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Saturday 16 December 2017

Testing times ahead as ICA hits century

Women's group has plenty to cheer at milestone, but must map a new way forward if it is to stem falling membership

Majella O'Sullivan

AS THE IRISH Countrywomen's Association (ICA) gears up to celebrate its centenary, it can look back on a century of achievements and take a bow.

The milestone in the association's history has already been marked by An Post, which has issued a commemorative 55c postage stamp in honour of Bantracht na Tuaithe.

President Mary McAleese hosted a reception in Aras an Uachtarain to mark the occasion and there are plenty more celebrations planned throughout the year.

However, as the association assesses its early years and its accomplishments and faces into the future, mapping its way forward has to be a priority.

An immediate challenge facing the association is its declining membership, which has dropped from a height of 22,000 in the early 1960s to an estimated 13,000 today. This membership is spread over 700 guilds in 27 federations -- one for each county and two in Tipperary.

There are also conflicting views about where the association's headquarters should be based. ICA had its Merrion Road property on the market at one stage, with the intention of moving operations to An Grianan at Termonfeckin, Co Louth.

Although plans to sell up have been shelved and are unlikely to be revisited any time soon, others argue it made no sense in the first place to move the headquarters of a national organisation out of the capital to a less accessible location.

The association does seem keen to shake off its "twinset and pearls" image in its efforts to attract a new generation of Irish women.

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There are some within the organisation who believe it has to seriously rethink its direction and adapt to suit modern Irish women.

Born out of economic and social necessity, since its foundation in Bree, Co Wexford in 1910, the ICA has played a pivotal role in alleviating the hardship and drudgery that was the lot of many Irish women, particularly rural dwellers.

When its founding mothers got together to set up the Society of the United Irishwomen (UI), their aim was to improve the standard of life in rural Ireland through education and co-operative efforts.

These progressive women, who were largely Protestant, revolutionised healthcare and other aspects of the lives of other women.

ICA president Anne Maria Dennison explains that healthcare was one of the first projects undertaken by the organisation. In 'demonstration cottages' they held classes on healthcare, hygiene and domestic economics, specialising in nutrition and caring for the sick. They even set up a goat farm in effort to combat the spread of tuberculosis, a scourge on Ireland at the time, as goat's milk was free of the disease.

Education was another key aim of the UI and its adult education classes preceded the Vocational Education Committee, which wasn't set up until the 1930s.

It also organised cookery demonstrations and doled out practical advice on a range of subjects including poultry and egg production, cow testing, cheese making and even beekeeping.

"These initiatives resulted in better diet, improved nutrition and better health," Ms Dennison explains.

"Co-operative selling was encouraged giving women an income of their own, perhaps for the first time."

The national president insists that the same spirit of fellowship and friendship that guided the organisation in its early years is as strong today.

"It's an organisation that has contributed to social change in Ireland over its 100-year history," she says.

"In recessionary times a lot of women might see the ICA as a good social outlet.

"My hope is to increase membership and we're already in the process of employing a senior executive and this will be part of their brief.

"We need to get the message out there that we're not just an association for countrywomen; that's just a myth.

"We are urban and rural and it's been that way since the 1930s."

The 1930s also brought a change to the original name prompted by a fear that the UI might be associated with the subversive United Ireland Party.

Former president Breda Raggett feels that perhaps the time has come to change it once again.

"I fear for the association and I think we're at a huge crossroads, like we've never been at any time before and survival is our biggest worry now," she says.

"The ICA opened up wonderful opportunities for me for education, travel, meeting people -- opportunities I thought I never would have.

"Everything I've ever achieved in my life has been through the ICA.

"In the past we have been able to meet with huge challenges but we don't seem to be able to now.

"We're not getting new members and our numbers are falling all the time. We seem to be going on with no plan and few policies."

Ms Ragget is also critical of the new constitution that was brought in to comply with the Charitable Status Act.

She says it was introduced at a huge financial cost and has, in effect, muzzled its members.

"We used to have three council meetings every year but under the new constitution these no longer take place," she explains.

"This was where people came with their ideas. Sometimes they came to challenge people at the top but that was a healthy way of doing business.

"I see the new constitution as clipping the wings of the members, the people who are the source of new ideas.

"There was no need to change it. The people who brought in that constitution brought in a good constitution."

The Kilkenny woman says she feels compelled to speak out because of her fear for the future of an organisation she loves and is indebted to.

"What are we for now? We don't know anymore.

"We're all the time looking back but that's done, we've achieved that. Now what are we going to do in the future?

"Are we looking at meeting the needs of young women?

"The ICA has never adapted to meet the needs of working women and it has not met the needs of young women."

Former president Kitty Hartlin from Kilmessan, Co Meath led a delegation to China during her term of office from 1988 to 1991. The invitation arose out of a friendship developed between the ICA and its counterpart, the Women's Institute of China and the then Chinese ambassador.

Ms Raggett insists she isn't being critical of those at the top who are "doing their best" but she maintains the ICA needs to return to and reinforce its alliances with the Associated Country Women of the World (ACCW) and European lobbying group COFACE, the Confederation of Family Organisations in Europe of which Kitty Hartlin served as president.

"We were going to China before the politicians or the business people were going there and we were criticised for doing so," she adds.

"Our own Government wouldn't have wanted the ICA as part of any delegation but the Chinese didn't feel that way.

"They saw the value in learning things about other people and about their culture.

"We were showing them what we were achieving in Ireland and we were sowing the seeds in the minds of Chinese women."

Dublin woman Marie O'Toole does not share the dissenting views. She believes there is plenty of interest in the ICA from young women, as evidenced by the amount of enquiries made at the association's stand at the Knitting and Stitching Show in the RDS in November.

Ms O'Toole says they have now all been assigned to guilds in their area and the association has also appointed a liaison officer in each of its 27 federations to oversee the recruitment of new members.

She believes the real attraction of joining the ICA is the fellowship and friendship it offered its members.

"In Dublin alone we have 47 guilds and over 2,000 members. People have this image of us being old fogies, but that couldn't be further from the truth," she says.

"There are of course some smaller guilds with an older age profile but that is changing now.

"We've moved on a lot from the twinset and pearls and we have a great age mix even on our committees and younger women are coming in," she says.

A resurgence in interest in arts and crafts may be due to the recession but more women are keen to learn these skills, she maintains.

"When the ICA was first formed women did not go outside the home and there was terrible isolation so it gave them the opportunity to meet like-minded women to talk their problems out with.

"But there's still isolation and moving to a new community is very difficult and it can be very hard to break into, and I would encourage women to join the ICA.

"They will definitely meet people their own age and they'll learn something new."

The ICA's biggest challenge will be to prove its relevance to a new generation and in an image-obsessed world, rebranding may be key.

Irish Independent