Farm Ireland

Sunday 23 October 2016

The timeless charms of our country shows

Ann Fitzgerald

Published 05/08/2015 | 02:30

Final Brush Down: Billy Dunne, Errill, Co Laois grooming his cattle at the Ossory Show, Rathdowney, Co Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey.
Final Brush Down: Billy Dunne, Errill, Co Laois grooming his cattle at the Ossory Show, Rathdowney, Co Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey.

At a time when the big acts in every sphere seem to be getting ever bigger while the lesser lights find it harder to survive, I am glad to hear of a renewal of interest in our smaller country shows.

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This year the Irish Shows Association has a high of 136 agricultural shows under its umbrella and, while it is a perpetual struggle, current president of the association Jim Harrison from Monaghan says the sector is currently experiencing a mini-revival.

During the Celtic Tiger, Jim says the ready supply of cash meant a boom in foreign holidays but many people are returning to more local events.

We recently attended our local Ossory Show, which has been running since 1898, where a lady I met put it well: "it's like the Church. When things were going well, people drift away but, when the going gets tough, back they come."

For many years as a teenager and well beyond I wouldn't have had much regard for my own local show. Faraway hills being green must mean the nearby ones are mucky.

It could be the passage of time, though I'd like to think that it's more to do with having experienced life in other parts of the world, but I now believe our country shows deserve the highest praise and every encouragement. They bring a burst of life into a locality and provide a fantastic service to the community. They are a national treasure.

"It's a big day out for locals. If people don't go to the pub, they only meet at events like this and mightn't see each other again socially until the same time next year," agrees Jim.


Putting on these events entails a mammoth effort on the part of the organising committee.

The Ossory schedule has 285 classes from gardening and homecraft right through to horses, sheep and cattle, the last of which Ossory has been renowned for. The consensus among those that know is that the display of cattle on this occasion was, once again, of the highest standard.

A significant challenge facing show committees is getting young people to join as they are slow to commit to maybe four to six meetings over the course of a year, according to Ossory secretary Catherine Fitzgerald, although she added this is a familiar issue for many organisations today.

Of course, the committees that run such events are often held up as the epitome of small town politics - sometimes unfairly, sometimes not. My favourite story concerns a discussion between two ladies that took up the guts of an hour at a committee meeting as to whether an '8-inch-tin' means the inside or the outside measurement.

However, like many shows, their biggest challenge is financial.

Getting money in is part of the problem but the other side of this coin is the spend, with advertising being the single biggest expense they incur.

Catherine is very grateful for the generosity of their sponsors. But the success of the event ultimately depends on how many people turn up on the day. And this, no matter what entries they attract or attractions are booked, this is heavily dependent on the weather.

Unfortunately, show day in Ossory dawned wet. Many of the expected attractions cancelled because they knew they would not make money.

Ossory is fortunate to have their own showgrounds on which there is a large shed to house their indoor exhibits, which were thus largely unaffected. I am always amazed at the visible skill on display and evident hardwork in the homecrafts section.

Our girls had entered a number of kids' classes. This was more my doing than theirs but they are always glad afterwards, and, when we arrived with their entries at 9am, the place was buzzing.

As we walked by an open car boot we caught a heavenly blast of freshly baked traditional farmhouse fare, including soda bread, apple tarts, scones and fruit cakes.

Though I can't for the life of me understand how these are judged without being tasted!

Other people were laden with freshly dug vegetables, while a man with a walking stick in one hand proudly bore a glass vase with a beautiful red rose floribunda in the other.

While the livestock and bloodstock sectors will remain the backbone of agricultural shows, the quest for new attractions is always on.

"We have to connect with the town, to get families in the gate, to hold them for three to four hours and to get them to spend their money," says Jim, who firmly believes that food is an area of great potential.

This is something Jim has pushed during his term in office and has culminated, in conjunction with the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland (ACBI), with the introduction of a new competition, the All-Ireland Home Cook.

It is based around the theme of creativity with Irish ingredients and the cook-off final took place at his local show in Castleblayney yesterday.


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