednesday, many – perhaps most – of the people seeking to attend the championship were attracted to the show primarily by the large number of display stands and related attractions, including music, bars and eateries.
As waiting people in cars and buses on the roads around Mucklagh and Tullamore exited the area on Wednesday, the association assured them that their tickets would be honoured on Thursday.
It was later announced that the show would continue on Friday. One day lost but another gained.