TRUST the French to recognise a quality woman when they see one.
Their symbol is Marianne - the determined figurehead who leads men into battle. Our only true modern-day equivalent is Anna May McHugh. And now the French have stolen her too.
The Ploughing Association President has achieved legendary status in this country.
Anyone earning their living on the soil knows her strictly on a first name basis and if any one person could be credited with keeping the heart of rural Ireland beating in good times and in bad, it could be said to be her.
At the age of 16, Anna May - the fifth of eight children raised on a farm at Clonpierce, Co Laois - was plucked out by a neighbour, JJ Bergin, founder of the National Ploughing Association who was a friend of her father’s and who recognised the glimmer of something special.
Since then, she has been quietly building her dream, brick by brick and turning a modest enterprise into the colossus it is today.
Now in her late 70s, the National Ploughing Championships have been the project of a lifetime.
But there has been no proper recognition by the Irish Government for the work she has done.
Where they have seen only problems with rural Ireland, she has furnished her own solution.
There has been a lifetime achievement award, a couple of doctorates, a Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year award and she has served on the board of Teagasc. But nothing satisfactory from ‘officialdom’ - despite the lifelines she has thrown them by keeping incomes and morale afloat in desperate times.
“I’ll tell Angela Merkel that she has met her match,” the Taoiseach half-joked to Anna May yesterday as they posed for pictures.
She could have been given the freedom of every town and village in Ireland - or at the very least, the opportunity to graze her sheep on St Stephen’s Green with the freedom of Dublin. No doubt Anna May might have devised some way to improve the conditions of the land there or a few state of the art paths installed.
Step in the French, who yesterday recognised Anna May with the pomp and ceremony that is her due, with a formal reception at day two of the National Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska, Co Laois.
This modest though formidable woman is now in the illustrious company of Louis Pasteur; iconic British cookery writer, Elizabeth David; former French President Jacques Chirac and Christine Lagarde of the IMF, after she was presented with an Ordre du Merite Agricole, or Services to Agriculture award.
The medal was an extremely snazzy one, on a silk ribbon.
“Beautiful, it’s absolutely lovely,” said Anna May as she examined it with delight. She would find as many opportunities to display it as she could, she later smiled.
French ambassador to Ireland Jean-Pierre Thébault conducted the ceremony at the French embassy pavilion at the championships - the first time the French embassy has had a pavilion at the event, though not the last, determined Monsieur Thebault.
He said there was no more fitting recipient of such an honour than Anna May. In fact she “exemplified” it since “almost from the time she was born, she was thinking, acting and working for agriculture,” he said.
Anna May stood by, smiling with embarrassed pleasure. “I’ll proudly wear it for a long, long time,” she said - but gave the true kudos to the volunteers without whom the Ploughing Championships could not continue.
Monsieur Thebault appeared smitten. “I will always be with you Anna May - but I will not say it to my wife in the exact same words,” he said, practically bowing, as the room erupted with laughter.
Naturally, there was champagne. And inevitably, the canapes were the fanciest nibbles on the grounds.
Over a dozen European agricultural journalists attended the event, brought over by the European Commission.
Former Rural Affairs Minister, Eamon O Cuiv described Anna May as “extraordinary.”
“She’s like a great hostess here and to see her you would never think she was under any pressure even though she’s carrying such a workload,” he said.
Afterwards, Anna May’s daughter, Anna Marie, told the Irish Independent that her mother had never recognised any glass ceiling.
Asked if any of the ploughmen had ever given her mother any hassle or questioned her authority in those days when a woman’s place was in the home, she widened her eyes in disbelief.
“They wouldn’t try!” she laughed, adding: “She’d have a great way of bringing them with her.”
It was the ultimate tribute to Anna May that the hubbub of the great event continued serenely throughout.
Down at the livestock section, a stand was offering an extremely elegant-sounding snack: a Limousine steak served on a toasted ciabatta bun, with a seasonal salad on the side.
The process of farm to fork never seemed so quick, as we listened to the moos all around.
But a teenage boy took exception.
“They’re cooking the cows and the cows right there. That’s bad form, like,” he exploded to his friends.
A family of Dubs down for the day had only entered the grounds and they were already stressing out about the mud.
“That’s why the wellies should be on your feet. Yiz were told,” scolded their mother.
With a soothing smell of baking and handcrafted items like quilts and St Brigid’s crosses hung all around, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association tent was a welcome refuge from the crowds and a butter-making workshop by Breda McDonnell was an equally welcome revelation.
“Don’t be afraid - it’s the best thing you could eat, all those spreads are poisonous, you know” she urged, amid the initial reluctance of the women to sample what she had just made.
Up at the RTE tent, things were not quite so serene, with crowds eagerly packing in the doors to see their favourite stars. There were 25,000 people there alone yesterday - and they all wanted to meet Marty Morrissey.
This was ground zero for him, as he posed for umpteen selfies with the young and old.
It was “a privilege,” he declared, remarkably chipper - considering he just climbed an 85 foot tall pole as a challenge for his TV programme coming live from the Ploughing.
At what stage had he regretted the enterprise? About two foot up, he admitted.
“I had to do it - I didn’t want to be seen as a coward,” he said.
But whatever you do, don’t tell the French. We can’t afford for them to steal Marty too.