A review of the past 10 years provided some great highlights, now how to predict what the next decade will bring? Perhaps a silver lining of Covid-19 is for shows to redesign themselves?
Few were aware last January of the impending Covid-19 tsunami and plans were already underway for agricultural and breed shows, gymkhanas and showing festivals. The Banner County showed the way with 10 shows signed up for an innovative Banner Bonanza showing league and the irrepressible Michael Slattery had plans for a Horse of the Year championship at Clarecastle.
Those plans, plus the Department for Community and Rural Development (DCRD) funding, were put on hold but it’s that sort of joined-up and ‘big idea’ yet-practical thinking that will bring back shows.
Undoubtedly, the most positive development for agricultural shows since 2017 was the €2m DCRD funding made available for the Irish Shows Association (ISA) 130 affiliated agricultural shows. Between the funding’s original champion Michael Ring TD and current Minister Heather Humphreys, support for this package is reassuring.
DRCD’s original allocation of €5,000 per show in 2020 was safely ring-fenced for use this year instead and knowing that financial buffer is available has eased the pressure on agricultural show committees.
Likewise, the support of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) grant to offset the ISA’s insurance bill and Horse Sport Ireland’s (HSI) showing championship series sponsorship were other welcome boosts.
Finding sponsorship is undoubtedly going to be a major obstacle when shows resume fund-raising. Pubs, hotels, restaurants and local businesses – all the usual sources of sponsorship, not only for the annual show but other local events and charities too – have all been battered by lockdown measures. Church gate collections, another traditional fund-raiser, are unlikely.
Reducing prize money in 2021 was one measure suggested by Jim Harrison, the ISA’s national secretary, during its virtual AGM. Unlike other equestrian bodies, such as the SJI, IPS, Pony Club etc, the umbrella body for agricultural shows does not require membership fees to be paid. Perhaps the introduction of a modest subscription this year would be an alternative measure.
“Shows need to sit down, take stock and decide to run on the budget they have. The easiest thing is to get into debt and nobody is going to thank you for it. Shows need to be viable,” was the sage advice offered by recently-retired ISA board member Paddy Joe Foy in his pre-Christmas The Irish Horse feature.
Foy had also suggested that local shows should pool manpower. Ideas, through virtual think tanks, and possibly, safety equipment and signage – all suitably disinfected – could be shared too between shows to reduce costs.
And if shows feel they need to sit another year out for financial or other reasons, so be it. The sky will not fall in.
Last year’s hiatus also gave shows an opportunity to spring-clean files, schedules and websites; to audit entries over the past 10 years and see if classes with the least number of entries can be pared back or replaced by imaginative new classes.
With families spoilt for choice with weekend festivals and free entertainment, relaunching and redesigning the local show is vital.
The world has grown accustomed to Zoom, including IPS and ISA whose meetings were virtual. Training on topics from complying with increased health and safety measures to GDPR requirements, child safety measures and imaginative social media content, can be done online safely.
The Connemara Pony Breeders Society (CPBS) has produced excellent guidelines for show stewards, available online and is another virtual way to upskill before the next show season.
You don’t want that history to be lost
Well-known judge Clare Oakes made a great suggestion about giving the task of researching online the history of each show’s treasure trove of silverware to local transistion-year students.
“All those lovely country shows with those wonderful cups. Their background gets lost in the mist of times and people forget about the people who gave them. You don’t want that history to be lost.”
One telling remark by a show secretary was how shutdown was a blessing in disguise, “I never enjoyed a summer as much. I didn’t know myself with the phone not ringing all the time and no complaints.”
Committee members may decide to take a “role break” to concentrate on family and other commitments; on the other hand, a renewed sense of community spirit after 2020 may well inspire new faces to join local committees.
Macra na Feirme president Thomas Duffy, guest speaker at the ISA dinner dance in November 2019, summed up pre-COVID-19 Ireland so succinctly when he mentioned how committees and society are fighting apathy and a culture of “Netflix and cans” amongst the younger generation.
Again, after a near-year of confinement there may be a renewed interest amongst the younger generation to get actively involved with their local show.
There was one fixture added to the ‘Must go to’ list after that night and that was Arva.
In a inspired move, the younger show committee members were brought along that night as a thank you for their efforts and if that vibrancy and enthusiasm was replicated on show day, I wanted to be there to see it.
Realistically and all going well, we’re looking at few shows taking place before mid-summer
As it turned out, there was one show in the 2020 diary, the well-run Ireland West Foal Championship Show. As it turned out, it offered a template of how events can still go ahead in COVID-19 times, between a strict advance entries only policy, compulsory masks and social distancing measures.
Realistically and all going well, we’re looking at few shows taking place before mid-summer. Amongst the first in line for vaccinations are the older generation, who, either dressed in their Sunday best at the ringside, wearing a bowler hat in the middle of the ring or with sleeves rolled up on the show field, are the mainstay of Irish shows. Above all, they needed protecting most this year.
Moving traditional dates was already a pre-COVID-19 feature as shows tried to find an optimum date to maximise footfall and the two biggest have already switched dates for 2021. Balmoral moves from May to a more realistic autumn date (22-25 September) and Dublin is a month earlier (18-22 August).
Until we meet again at shows, stay safe.