Clonmel Horse Show - 150th anniversary

IT’S A very long distance memory, but one which I recalled on reading that next year the Clonmel Show and Agricultural Society - “The Horse Show,” as we called it in Clonmel, will celebrate its 150th birthday.

IT’S A very long distance memory, but one which I recalled on reading that next year the Clonmel Show and Agricultural Society - “The Horse Show,” as we called it in Clonmel, will celebrate its 150th birthday.

There was a wonderfully warm grandmotherly woman who lived in our street when I was a child, and one afternoon in summertime she took us, a clatter of children, to the Horse Show.

I don’t think that she, a widow-woman, could possibly have afforded to pay for all of us, but in the last hours of the show, the gates were opened to a non-paying general public, and we got in “for nothing.”

Inside, there was bustle and activity and colour, everywhere. The trades hall was filled with banks of flowers and stalls displaying crafts and cakes and needlework. But my most vivid memory is of looking at the poultry, the special breeds in their exhibition cages, and they looked so superior to the plebian mixed-breeds which my mother kept in the hen-house in our garden.

Fast-forward to 1975, when the Show celebrated its 100th birthday. I have a memory of a parade of mares and foals, magnificent animals, reflecting the importance of the horse, both in the economy and in recreation, not only in Tipperary, but in Ireland. That special occasion was marked by the attendance of the President and Mr. Liam Cosgrave, then Taoiseach.

That Presidential visit was an acknowledgement of the contribution which societies such as the Clonmel Show and Agricultural Society, have made to the Irish economy. Their growth in the second half of the 19th century was remarkable because of its identification of the rich countryside and soil of Ireland, as our greatest asset.

The exploitation of that asset involved education in animal husbandry, in agriculture, inhorticulture and the allied trades and crafts and of developing and improving our natural resources. It was all part of a movement, in education, in agriculture, in social reform, suffrage and health, which marked the period post the Great Famine. Much of this movement involved volunteerism and altruism and far-sightedness, and many of the changes we see today were arrived at very slowly and very gradually. The agricultural societies, all voluntary, played a very important role in that slow steady process, through the annual shows, where encouragement was given via the competitions and exhibitions.

That movement had a parallel in training women in skills, such as the needlework school in Marlfield, founded by Mrs. Bagwell, and the Sisters of Charity Lace School in Clonmel, both of which equipped women with a means of earning some money. It was, finally, for women, to reach its apotheosis in the foundation of the Irish Countrywomens’ Association in the early decades of the 20th century. And again all found their annual public-relations presentation at the shows. All developed and thrived independent of the politics of the time. All had their origins in community.

The Clonmel Show started life, in 1865, not as a horse show but as a cattle show organised by the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland, and entries comprised 180 cattle, 85 horses together with pigs and poultry. That emphasis on cattle may have indicated a move-away by farmers from the concentration on tillage and the one-crop economy of potatoes, which proved so disastrous in the famine. It was a portent of things to come in the development of our very substantial modern economy, where meat and dairy products have become such a vital component of our exports.

And again, it could be said that our dairy industry was nursed in its early years by the remarkable vision of Horace Plunkett who, in 1894, promoted the theory of the Co-operative movement. It was a theory which has become a most practical reality.

It was that same vision motivated by the common good, and the desire to improve the quality of life for their fellow citizens by encouraging enterprise and self-sufficiency, which led to the formation of the agricultural societies. In Clonmel a meeting was held in the Courthouse in 1872 at which The Clonmel Agricultural Society was established. The meeting was attended by a former Mayor, Charles Bianconi. It is interesting to look at the contribution which this one-time immigrant Italian pedlar-boy (now a millionaire) made to his adopted town. He was involved in every good cause, every progressive institution, from the introduction of the Christian Brothers and the support of the Presentation Sisters, and Sisters of Charity, to the creation of substantial employment and a sponsorship of the railways.

The attendance also included John Bagwell of Marlfield, Cornelius O’Donnell of Seskin, Patrick Quinlan of Suirmount, Solomon Watson of Ballingarrane and William Burke of Kilmore, whose descendants have continued to be involved with the Show over a period of five generations. The resultant “Horse Show” (as it came to be described in Clonmel) was first held in a “field behind the Gas Works”, then moved into Davis Road (Kilsheelan Street). It is now held in Powerstown Park.

While it has adapted to modern times and modern tastes, The Clonmel Show and Agricultural Society’s remit has stayed fundamentally the same: the encouragement and rewarding of excellent standards in animal rearing and husbandry and the enhancement of the skills and crafts and soil of Ireland.

The County Museum will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Society with a special exhibition. Articles of interest (posters, photographs, rosettes, trophies, period saddlery, clothing or memorabilia) will be welcomed by the Curator 0761065552 or email museum@tipperarycoco.ie