GOLD-DIG­GERS, GUNS AND THE PLOUGH­ING

Ni­amh Horan meets Anna May McHugh

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Front Page -

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

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