Only show in town
Bonniconlon village, in the foothills of the Ox mountains, is normally a serene, laid back place. However, every August bank holiday Monday the village explodes into life, with the population swelling to over 20,000 people for the day. The reason for this influx of souls? The renowned Bonniconlon Agricultural Show.
The man charged with overseeing the smooth running of the entire operation is a native of the village, John O’Hara. He explains that he has been involved with the show ever since he can remember. “Well I was carrying rosettes when I was nine, so I’ve always really been around it. But I have been deeply involved for the last 20 years in the running of the event,” he recalls.
To pull off such a large-scale, day-long event the show committee which John heads needs the co-operation of many people, and he is quick to acknowledge the help that they receive. “It is a community project really. Every organisation gets involved and everyone helps out. I mean we would have over 200 volunteers working on the day from the village and we couldn’t do it without their help. As it has grown as well, we have received help from outside organisations, such as the Garda Road Traffic Units, and marshalls from the Mayo Rally Association who are a huge help with parking and ensuring that traffic disruption is kept to a minimum.”
Next year’s event will be the fifty-eighth incarnation of the show and every year it seems to grow and grow. To manage such an event, year-round preparations must be undertaken. There is no rest for the committee. John details the intense work that goes in each year to ensuring that a small village show is one of the biggest of its kind in the country. “The Monday night after the show we have a meeting to discuss how it passed off, and while everything is fresh in everyone’s minds, we look at what worked and what might not have worked. If any one of the committee received complaints on anything at all, they are aired and the secretary takes note of them so we can analyse them at a later date. If we were lacking something we will attempt to rectify that in the future. For example last year (2005) we had a number of complaints about parking and traffic. This time around though we had increased parking facilities and more shuttle buses than ever to take people to, and from, the area.”
As well as dealing with feedback from the previous show, the committee begin their work for the following year in earnest almost immediately. “Some of the attractions we have to pre-book in October and we take it from there.”
In January - a full eight months before the big day - the committee begins to formulate the schedule for the different categories involved. “We go through the classes and look to see where we can improve on last year. We might look at whether we can slim down events or add to them. We take each section separately, the horses and ponies, then the cattle and sheep and then the domestic arts. It may take several weeks to work out, six to seven meetings to lay it all out and decide upon final plans. We have to source our sponsorship at that stage, and we take one night a week to get them lined up.”
The excellent reputation of the show has made this side of the work less difficult, explains John. “There is no doubt that it has become easier now to attract sponsors because of the success of the show and how it has grown over the years.”
The growth of the show has impacted on the hosting of the event and it has outgrown its original home in the Bonniconlon GAA field, as the ESB employee admits. “A few years ago we only had to worry about getting the events lined up in the football field, but now we are looking at using land in a two-mile radius of the village almost, between parking and the actual events. We have to contact up to 30 individuals to get their permission for use of their land. And invariably they all leave their land at the disposal of the committee, free of charge. We then have to make arrangements to break boundaries and make gaps for access and freedom of movement. Of course all those alterations have to be mended and that is done after the bank holiday, and it is all voluntary. The help given is really outstanding,” he added.
The commitment given by all involved, O’Hara reflects, is immense. “For two months before the day, you have absolutely no time to yourself. The time for no-one on the committee is their own.”
The show itself is home to a number of very keenly-contested competitions. “The show is on around the same time as the Dublin Horse Show Week in the RDS and many people use the Bonniconlon trials as a warm-up event. It’s good preparation and it works for everyone,” says John.
Another major event which attracts large numbers is the Sheaf-Tossing. The All-Ireland finals of this sport have been held in Bonniconlon on a number of occasions. The constant stream of national champions in the sport from the local area makes Bonniconlon a hotbed of Sheaf Tossing, and the participation of the World Champion Michael O’Brien in the Bonniconlon event for the past six years has added to its status. According to O’Hara, Bonniconlon is one of the most talked about and attractive venues for the sport worldwide.
Added to those high-profile attractions, the show also hosts All-Ireland finals in the domestic arts, Texel sheep and non-pedigree calves. Allied to the main hall which houses the domestic arts - encompassing everything from cookery to horticulture - the committee have added sheepdog trials and a poultry section in the last couple of years as the event continues to expand.
All these are very good reasons why the show is so successful and has eclipsed many others in the area to become one of the biggest in the country, but John also attributes the success to its emphasis on family entertainment. “I would definitely say that is our winning point. Fifty per cent of our focus would be on providing entertainment for children and the family. We look on it as a family day out. Children get free entry, there is free car-parking and a free shuttle bus. Everything is done to keep parents’ stress to a minimum. There really is something for everyone. We look for the best bands to play on the day, for the parents and we also have Danceworld to keep the kids entertained.”
When queried as to why people seem to return every year, John smiles and reveals: “It’s great value for money. There is at least ten different things going on at the same time, so you never get to see all that’s going on. They come back the following year to catch up on the stuff they missed but, then there is always something else that catches there eye and makes them want to come back. Its the constant freshening up and change that keeps the whole day so good.”