Summer is a special time in rural Ireland. With the arrival of the good weather, I see local farms making their silage, and with our own meadows not far behind it feels like summer has arrived.
That means a fresh chance to engage in the outdoors again. Then, of course, there is football, the calm of fishing and, if you’re lucky, an agricultural show to add to the gaiety.
Agricultural shows are the heartbeat of the rural world at this time of year, but with the pandemic that link was removed from us for a couple of years.
So there was great excitement when, last Sunday, my own community celebrated the return of the Ballinalee Connemara Pony Show.
Walking into the grounds, a special feeling came over me. It was here, as a boy, that I first saw the coming together of community and the need for events such as this. All manner of mounts were there, from champion stallions to eventing jumpers.
As we walked through the grounds, we saw neighbours and friends we hadn’t met, it seemed, for a long time, and we talked of life during the pandemic and what people were up to now.
I got talking with neighbours who said they were bringing animals to some of these shows later in the season, and it was clear there was an excitement in their endeavours.
It was a special feeling, a catch-up not just on the news of the land but a catch-up for the soul.
Some of my earliest memories go back to the Ballinalee Connemara Pony Show: setting up jumps with neighbours past and present; a foal of ours winning a prize; the celebratory drink afterwards in one of the pubs – all memories that make for a childhood.
The show makes me think, too, of other agricultural events, from the Tullamore National Livestock show to the jewel in the crown – the National Ploughing Championships.
Agricultural shows have a long history in this country. The Ploughing, for instance, stretches back more than 90 years, and the Tullamore Livestock Show has a pedigree dating from the mid-1800s. They are the lifeblood of rural communities.
Looking through the website of the Irish Show Association (ISA), it would seem our agricultural events and season are back and, hopefully, here to stay. The ISA represents 130 shows all around the country, and it has been two years since many of them were staged.
There had been hopes last year of running various shows, but due to Covid restrictions it was not possible.
The loss of the shows was a mighty blow to the rural economy, too, because it’s here that farmers can showcase animals, businesses can meet the public and potential new customers and isolated community members can have some much-needed time with others.
Shows have a huge impact on rural life in Ireland, and so it was welcome news to read that Rural and Community Development Minister Heather Humphreys had announced €700,000 in funding to support agricultural shows taking place over the coming months.
“For over two-and-a-half years we lost something that really sums up everything that is good about rural Ireland,” the minister said.
“As minister for rural and community development, I know that our shows are intrinsically linked to that sense of community that rural Ireland is all about.”
The news of extra funding and the easing of Covid restrictions means we can think again about enjoying our summers by taking cows and horses and sheep to shows. The season will culminate with the big daddy of them all, the Ploughing, which will return after its own hiatus.
The Ploughing is where urban and rural Ireland meet. It’s where many farmers take their holidays, and for three days the entire country can think about our rural past, present and future.
The Ploughing is scheduled to take place in Laois from September 20 to 22, and as many as 300,000 people are expected to visit Europe’s biggest outdoor event.
It’s the first time in three years that the show has taken place, and this year will be an extra special one as it marks the 67th World Ploughing Championship, which was supposed to be hosted by Russia in St Petersburg.
All the signs point to one thing – there’s a bright summer ahead for us all, the summer we were denied for two years, the summer that will allow us to embrace our rural communities.
What struck me most while walking through the Ballinalee Connemara Pony Show were the smiles on everyone’s faces.
It was a moment of celebration, a marker that we had come through this dark time and that, come what may, community can triumph over any obstacle.
As I plan my summer outings this year, I’ll be dusting off my nice lightweight Barbour jacket.
It’s time for the rural people to put on a show – and everyone is very welcome.