GOLD-DIGGERS, GUNS AND THE PLOUGHING
Niamh Horan meets Anna May McHugh
YOU have to watch out for young blondes in rural Ireland. They can spot a wealthy farmer and have only one thing on their mind: money.
It’s days before the National Ploughing Championships (NPC) and I am sitting in the dining room of Managing Director Anna May McHugh, sipping tea and eating lemon drizzle cake, while the 83-year-old serves up a cold side-dish of opinion.
“I would never doubt women,” she says, taking a sip from her fine bone china. “They could be up to anything. If a poor farmer met a blonde like you, I know very well what he would do. Do you, Steve? Do you?” she says, turning to the photographer for back up.
“He would say, ‘Ah God sure look! I will chance that lady’. And she might be in for a year then she’d be gone. She’d take the high road — and half the farm with her. A hundred acres. And she’d be made for life.”
Have you seen it happen? I ask. “I have seen it happen,” she says, “The first thing the girl would do is say to him, ‘What road frontage do you have?’”
She chuckles, with a glint in her eye, at the old saying: “Love is an itching in the heart that you can’t get near to scratch.”
Such is the yearning to scratch it, however, that the Co Laois woman has had to sit farmers down in the offices of the National Ploughing Association (NPA) to give them some stark advice.
“You have to be very careful,” she says, “It’s a very delicate subject.
She would tell them: “just watch your step.”
And how would a farmer spot these wily women? “They would be out there, dressing up. All you would have to do is go up to RTE to see what was going on. I was on the Late Late Show and I saw ladies there and they were absolutely clamouring about Sean O’Brien [the rugby player and farmer].”
I consider asking if it’s possible these women were preoccupied with a different kind of ‘frontage’ to the kind Anna May mentioned, but decide against it. Besides, she’s in full flight: “It happens in Dublin and it’s the same with farmers, when they get the opportunity. You’d see the girls throwing themselves across them.
“Go down to the like of Langtons [nightclub] in Kilkenny or that big place there in Carlow [The Foundry nightclub] and they’d be dressed up for a Saturday evening.”
It’s little wonder the farmers are getting so much attention, given that the National Ploughing Championships sounds akin to a modern-day version of the glamour and excess of the Galway Tent.
Anna May’s daughter Anna Marie enters the room and explains how, during the Celtic Tiger, the roar of the helicopters arriving at the event was so loud it scared the ploughing horses. “It got chaotic,” she says, “there could be 20 helicopters in one field. It was mad.”
The frenzy lulled in the downturn but this year three companies are back operating ‘drops’ around the event. I’m told George Hook regularly took a chopper to broadcast there.
And who paid for it? “I don’t know. Maybe Newstalk, maybe someone private,” says Anna Marie.
She explains how she is now seeing the good times roll again: “Some car companies spend hundreds of thousands on doubledecker displays.
“One company brought in a car on Monday, the first of its kind in Ireland.” Another “sold four vehicles in just one morning” last year.
But her mother Anna May is slow to talk about the farmers’ fortunes.
“We had the Revenue Commissioners on the site yesterday,” she says. “And they are coming again on Tuesday and I don’t want to get any farmer into...” she trails off.
Plant and construction machinery is the other big seller. As Anne Marie explains: “The big teleporters, the big diggers, the big dumpers, they were huge in the boom, they went away for a while and now they are coming back again.”
“They estimate the value of the machinery will be ¤45m, and that’s very conservative,” says her mother, seamlessly turning from businesswoman back to household duties as she puts down the floral teapot.
No wonder, then, that so many farmers are nervous about intruders.
“They are afraid. Theft from farmyards has never has been more common than in the last two years,” says Anna May.
On the right to bear arms, she says: “I am strong on that. I remember one poor man, he was at the ploughing match and I went over to talk to him and he told me: ‘I never did any harm to anyone, but they had no business coming in to my yard, and they came in a few times’. I believe in protecting yourself at all costs. At all costs,” she repeats.
John B Keane’s The Field ran in a local town recently and Anna May was on hand to help with the launch. She says the ‘Bull McCabe’ mentality is alive and well.
“For a man, his land is his stake in the country. It is his pride and joy... after his family, it is his second love. There is no doubt in the world about that.”
She describes how crops and harvests create “a great sense of conversation” when a farmer meets his neighbour on the lane, and when a man loses his land “it breaks his heart”.
But she adds: “There is no one more resilient than the farmer. When everything is going [against them], they will fight it.”
How they will mix with celebrities such as Louis Walsh and model Vogue Williams — who will be among the stars mucking it out in the fields this week — only time will tell. I ask if there will be a VIP tent to keep the showbiz characters in comfort.
Anna Marie turns to her mother and the pair share a private laugh: “That’s the beauty of ploughing, we are all the same,” says Anna Marie.
There is, however, one group who will get special treatment. It seems blondes are not the only ones interested in getting to know wealthy farmers.
A full four-course meal will be laid on for dignitaries: on Tuesday the President’s lunch takes place, followed by a ‘networking’ lunch with the Minister for Agriculture, while the Taoiseach will also host a lunch on Thursday.
“Apparently the networking at those events is serious,” says Anna Marie, “All our landowners are at it, the farming leaders are at it, and our sponsors. There are lots of links made. That’s all behind closed doors in private function rooms and you don’t get invited: only those people who are at it...”
“Careful now,” her mother warns, “or the Sunday Independent will be looking for an invite.”
You have to hand it to Anna May. Over 66 years she has managed to oversee its transformation from a lowkey business into a multimillion-euro money-maker.
I tell her it’s fascinating how far she has come and she has the exact figure:
“Nine pounds, three shillings and five pence,” was the original cost to run it, she says.
And what was the profit last year? Her memory fudges: “Oh, what was it? ¤900,000? God, you have me confused.”
I remind her the overall profit was over ¤14m.
She nods: “And do you know what? I never asked for a [salary] increase! I loved the association as if it was my own. I remember [my wage] being increased to five pounds and I was made up.” So what is it today? “Oh, I can’t tell you.” And why is that? She tells me she thought Ryan Tubridy would quiz her on her salary but never did. I tell her she should be proud; a big salary for such a colossal boost in profit is well-deserved.
“I am [proud], but I would never ask for an increase and when our directors discuss it, I leave the room. It’s kind of an embarrassing thing,” she says, brushing it off.
Why? “I don’t know. I know them so well. They know I am not dependent on the salary because I have a farm here [two fully-paid mortgages and 120 acres] but having said that I just don’t like talking about money. We have a finance committee and they decide.”
So you step out, then come back in and they tell you how much you are getting?
“I would, and I would never object. I would be delighted. I would always be delighted. They have been very good to me. But more than the money, the respect they have for me is far more important.”
I look at the smartest blonde I think I have ever laid eyes on, and I can’t help but tip my hat.
“For a man, his land is his stake in the country, his pride and joy”
FARMERS’ MARKET: National Ploughing Championships’ Managing director Anna May McHugh at home on the farm with the Sunday Independent’s Niamh Horan. Photo Steve Humphreys