Farm Ireland

Thursday 18 January 2018

'The Cavan abú spirit drives our show' - Kathleen Duffy

The driving force of the Virginia Agriculture Show, Kathleen Duffy, 
tells Ken Whelan the secret of why its such a huge success

Kathleen Duffy, organiser of Virginia Agriculture Show
Kathleen Duffy, organiser of Virginia Agriculture Show

Kathleen Duffy of the Virginia Show has a very simple explanation when asked how the small Cavan town on Lough Ramor manages to stage one of the highlights of the national agricultural show season. ''Hard work and about 200 volunteers working all year long,'' is the secret she says.

Kathleen has been dealing with the publicity and fundraising aspects of the Virginia show for the past thirty years.

She has now handed over the publicity side to her daughter, Kaye, a history graduate, who started 'licking envelopes' for the show at two years of age, and Yvonne Kilkenny, a young mother and farming wife from just outside the town.

This proves that Kathleen has been doing the work of two women for decades, but it seems to run in the family because her husband Ned, a dairy farmer from nearby Whitegate, was show secretary for twelve years up to 2001 and president until 2012.

That a small town like Virginia - which was a much smaller town when the show began back in the 1940s - can stage a national agricultural show of such importance is remarkable.

The continued support of agri and commercial sponsors with local links - the likes of Glanbia, Liffey Meats, Carnaross Mart and Fleetwood Paints - is a factor in the show's prosperity, but Kathleen emphasises that there would be no show without the volunteers and their Cavan Abú spirit.

"The volunteers young and old do everything. And in many cases the volunteers come from three generations of the same family.

"It's this community spirit that has kept the show going and will keep the show going when we move to our new event centre at the showgrounds next month,'' she told the Farming Independent.

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"It's the same with every agricultural show. We all help each other out. Myself and Kaye are collecting some shelving from the Castleblaney show later this evening and was it Oldcastle that 
borrowed our hen houses last week?

''Virginia, of course, is an Ulster show and we would have great help from the shows in the north like Enniskillen, Castlewellan and Clogher.

"Even during the troubles when nobody was crossing the Border, the agricultural show people always supported each other and went to each other's shows. We never let what was happening affect things."

Kathleen is out and out Cavan - she even played camogie for the county in her early years. "I never got to the Holy Ground but played in Breffini Park," she says with a radiant pride.

She did a stint in Bluebell as the county's Macra na Feirme national executive representative, but things got "serious" when her husband, Ned, asked her to the show night at the old Farmers' Hall in Virginia all those years ago.

The show night was the traditional night out in the Farmers' Hall after all the rosettes were pinned on the winners. It was substantial money-spinner for the show with the leading show bands of the time playing monster gigs in the town.

Kathleen's first date with Ned was at one of these show nights, though they didn't get into the dance (women to the right, men to the left and minerals at the bar) because they were detained working late at the show.

"Around 800 to a 1,000 would show up for a show night," Kathleen recalls. She winces slightly when she thinks of up to 1,000 people dancing the night away in the Farmers' Hall which was hardly built for such a crowd.

Back then the most important counting being done on show night was adding up the door receipts with the show band managers. "Joe Dolan was a great draw. We could always depend on his brother, Ben, to get Joe to do the show.

Brendan Bowyer was also a great attraction. And when we staged the 'Last Waltz' - when the Farmers' Hall was being handed over to the Virginia College to be redesigned as a gymnasium - we had Larry Cunningham and he attracted a massive crowd. They came from all over the country, as far away as Kerry.''

The old Farmers' Hall has now been replaced by a state- of-the-art €1m event centre on the show grounds. It was financed on a 50-50 basis by the Virginia show committee and the Cavan- Monaghan LEADER ompany.

Kathleen, in her role the society's treasurer, has now foresworn the delights of dealing with 'the photograph jumpers' to concentrate on getting the new event centre up and running before it is officially opened by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, in September.

The 'photograph jumpers', who were usually candidates in IFA elections, were the 
bane of Kathleen's life as Virginia's public relations officer.

She would be arranging press photographs of the visiting VIPS - government ministers and even the President on occasion - and at the last moment one of the jumpers would stick his head into the photo shot.

The amount of repeat 
photos that had to be taken was only 'ogeous', as they say in Cavan.

Over the years, Kathleen has dealt with politicians and she is loathe to name a favourite, although she can't disguise a bit of a grá for the current Minister for Agriculture.

"Simon Coveney is great. He'll do anything for you," she says.

"President McAleese was also great. She was down here opening something in the college during the show and she made a great speech about the spirit of volunteerism in the community which made agricultural shows so successful.

"And then there was the show just around the time of the economic collapse when we had four ministers down in Virginia.

"Mary Coughlan was here as agriculture minister and our own Brendan Smith was here for something else and we had Seán Haughey doing something in the college and Trevor Sergeant down to announce something on the horticultural side.

"God that was one hectic day,'' she recalls.

The new Minister for Arts and Heritage, Heather Humphries, a local Fine Gael TD, will officially open this year's show next week.

So now to Kathleen's new challenge - to get the Virginia Events Centre up and running to its full capacity and generating sufficient income to support the Virginia show for the next thirty years.

The centre, when not being used by the Agricultural Society, will be used by local community and voluntary groups for agri and cultural events.

There will be no shortage of chairs after Kathleen and her team clinched a sweet deal with new Virginia resident, chef Richard Corrigan, who is currently busy refurbishing the old Park hotel estate.

''He's a very nice man. We bought 165 chairs (red satin chairs with gold trimmings) from him at a very good price,'' she reveals, and you just know you can take 5/4 that another sweet deal will be done when chef Corrigan gets around to refurbishing the Baltimore Cookery school, which is part of the Park Hotel estate.

"We have a big kitchen to kit out in the centre," Kathleen muses, with a twinkle in her eye.

And you can take another 5/4 that the internationally acclaimed band, The Strypes, from up the road in Cavan town, will be playing at the Virginia event centre sooner rather than later.

Following in the footsteps of showband stars at the height of their powers, they've a lot to live up to.

Kathleen's favourites

Favourite book

Portrait of Mullagh. It was written by thirteen local women and myself, all members of local ICA. It sold over 3,000 at the time and went to two prints and was launched by the late Cardinal O Fiach who was a friend of one of the women.

And of course Portrait of Virginia which was published two years ago to mark the town's 400 years. I contributed to that as well.

I also like to read crime and detective novels, and farming books, of course ''.

Favourite Irish holiday

The long beach in Enniscrone, Co Sligo when I have time to take a break. Enniscrone every time.

Favourite foreign holiday

Don't do.

Favourite film

Anything with Julie Andrews in it. Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. I love musicals -jazz, blues folk and traditional music. I don't sing but I dance''.

Favourite charity

The cancer charities. I have been involved in Daffodil Day for the past twenty seven years and am helping with a local cat-scan campaign at the moment.

Favourite moment at the Virginia Show

The 'eat off' between two local cattle breeders - a Red Angus man and a Belgium Blue man. Nevin Maguire, who is a great supporter of the show, cooked meat from both herds and after Nevin applied his magic to the meat neither of the breeders could figure out from which animal either steak came from. It was hilarious.

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