The show must go on as new chief takes over at helm of the Shows Association
Jim Harrison tells Martin Ryan how he aims to boost the number of young people involved to keep the tradition of agricultural shows alive and kicking
When Jim Harrison agreed to help out with the running of his local agricultural show, he hadn't the slightest idea that he was taking the first step on the road to become the national executive administrator of the umbrella organisation co-ordinating Irish rural shows.
Less than a decade and a half later, he is anxiously looking forward to the challenge of working with 138 rural agricultural show committees spanning both sides of the Border, north and south, encouraging and inspiring their continued development over the coming years.
The Castleblayney, Co Monaghan man is the newly appointed secretary of the Irish Shows Association, having succeeded Michael Hughes, whose shoes are hard to fill, in recent weeks. "I was born and reared a next-door neighbour of the singer Big Tom in Castleblayney, and have been involved in farming and livestock all my life," he explained.
"I showed pedigree Limousin cattle at the shows at Castleblayney, Tydavnet, Virginia and Dundalk before ever I got involved in the running of a show, and was always an admirer of the dedication of the people who ran the shows and the amount of voluntary work which they put into making them a success," he went on to say.
"There was 10 of us in it and we were reared on a 40-acre farm, but it would be impossible to do that today, because there is not the living out of it," says the father-of-four whose work as a builder was necessary to supplement the tight margin out of livestock farming.
His eldest, 21-year-old Matthew, a third-year agricultural degree student, is taking over the farming work and will probably use his agricultural qualifications to engage in an off-farm position as well as part-time farming.
Jim ran suckler and beef production enterprises on the farm, but Matthew is keen to add sheep to the farm profile as he takes over the mantle of running the holding, leaving his dad more time for his new role in the Irish Shows Association.
However, he has been a member of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association (ICSA) for 10 years and national executive representative for Co Monaghan. Former chairman of the ICSA suckler committee, his tenure as Connacht-Ulster vice-president comes to an end later in the month and he will not be seeking re-election with the workload of his new commitments.
"My first involvement with the running of a show was around 2005 when I was asked to help out at Castleblayney my local show," he said.
"One of the men involved with the cattle at Castleblayney asked me to a meeting because they were getting low in members, and for the first year I was involved with the cattle section at the show", he added.
Within two years of his initial involvement, he was elected chairman of the Castleblayney Agricultural Show, a position which he continued to hold for the next six years "and that is how I got involved with the shows".
In 2009, he joined the Irish Shows Association as a board member for the Midland region and in 2013 and 2014 he was national president, following which he became national treasurer of the ISA from 2014 to 2018.
The more he became involved, the greater was the influence which the ISA was having on fulfilment in his life, and the more he was enjoying the roles of officership and the people he was associating with.
"You could call the show people one very big family really because they are very nice people.
"They are very different from a lot of the farm organisations and I have experience of some involvement in them, too, but the show people are very different. I found them really down to earth people," he said.
During his two-year term as national president he got the opportunity of attending many of the rural shows around the country and estimates that he has been to at least 95 of the 138 shows affiliated to the ISA.
The association is an All-Ireland organisation with nine member show societies across the Border in Northern Ireland, which is only a few yards from Jim's home at Tullyraghan, Drumakill outside Castleblayney.
His immediate predecessor in the role of ISA executive secretary, Michael Hughes, had been indicating his interest in retiring for a couple of years "and then in 2017 he made it clear that he was only going to continue in office for 2018, so I showed an interest in it and board members got to know that, and I was lucky enough to get the job.
"I am looking forward to it, because in my earlier life, I had a great interest in shows, and would have attended a lot of them in the region but I never thought that I would be secretary of the association one day," he said.
He takes over at a challenging time for the rural agricultural shows, with rising costs and competing events depleting attendances.
"The biggest challenge for shows, and it always will be, is the weather. Last year was very good with most of the shows having excellent weather. That is the biggest challenge because you know if the rain is coming down, the people are not going to come out and the show finances are going to suffer. The shows are very dependent on the gate receipts to keep going," said Jim.
"The second biggest challenge is getting the help for the day and getting people involved in the committees, and that is getting seriously difficult because in farming, the age profile is getting higher and higher all the time and the very same is happening with the shows
"The age profile on the committees is getting higher. There are shows with a good number of young people, but they are in the minority of shows and I see it as a big challenge for me to try and encourage more young people to get involved in their local show
"We are going to have to get something attractive enough in there to get more young people. If we don't get more young people involved and teach our young people how to run shows, it is going to be a very challenging time for shows in the years to come and could wipe out a lot them," he said.
The ISA are at the early stages of developing a 'Super Show' website which will have the facility and capacity to take a lot of the time-consuming work out of paper administration procedures.
"In the past, the people who ran the shows were willing to do a lot of paperwork, but I don't think that the young people of today will do it," says Jim.
"I remember my own family when they were younger coming into the show office at Castleblayney, filling up forms, writing up the entries and arranging the show catalogue. We are going to have to do things differently if we are to attract more young people to get involved," he added.
The ultimate objective of the 'Super Show' system is that the central site would eventually carry the work for all member shows. It is being piloted with a few shows. The availability of the necessary funding to run the site could become the determining factor on the speed of its further development. "The young people today are all on their phones and tablets, and if we could get a system where entries could be made online for all shows, I believe that young people may be encouraged to take more interest," he said.
"The shows are also going to have to be more innovative in trying new ideas and adding new attractions if they are going to continue to attract the attendances that they need to keep going.
"Doing the same thing all of the time, there is an increasing danger of losing the audience," he says. "Some of the simplest things can become the biggest money spinners. I saw one show where they had a competition to guess the number of eggs in a basket in the poultry section, and it turned out to be the biggest money earner at the show."
Funding from the Department of Agriculture and the allocation to shows by Minister Michael Ring over the past two years has been of great assistance.
While the cost of insurance continues to be an issue for all event organisers, the umbrella policy of the ISA covering all member shows has been beneficial, while safety consciousness to prevent accidents remains a priority for all committees.
As Jim looks forward to his new challenging role, he believes that rural Ireland would be the poorer for the loss of the rural agricultural shows and the stamina and commitment of the men and women involved will ensure that "the show goes on" for many a day to come.
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