Ann Fitzgerald: 'A woman in wellies who was a pioneer in her own field'

Ann Fitzgerald during the discussion on Women in Farming in the Independent Tent at the Ploughing Championships in Screggan Co Offaly
Ann Fitzgerald during the discussion on Women in Farming in the Independent Tent at the Ploughing Championships in Screggan Co Offaly
Mayo inter-county Gaelic football player Sarah Rowe featured in the recent Lidl 20x20 ads
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

I admire the 20x20 campaign, aimed at shifting Ireland's cultural perception of women's sport, so much so that I would love to see something similar for female farmers - ordinary women in wellies.

Thus, I am dedicating this column to one such woman: my mother, Rita Fitzgerald.

She grew up working with horses, at Riddlestown, Rathkeale, Co Limerick with her dad, Jackie Magner.

In 1960, she married Pat Fitzgerald and they set up home on an outfarm owned by his family, near Ardagh.

Taking in horses on livery and to break started to give them some capital.

However, Dad, who had had TB, developed diabetes, and died in 1969, leaving Mam with four children, aged 2-7.

Her mother, Ellen, helped mind us but she died less than two years later. Two weeks later, our house burned down.

Mam mightn't have much choice but she got stuck in.

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In farming terms, she was more a follower than an innovator. So, like many other farmers, she got into sheep for a time in the 1980s.

The land was better suited to cattle. Mam faced tough times on that front, too.

When quotas were being set, she lost a lot of cows from salmonella. In hindsight, she would have had grounds to appeal but she was too busy being mother/father/farmer.

Our animals were always looked after.

She bought a Bedford lorry, before the days of power steering, for hauling around our ponies and later, horses.

One Sunday in May, several episodes of dirty diesel meant it was 10pm when we got home from a point-to-point. But the cows still had to be milked.

Another time, she met another lorry on a narrow road. It was driven by a Traveller woman, who as she passed slowly by, said, through one open window to another, "between us, we'll strike a blow for women's lib".

Mam recognised the value of education, so my sister Rose and I went to boarding school and then on college.

Ours was not a tactile household; it was very much a case of, love is what loves does.

At boarding school, visitors were allowed on Sunday afternoons. Mam regularly rocked up, with a chicken dinner, that I remember as delicious

On other Sundays, we used to visit people living alone. Mam also regularly gave lifts to the races and would pick up people walking on the road.

Mam admired Maggie Thatcher's strength, disagreed with Lester Piggott's jailing for tax evasion, laughed off Bishop Eamonn Casey's fathering of a child as, "only human". She had a sweet singing voice and a great sense of humour.

We learned the value of hard work, the importance of family, humanity, honesty, thrift and self-sufficiency. She was a fantastic role model.

She didn't seem bothered about being a woman in a man's world. When someone drove in looking for the boss, she would say, "that's me," if she wanted to talk to them or, if not, "he's out".

Her proudest moments were around horses; Rose won the showing championship at our local show aged 11, while my brother Gerry made a winning Pointing debut aboard her mare Rainy Weather as a 16-year-old.

Mam was especially proud of my other brother Johnny, a professional jockey in America. Tragically, just as his career flourished and he got engaged, he was fatally injured in a non-sporting incident.

Mam never got over Johnny's death. She died suddenly of an aneurism four years later (having milked the cows the evening before).

For her, it was a great way to go. For us, it was way too soon. She was just starting to hand the reins over to Gerry.

Hers was not an easy life but it was one lived to the full; one worth chronicling.

Thanks for everything, Mam. I love you. Your legacy lives on.

Indo Farming

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