Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Fighting to keep the shows on the road

Traditional agricultural shows are battling for survival as volunteer numbers fall off and sponsorship support declines

Ciara Hendy from Ballybrittas, Laois and Aoife Breen from Tullaroan, Kilkenny at the 2015 Tullamore Show and AIB National Livestock Show. Picture: Jeff Harvey
Ciara Hendy from Ballybrittas, Laois and Aoife Breen from Tullaroan, Kilkenny at the 2015 Tullamore Show and AIB National Livestock Show. Picture: Jeff Harvey
Majella O'Sullivan

Majella O'Sullivan

They are at the mercy of the weather, run by ageing committees and dependent on the generosity of sponsors - for most traditional agricultural shows, the challenge of keeping the show on the road is getting harder.

From the very large, successful events, to the smaller, more local affairs, agricultural shows are fighting to keep their heads above water each year with some predicting the shows, as we know them, will eventually die out.

There are over 130 events listed on the Irish Shows Association (ISA) website, but a few have bitten the dust this year.

Chairman of the Athlone Agricultural Show, Michael Flanagan, knows all too well the importance of a fine day.

This year's event took place on June 26, where there was a fantastic show of cattle, sheep, horses, poultry, a dog show, trade stands, a fabulous food village and craft fair - but attendance was "disastrous".

"The morning was wet, the soccer match was on at 2pm, Westmeath were playing at 4pm in Croke Park; so we had a triple whammy," says the former showband manager who now runs Flancare, a distribution and warehousing business, and has been at the helm of the show for the past 14 years.

"Our sponsorship held steady and if they keep responding the way they have, there is hope, but you have to look at it from their point of view too; are they getting value for their buck?

"And deep down, they're not. There's an awful lot of personal contact about the sponsorship end of it," says Michael, who also breeds pedigree Angus, Shorthorn and Belted Galloway cattle with his son.

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He predicts the day is coming when there will be one county show.

"I can see it that within a few years there will be one county show and everyone will pool into that," he says.

"If you have one major show you're guaranteed a good crowd but, again, you're dependant on the weather when you're outdoors.

"And then maybe at the end of the county shows, you could have an All-Ireland for the prize winners in all the counties.

"Volunteers are getting very scarce on the ground and the problem is the youth are not getting involved and if you haven't the youth coming forward, who's going to take their place?" says Michael, who turns 73 in July.

"They'll come in for the day and help reluctantly and we'll give them a meal and a thank you, but leading up to a show you're talking about nine months preparation and as far as I can see, any chairman will devote three or four nights per week in that nine months.

"It's a huge involvement, commitment and dedication and I just cannot see it lasting," he adds.

While Michael believes the annual show is still a great family day out and that this is its strongest point, the shows still have to compete with sports fixtures and other events.

ISA president Pat Corbet says the central organisation of insurance for the 132 shows taking place the length and breadth of the country is of enormous help.

"Our secretary Michael Hughes gets a great deal through FBD and it's an enormous asset, especially for the smaller shows.

"For the last number of years we've also got a grant from the Department of Agriculture to go towards insurance and all shows benefit from this as it nearly halves the insurance cost."

In his first year of a two-year tenure as president, Pat has been involved in Clonaslee Show in Co Laois since the 1960s, following in the footsteps of his father.

The show was founded in 1948 by Pat Brickley, headmaster of the local vocational school, who saw it as an opportunity to introduce competition between local farmers.

It has since moved from October to September and added livestock categories, but Pat says getting financial support is its biggest challenge.

"The smaller shows are suffering because they're parochial and trying to draw from the same sponsorship pool as every other event in the locality and so it's very hard to keep money coming in.

"Weather is also a big thing and if you have a wet day, it's detrimental to the show because then you don't get feet on the ground and gate receipts are a big thing because they cover a lot of the cost.

"Getting young people involved is also very difficult but unless you get them interested through things like having classes for young handlers, it won't happen."

Apart from attracting more young people as volunteers and participants, the other big issue that he'd like to see addressed during his term is the abuse of judges.

He thinks the biggest draw is that an agricultural or horse show is essentially a sociable family day out and a "shop window" for cattle breeders, show jumpers, vegetable growers or anyone who takes part.

Midleton, Carnew, Oughterard and Claddaghduff Pony Show are among the shows that have been cancelled this year for various reasons.

On the ISA's website, the reasons cited for the cancellation of Carnew Show are financial constraints and a fall-off in volunteers.

Joint PRO Dorothea Lazenby is adamant the popular Co Wicklow show will be back again next year.

"It was a combination of different things that led to its cancellation but there's no question of it not coming back," she says.

One of the reasons was its scheduling too close to the Dublin Horse Show and organisers didn't want to risk running into debt if there was a fall-off in attendance.

The spokeswoman is confident about its future.

"Carnew Show has a grand young committee and it's very vibrant really with a lot of young people working together and it's always great fun and a lovely atmosphere," she says.


"But in saying that, they do need more help and new people to come in, in an area that interests them.

"But the biggest challenge is the weather. If you don't have a fine day, a show could be a disaster because it costs so much to put on a show and if you have inclement weather, you stand to lose a lot of money and that's the biggest worry," she adds.

Tullamore Show is the country's most successful single-day agricultural event and is expecting crowds in excess of 60,000 again this year.

Its chairman Rodney Cox believes keeping the show relevant is key to its success, and this August he's using it as platform to highlight the issues of community, mental health and farm safety, a subject close to his heart since a farm accident in 2015 left him confined to a wheelchair.

"I will say that I've a bit of a personal grievance with the support systems in place for farmers in my situation. Having spoken to other farmers, I'm certainly not the only one," he says.

Apart from that, he puts the success of the show down to its committee and says they're extremely lucky because they have no shortage of volunteers.

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