Killyleagh Show is considered by some to be one of the oldest shows in all of Ireland. It was in 1816 that Killyleagh, Killinchy, Kilmore and Tullynakill formed a branch of the North East Farming Society (whT would later become the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society). The branch was originally born out of a ploughing match, but an annual agricultural show better supported the society' ethos of encouraging landowners and labourers to become better farmers.
The earliest available records for the show are from 1828 where the show was held on the property of Mrs Lowry of Ballow. The schedule included classes for the best cultivated farms, the neatest and cleanest labourer’s cottage and the best samples of wheat, oats, barley and flax. As well as 17 livestock classes that featured draught horses, pigs, cattle and sheep.
At this point there were 71 society members who each paid and annual subscription of 5 shillings that allowed them to compete in competitions and / or attend the show.
In 1830 the judges congratulated the Branch for the improvements it had made to the schedule by including "almost every branch of husbandry on farms", such as "clipping of hedges, cleaning of briars and weeds from fences, the quality of feed for cattle, white-washing of houses and walls and planting of trees. By 1831 the show even was staging classes that judged the length of service, sobriety and honesty of domestic servants.
By 1831 the show was staging classes that judged the length of service, sobriety and honesty of domestic servants. The top man servant prize went to an Alexander Russell who had served Adam Murdock of Ardigon for 18 years. The prize for the cleanest and neatest labourer’s cottage went to George Lowry, a labourer employed by James Johnston of Ballywoollen.
Sadly, by 1832 the judges felt top-dressing on fields was rather neglected and the pasture for cattle ‘very bare’. Their report for the year instructed landlords and tenants on how to rectify the shortcomings!
Ploughing matches continued to be held, usually in January, every year with the 21st annual match being held at Ballygoskin in January of 1838.
In 1843, the ploughing match as held on grounds belonging to Mr. Carr and Mr. Kenning of Killyleagh, where there were 57 entries. The match was won by Matthew Cleland of Killinchy-woods. A dinner as later held at the Cleland Hotel, (latterly the Castle Arms), in Killyleagh. These ploughing matches continued to be held into the late 1890s.
In 1845, the annual show was held on the grounds belonging to Lord Dufferin at Killyleagh Castle. The location of the show would have changed over the years to other venues in the areas surrounding Killinchy, Balloo, Moorhall and Killyleagh.
In 1909 a lease of two fields was given to the society by Lord Dufferin to be used as a permanent showground. The grounds on the Comber Road outside Killyleagh still belong to the society.
The first show held there was on the 7th July 1910. Mrs Rowan-Hamilton of Killyleagh Castle performed the opening ceremony. The new showgrounds proved enormously popular, garnering congratulations from numerous attendees.
In 1921 the show president was a Col Hamilton of Killyleagh Castle, (who would be involved with the show for 50 years). He presided over an organisation that had become a farming society in its own right, boasting over 1000 members with its own showgrounds on the outskirts of Killyleagh. Prize money for the show this year was is excess of £400 and an array of silverware had been donated by patrons. Many of these cups are still presented today, including:
The Rademon Cup
The Killyleagh Cup (first presented in 1909)
The Barr Cup (first presented in 1911)
The Ulster Produce Cup (first presented in 1922)
The Carr Cup (first presented in 1923)
Weather has always been a challenge for outdoor shows and the Killyleagh Show has had its fair share of rain and wind. As far back as 1923 the weather has been a challenge but the show's huge popularity, even then, is testament to the quality of the show and the hard work its members put it to make it so. The show was originally run in July, but after two consecutive years of bad weather in 1923 and 1924 the show was moved forward a month to June. Their decision that year was rewarded with 'glorious sunshine'. However, while a newspaper report states that the show was 'a distinct success in every way' it seems the advent of the car had 'checked' the breeding of horses. Despite the success of the June fixture in 1925, the following year it was moved back to July again.
The latter part of the twenties and the depression in farming saw difficult times for the show and the show in 1930 made a small loss, but the debts at the bank had risen to £160. The 1931 AGM discussed whether or not to hold a show at all. However, the decision was taken out of the society's hands when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease occurred in the Ballydugan and Hollymount areas of Lecale, putting all livestock within a 15 mile radius of Downpatrick under a government Standstill Order.
Sadly, Col Hamilton passed away in 1930 at the age of 86. Further committee members were then lost in 1932 and 1933 and so the decision was made not to stage a show in 1934. With the financial climate still bleak in 1935 it was decided the society should disband. A committee was organised to wind up affairs by arranging the leasing of the showgrounds, sheds, cups and other remaining property.
The show lay dormant for eleven years until a committee was resurrected in 1946. Mr R. Morrison Snr. was elected president and June the 29th was set for the commencement of the next era of the show. It featured classes for cattle, sheep, pigs and horses (hunters, young stock, farm horses, riding ponies, driving, horse and pony jumping, musical chairs, champion stone wall and a potato race for ponies.
1950 introduced new classes in the form of a tractor and trailer reversing competition, while firms were encouraged to come and exhibit machinery. However, the agricultural livestock sections of the show were no longer paying their way and a further outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease eventually proved to be the demise of this section of the show.
From here on in, horses would be the backbone of the show. Although by 1954 both the ‘banks’ and the champion ‘stonewall’ competition had been axed from the show in favor of a ‘touch and go’ and a ‘fly fence’ competition.
During the 1960s the show suffered from a series of difficulties brought about by a clash with the Lurgan Show, after the latter show changed its date. By the 1970s the Killyleagh Show had effectively become a gymkhana now faced the added financial difficulties of increased rates on their showgrounds. Although different attempts were made to stem the show’s decline, including the involvement of the local Young Farmers’ Club events, the show continued to struggle. In 1970 its end of year balance was a mere £7. 1975 proved to be the final fixture in this period of the show’s history, as in 1976 the show committee voted unanimously to put the show in abeyance.
And so the show lay dormant with its assets guarded by assigned trustees until they were approached by the Killyleagh and District Development Committee about resurrecting the show. Delamont Country Park was selected as the new venue for the show as it began a new chapter in its life.
Today the show still focuses on providing a wide range of horse and pony classes and is run as a charity show in support of Marie Curie. It is hosted on the Morrison Farm whose owners have been long-term champions of the show.