The world at large owes a lot to the late John McHugh as he has helped spare many an individual from Anna May’s wrath.

“John was a great sounding-board,” says Anna May of her late husband. “Often I’d come home a bit irritated by some remark someone had passed. I’d go up the yard where John was working and tell him what happened. And I’d say I felt like writing a letter to them and he’d say: ‘Look it Mam, leave it ’till the morning and see how you feel then.’ It was always good advice to take. The next morning would come and the thing that was said wouldn’t seem as bad at all.”

John sounds like he was an oasis of calm in the centre of Ploughing madness and this is just one insight the reader gets into the personal life of the renowned Anna May in her new book, Queen of the Ploughing – My Story.

And what a great story it is.

“I can’t gloss over the fact that I was 32 when I got married, so it was a long courtship,” says Anna May in the book, but it sounds like it was a marriage worth waiting for, despite some bumps along the way, namely Daisy the pet lamb.

“I had been cultivating beautiful pink roses just outside the window and I loved looking out at them. Daisy was prone to wandering around the garden, as pet lambs do. But didn’t I look out one day to see her taking the heads off my beautiful roses? Well, I lost the head entirely and stormed off to John. ‘Either she’s going or I’m going,’ I said. ‘Go off with yourself so,’ he said, as calm as anything.”

Dealing with the loss of her rock, John, is documented in the chapter, “Becoming a Widow”, where Anna May explains that even though he passed away 10 years ago, John’s pipe and glasses are still sitting in their spot on the windowsill behind the kitchen table because she couldn’t get rid of them.

She talks about the empty space left by John and says: “It was about one month after he died that the terrible loneliness hit me. I’d catch a glance of his empty chair and it would nearly knock me sideways.”

Chief executive officer (CEO) of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, attributes her career success to one simple fact: “Pick the right husband. I did. And here I am.” This is something Anna May can relate to. “He always said to me: ‘Look it, do what you have to do Mam.’

Anna May says “[it made me]happy to know that he was there when I wasn’t … and there was never an angry word when I’d come home late. He’d understand if I was late from a meeting or anything like that, we’d great trust in each other – I think that was very important.”

Anna May says she owes her career to a man named John James (JJ) Bergin, co-founder of the National Ploughing Association. In the 1950s, Anna May had just completed a commercial course when her father, James, met the founder of the National Ploughing Association, JJ Bergin, who lived in the locality.

“Only that I went to him, my career could have been different altogether. I could have been a shop assistant, I could have been whatever I got at the time.”

JJ was a man before his time. In 1956 the National Ploughing Association was made a limited liability company and Anna May was appointed secretary “and at that time very few women were in important places”, she explains.

It may have been unusual, but Anna May was to go much higher up the ranks.

D-day struck on 10 May 1973, although when Anna May got up that morning she wasn’t expecting anything unusual apart from the fact she was attending the National Ploughing Association AGM, so she wondered who her new boss was going to be.

NPA managing director Sean O’Farrell had died suddenly, so he was to be replaced. Never in her wildest dreams did Anna May think she would be put in the job.

“Michael (T. Connolly – National Ploughing council chairman) stood up and spoke about the loss of Seán O’Farrell,” relays Anna May in the book. “Then he said there was a person in the room who was highly qualified for this job, who knew the Ploughing inside out, who knew it better than anyone at the table. I was still wondering which of the six it was and then he said “she”. I was the only woman in the room, so it didn’t take long for the penny to drop … you could have knocked me down with a feather. Looking back now, I wonder why I didn’t see myself as a contender. I’d say it was because I was a woman and back then it was a world run by men.”

The marriage bar was lifted just two months after Anna May became managing director and in 1973 women didn’t even sit on juries. Anna May explains, the two apparent justifications for the latter: “Their delicate natures might not be able to handle the evidence and there was a risk that their household duties might be neglected.”

She never could have envisioned she would be in the same role 44 years later. But she has achieved a phenomenal amount in that time. The year before Anna May took the Ploughing reins, there were 59 exhibitors, while last year there were 1,700 exhibitors (that’s a 2,781% increase).

It’s the biggest outdoor event in Europe and it’s the biggest ploughing championships in the world.

“I know that’s true because I’ve travelled halfway around the globe to world ploughing events,” says Anna May. “For some reason, other countries have not expanded in the same way as we have.”

While the Ploughing has been mainly a series of highs over the years, it hasn’t been without its low points either, and Anna May says the lowest of all was when the Ploughing had to be cancelled due to foot and mouth.

“When the day came that the Ploughing was supposed to start, it was tough, really and truly, it was like someone had died in the house. We were terribly lonely. We even got a few bouquets of flowers from exhibitors, and phone calls from friends of the Ploughing, which was very thoughtful. I kept looking at the clock, thinking I’d be doing such and such if the Ploughing was on.”

There are 17 chapters in this book but there are plenty of chapters still to come for this very lively and unnervingly sharp 83-year-old.

“It truly has been a fulfilling life, a life well lived,” remarks Anna May, and it’s quite clear that nurturing the Olympics of the Land has been key to this fulfilment. Anna May’s parting four words on the last page are “God speed the plough.” CL