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Ploughing queen Anna May McHugh reveals she lost friends to Covid as festival returns

“It was so, so sad. It used to grieve me very much when we had to stand on the side of the road bidding farewell maybe to a good friend, where some families lost parents during that time and weren’t allowed in to see them and couldn’t be allowed in”

Anna May runs the Championships

Anna May with models Eva, Jessica and Ashling on the site in Co Laois

Anna May McHugh at the launch of the National Ploughing Championships in Fenagh, Co Carlow

Eugene MastersonSunday World

Ploughing queen Anna May McHugh has revealed her agony at seeing close friends die from Covid and watching their funerals from laneways.

The pandemic caused the cancellation of the National Ploughing Championships twice, and for the first time since 2019 it will make a welcome return today with 300,000 people expected at the three-day event at Ratheniska, Co Laois.

“It was so, so sad. It used to grieve me very much when we had to stand on the side of the road bidding farewell maybe to a good friend, where some families lost parents during that time and weren’t allowed in to see them and couldn’t be allowed in,” Anna May tells the Sunday World.

“The hospitals couldn’t allow them in to see them in case they would get it [Covid] themselves, but that was a very sad time for families who lost family members.

“We lost very good friends. I never stood in as many laneways and gateways in the country as we did during the Covid times.”

At the remarkable age of 88 ,Anna May is still running the National Ploughing Championships as its managing director, having joined the association at the age of 17, and has been working full time since 1951.

Given her age, she naturally had to be vigilant with her health during lockdown at her home near Ballylynan, Co Laois.

“We were very careful and being on a farm too we were privileged insofar as we could walk down the fields,” she says.

“I felt so sorry for the people that were living in flats with no outdoor space for children to play or maybe something like that. We were privileged in that sense; we could go out and we could go out around our own farm, which was lovely. But we missed the people coming in and of course we were very careful.

“All I got was a bad head cold, other than that I had nothing at all. I didn’t feel sick or anything like that. Other members of my family were very lucky to be the same way.

“We did miss meeting people, especially family members, because we are a very close family, and we missed all that very much. But others were in a far worse situation.”

Her farmer husband John died 15 years ago and they had two children — DJ, who will be competing in the forthcoming ploughing championships, and Anna Marie, who for the past five years is general secretary of the World Ploughing Association.

Anna May maintains she is still full of beans.

Anna May with models Eva, Jessica and Ashling on the site in Co Laois

“When I arrive at the time when I’m not doing the work that I’m expected to do I know it’s time to go, but that time, thanks be to God with good health, has not come to me yet,” she remarks.

“Because I go very strong. I work extremely hard. My daughter tells me ‘you’re a workaholic mammy, you never think of sitting down’.

“I’m an early riser and I’m a terrible person for late nights. Health plays a big part in it. If I hadn’t got good health, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. I was blessed with good health. I can never remember being sick and that’s the truth.

“I was always very active. I played camogie in my young days, maybe that made me hardy. I was brought up on a farm with five brothers and two sisters and that made me hardy. I was fifth in a family of eight. You do everything on a farm and you work hard.

“All farmers work very hard. We worked hard at home. We never said no to work.

“When I got married to a farmer two miles from where I was brought up, it was the very same thing. We always worked, we loved work.”

President Michael D Higgins will open the championships on Tuesday, at which he will unveil a specially commissioned work of art, which stands four feet high and eight feet wide, with marble inscribed from each of the 28 countries taking part. Taoiseach Micheal Martin will attend on Wednesday.

“Everyone says to us when they come to the office or when they phone ‘isn’t it great to be back’,” beams Anna May.

Anna May McHugh at the launch of the National Ploughing Championships in Fenagh, Co Carlow

“You feel that coming through full of sincerity. But it’s great to be back for all the agricultural shows and for all the outdoor events this year. People want to meet and they were hungry for that type of thing.

“It was very lonely for many people when events weren’t on and we are delighted to be back and are delighted of course of an added injection of hosting the world ploughing, which is the 67th World Ploughing Championships.”

She also promises lots of variety.

“We expect many visitors from overseas. We have a lot of side events as well. We have the hunt chase, livestock, fashion shows, cooking competitions, playground for children, pony games. They are all side supporting events,” she reveals.

“All those have made it attractive for families to attend. Families don’t want to be looking at machinery all day. They don’t want to be looking at the one thing all day, they want variety.

“There are plenty of catering areas and toilet facilities and all that. Anything you want to get or anything you want to buy you’d nearly get it at the ploughing, because there are shopping arcades also. It’s great for Ireland.

“We have a lot of colleges, secondary schools and national schools that have purchased tickets. It’s very educational. The Government of Ireland have a village there with all their different departments participating in the event.”


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