Farm Ireland

Tuesday 14 August 2018

There'd be no ploughing without the women - Queen of the Plough Anna May McHugh

When Anna May McHugh joined the National Ploughing Association at 17, she had no idea of the influence she would one day wield over Irish agriculture.

NPA managing director Anna May McHugh. Photo: Alf Harvey.
NPA managing director Anna May McHugh. Photo: Alf Harvey.
Vocation: Anna May McHugh has been managing director of the NPA since 1973. Photo: Alf Harvey.
Award: Anna May McHugh is presented with the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year Award 2013 by Caroline Sleiman. Photo: Anthony Woods
Queen of the Ploughing by Anna May McHugh, published by Penguin Ireland at 25

Now 83, in an extract from her new book, she recalls her path to becoming Queen of the Ploughing.

If you added the crowds who partied at Electric Picnic last weekend to those who cheered on U2 at Croke Park earlier this summer - and doubled them - you'd still fall tens of thousands short of the numbers who will travel to Co Offaly for the National Ploughing Championships next week. And presiding over the 283,000 visitors and 1,700 exhibitors will be 83-year-old Anna May McHugh.

From Clonpierce, Co Laois, Anna May was 17 when, in 1934, she started working for the National Ploughing Association (NPA) and its late co-founder JJ Bergin - at a wage of 22 shillings and sixpence a week.

Now, in a new book, Queen of the Ploughing, Anna May charts her journey to becoming NPA managing director in 1973, and her role in turning the championships into the phenomenon they are today.

Vocation: Anna May McHugh has been managing director of the NPA since 1973. Photo: Alf Harvey.
Vocation: Anna May McHugh has been managing director of the NPA since 1973. Photo: Alf Harvey.

A lone woman in what was very much a man's world in the early days, she details how she earned her reputation for being tough but fair in business - an outlook that would lead to her winning multiple awards - as well as how, with the support of her late husband, John, she raised her "children of the Ploughing", DJ and Anna Marie.

People often say it must have been difficult running the National Ploughing Association while rearing a family. But I'll tell you something now that not many working women could say. I never had to take a week off because of a sick child or a family emergency.

That's the beauty of having your office in your home. If I didn't get the work done during the day, I got it done at night when DJ and Anna Marie were in bed. I worked late into the night a lot, and I still do.

And you have to remember that the Ploughing was not as demanding when DJ and Anna Marie were born. They grew with it, or it grew with them, I suppose you could say.

Also Read

If I was starting again, it would be a totally different story.

If I was starting again, it would be a totally different story. The Ploughing is such a huge operation now that you couldn't possibly be at the helm without full-time childcare. The children were always number one and the Ploughing came next. My sisters Betty and Eileen were a great help with the children when they were young.

Award: Anna May McHugh is presented with the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year Award 2013 by Caroline Sleiman. Photo: Anthony Woods
Award: Anna May McHugh is presented with the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year Award 2013 by Caroline Sleiman. Photo: Anthony Woods

But John was the linchpin holding it all together. I couldn't have done it without his support. If I knew that John was contrary or annoyed about me going to a meeting at night, it would have made things much harder. Instead, he was with me all the way along, right until the day he passed away.

John was very, very good with the children. He took them everywhere with him and they loved him for it. If a child didn't take to John, they'd take to no one. He had huge big hands and I can still see them going around DJ when he was a tiny baby. It gave me a lovely feeling. John was a rock for me because he was always there whenever I had to go away. But he had all his chores on the farm, too, so I'd always have a girl in the house helping out.

I have very little guilt about working when the children were young

For all those reasons, I have very little guilt about working when the children were young. I knew they were being well­ cared for. But there was one occasion when work clashed with family and I still feel bad about it, to this day. I missed the Confirmation ceremony.

Not one child's Confirmation, but two. I had to go to New Zealand for a month and a day for the World Ploughing in 1980. I had a feeling that it would clash with DJ's Confirmation as he was in sixth class. And indeed, it did. That was bad enough, but then the teacher told me that, for the first time, fifth and sixth class would be making their Confirmation together. Anna Marie was in fifth class. I couldn't believe it. But what could I do?

I did everything I could before I left, laying out all their clothes. On the day of the Confirmation I might have been thou­sands of miles away, but my mind was definitely at home. One of the ploughing competitors, John Tracey from Carlow, also had two sons making their Confirmation when we were gone, so we were in the same boat.

Queen of the Ploughing by Anna May McHugh, published by Penguin Ireland at 25
Queen of the Ploughing by Anna May McHugh, published by Penguin Ireland at 25

I'm happy to report that John took silver at those Championships, so the abandonment of our children wasn't in vain. Nevertheless, Anna Marie still gently reminds me about it, to this day. And DJ claims that he needs counselling to get over it!

That was the only family dilemma that truly stands out in my mind over all the years working with the NPA. Of course, we had a few minor mishaps along the way. My hus­band John was always charged with dressing the children for the opening day of the Ploughing as I would have already left for the venue.

One year he made the fatal mistake of dressing Anna Marie in the lovely tweed outfit I'd left out for her, before he dressed himself. He was shaving and idly looking out the back door when a flash of something caught his eye. Anna Marie was only three years old at the time and she had taken it upon herself to go exploring. One thing led to another and she arrived back to the house covered in cow manure. The lovely frock was a write-off.

To be honest, I don't think being a woman did me any harm in my work. In fact, people probably remembered me better because I was a woman and there weren't too many of us in agricultural circles at that time. For many years, I've been the only woman at so many meetings and get ­togethers.

I can't stress how courteous the men were to me, because I was a woman. If I was a man, they probably wouldn't have been as nice. They always treated me with great respect, even down to carrying my cases if we were going somewhere. I never once felt excluded because I was a woman. I suppose knowing the people so well made it easier. And I never had trouble making conversation with people because you never run out of chat when you have ploughing in common.

There'd be no ploughing without the women

Today our NPA office is totally staffed by women. Basically, there'd be no ploughing without the women.

Women are better at promoting themselves now than we were in my day. They definitely have to work harder than men to prove themselves but when they get their place, they can really prove their worth. People have told me I'm a trail­blazer for women, but I never prided myself on doing that. I'm no better or worse than anyone else. I just went along and did my job to the best of my ability. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

I've often heard it said that I must be very tough to have risen to the top of the NPA and stayed there. The truth is that I'm not a bit tough, behind it all. Still, I suppose it does no harm if people think I am a bit of a Maggie Thatcher.

But you do have to be strong-minded in this job and hold your ground. I hate anyone trying to pull the wool over my eyes. If they get away with it once, they won't do it twice.

We deal with a lot of contractors and, perhaps when they didn't know me, they might have tried to do that. They might have tried to charge a higher price because I was a woman, but I don't think they'd try it now.

I would always look for the best value and try to get a bit of a discount, so maybe I got the name of being a bit of an iron lady.

Loyalty is very important to me. If people are loyal to me, I will be loyal to them, to the absolute limit. I am like a tiger protecting her cubs when it comes to the Ploughing. I would be very sensitive if someone tried to run down the event. It's like someone criticizing your child.

Part of the reason I'm so defensive about the Ploughing is because I know the work that people put into it. Be they volunteer or paid staff, they all know that if you enlist, you must soldier, no matter what the conditions, and unfortunately conditions at the Ploughing can often be quite challenging.

We really are one big family and while we might not see each other from one year to the next, we all just move to the ploughing site and everyone takes up their job where they left off last year and it goes on from there.

Lifelong friendships have grown from stewards working together during the Ploughing, or locals providing B&B. I have such great people around me and we couldn't do it without them.

While there's a great team behind me, I suppose it's only natural that the focus falls on me as the face of the organization. I feel I'm totally accepted as a female managing director now. Gender doesn't come into it at all, and nor should it.

But of course I come under the same scrutiny as all other managing directors, be they male or female. Where once the media was excited about a woman leading a male-dominated organization, now they are more excited about how much money that woman is earning.

Every so often the matter of the NPA's accounts comes up and reporters ask lots of questions about my salary. In fact, I'm told that if you put my name into Google's search engine, the first thing the auto­ complete suggestion offers is 'salary', followed by 'age'.

It's only recently that my salary has become a six­-figure sum

Some people seem to think the McHughs own the Ploughing, because of the involvement of myself and Anna Marie. We always say: "Look, our accounts are sent in every year and they are there for everyone to see."

The people who obsess about my salary might not like to hear me saying that money, while it's grand to have, was never an issue for me. If it was, I would have moved on to something more lucrative years ago. My salary was never a bone of contention and I never once asked for a pay increase.

It's only in very recent years that my salary has become a six­-figure sum, yet other chief executives in the private sector are earning twice and three times this salary. That honestly doesn't bother me. I was, and still am, passionate about the work and my motto is to make every event a success. And if our finance committee ever wanted to give me an increase, well then, good and well.

I think they pay me very fairly for my work and I certainly don't think they pay me less because I am a woman. The Association has always treated me very well, never questioning if I take a day off, or asking about my work output. As long as the job is done, they are happy.

My disinterest in the financial side of it is highlighted by the fact that I worked from 1951 to 1991 with no pension at all. It was actually our chairman who proposed at a meeting that there should be a pension for me. In less than a week, he had me down in Kilkenny, in front of an actuary who advised me on a pension.

In all those 40 years, it honestly wasn't something I had thought about. I suppose it was lack of knowledge on my part. Nowadays, I would be very concerned about our own employees looking after their pensions, but who thinks about pensions when they are young?

People are amazed to hear that I don't have a company car, nor do I want one. Yet, whenever I get a new car, I get the comment: "Sure, it's well for you. Didn't you make millions at the Ploughing this year?" You have to take it on the chin, I know, but sometimes it's hard to take when you know the reality.

I don't like the focus on our earnings because the Ploughing is a private limited company with a board of directors made up of democratically elected representatives from each county, and an executive committee that reports to the board four times a year.

Anything the NPA has, the Association has earned through the success of the event. Why should any­one not involved in the organization worry about it? If we were in debt, nobody would want us. I am only a custodian of the National Ploughing Association and it's my job to ensure that the funds are managed in the most efficient way possible.

I have known hard times in the NPA when the money was not there, so that has made me very conscientious about minding the coffers. In the late 1950s I had to get a loan of £500 just to keep us going. You don't forget those days.

I mind the NPA's money like it's my own - maybe I'm even more careful with its money than I am with my own. I am meticulous about the paper trail for every penny the NPA spends. We don't pay by cash and we don't use casual labour. Our directors and volunteers are not paid but get travelling expenses. If the RTÉ Investigates team ever wants to come and have a look at how we run our affairs, we would throw the doors open to them. Although it would make for a very boring programme.

In recent years, I have been asked, more and more, to speak at conferences and meetings about the success of the National Ploughing Championships and how I've managed, as a woman in business. I don't know if I do anything differently as a managing director because I am a woman. I am a great believer in bringing people along with you, rather than dictating to them from on high, but I don't think that's a trait specific to women. I treat everyone the same and give them as much responsibility as I think they can handle. In my experience, people always rise to the challenge. So, of course, I'm also a great believer in delegating as much as you can. No one person, no matter how brilliant they are, can run the whole show. It's not good for the organization, and it's certainly not good for the person who tries to do that.

Being a woman in a role like mine has brought lots of awards over the years, too. I certainly never expected to be recognized as businesswoman of the year in the Veuve Clicquot awards in 2013. That was particularly interesting because I don't drink alcohol.

People who like the bubbly stuff will know that Veuve Clicquot is a premium champagne. The company started the awards for entrepreneurial women to honour Madame Clicquot, who took over the champagne house in the early 1800s after her husband died suddenly. She was only 28 and this was a time when women had no role in the business world, but she emerged as a formidable businesswoman.

As a non-drinker, I knew none of this when I got the call from Veuve Clicquot. I had a dilemma: should I tell them I didn't drink, or not? I decided to be upfront in case there was a champagne toast and I found myself looking around for a plant to tip the drink into. Fair play to them, they said there was absolutely no problem and they went ahead with the award.

The name Veuve Clicquot probably rolls off some people's tongues, but I had to practise pronouncing it a few times to make sure I got it right. Then they took me, and the eight other award-­winners from around the world, to their vine­yard in Reims, where they planted individual vines in our honour, with little name plaques on them. I saw the vines of previous Irish recipients, such as publisher Norah Casey, designer Louise Kennedy and chef Darina Allen. I was in very good company indeed.

It's nice to think that the vine will be there for years, and perhaps some day the grandchildren will be in France and will decide to look up Nana's vine in Reims.

Weekend Magazine

Top Stories