Life

Tuesday 20 August 2019

What would the country's 40,000 Scouts be missing if overnight trips were banned?

Kim Bielenberg goes into camp with a Dublin group - and enters a world of three-fingered salutes, woggles and water slides

Away days: members of the 73rd Raheny Scouts, (from bottom), Beaver Tamsin Adriaanse (6), Cub Daniel O’Hara (10), and Scouts Olivia Cillen (13), Maeve O’Connor (14) and Ciarán Durnford (14) at Portlick Scout Campsite. Picture by Frank Mc Grath
Away days: members of the 73rd Raheny Scouts, (from bottom), Beaver Tamsin Adriaanse (6), Cub Daniel O’Hara (10), and Scouts Olivia Cillen (13), Maeve O’Connor (14) and Ciarán Durnford (14) at Portlick Scout Campsite. Picture by Frank Mc Grath
Scout leader Cathal Goan. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Zoe Adriaanse. Picture by Frank Mc Grath
Activities: Joe Corvin and Siún Kelly taking part in the obstacle course. Picture by Frank McGrath
Ciaran Durnford and Sean O'Connor in a kaya. Picture by Frank Mc Grath
Striking out: Cian Casey (Cubs) and Cian O’Donnell (Scout) light a camp fire. Picture by Frank McGrath
Members of the 73rd Raheny scout troop ,Carragh Hardiman, Ronan O Sullivan, Lorea Hurley and Siún Kelly, tackle the monkey bars during the obstacle course, at their camping weekend at Portlick Scout Campsite in Westmeath. Picture:Frank McGrath
Members of the 73rd Raheny scout troop, Joe Corvin [7] and Siún Kelly pictured taking part in the obstacle course during their camping weekend at Portlick Scout Campsite in Westmeath. Picture: Frank McGrath
Members of the 73rd Scout Troop, Lucas Adriaanse who is a Beaver pictured with Zoe Adriaanse[ Scout and Mya O'Hara as they cook on a camp fire during their camping weekend at Portlick Scout Campsite in Westmeath. Picture: Frank McGrath
Mya O'Hara gives her brother Daniel a safety talk on wood craft during the 73rd Scout Troop camping weekend at Portlick Scout Campsite in Westmeath. Picture:Frank McGrath
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

They pitch their tents in a field near the woods by the shores of Lough Ree. They leap down water slides, buzz with excitement along zip wires - and paddle kayaks out on the lapping waters of the lake on a sunny May afternoon.

When the sun goes down, the boys and girls of the Raheny Scouts group sing songs next to a campfire, and munch marshmallow cones, before returning, worn-out and tired, to their tents by torchlight.

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For the Raheny Scouts, this group camp is the highlight of the calendar, an adventure that only happens once every three years. Last weekend it took place at the Portlick Scout Campsite near Athlone.

It is the only time when the different age groups of Scouts, from Beavers and Cubs up to the teenage Venture Scouts, can travel away together for a camp.

Scout leader Cathal Goan. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Scout leader Cathal Goan. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

For 10-year-old Daniel O'Hara, being in the Scouts has offered opportunities for friendship.

"I had no friends before I joined the Beavers [the youngest scouts, aged six to eight]," says Daniel. "So I just had to make friends when I joined and I kept them when I went into Cubs.

"It's been great fun being in the camp. I like the way you get away from screen time."

For most of the Scouts in camp, phones are banned for the weekend; the older teenagers are allowed them, but most leave them behind at home, or packed away in their tents.

The adult Scout leaders are also happy to escape the electronic world of screens for a weekend outdoors.

"When you are working, you don't get much of a chance to enjoy being outside like this," says leader Sharon Campbell, sitting in a group outside the Scout hut.

Activities: Joe Corvin and Siún Kelly taking part in the obstacle course. Picture by Frank McGrath
Activities: Joe Corvin and Siún Kelly taking part in the obstacle course. Picture by Frank McGrath

So what do the children learn from Scouting? "I've pitched a lot of tents, tied a lot of knots and I think I socialise a lot better," says 12-year-old Zoe Adriaanse.

Zoe attends an all-girls schools, and enjoys the fact that she is in mixed company when she is with her Scout group - and away in the camp.

"I love the games mostly. Today I was doing archery where you shoot arrows with foam tips, and I also went kayaking, and got a bit wet."

For Ireland's 40,000 Scouts, escaping the comforts of home and camping overnight is the essence of what they do.

By venturing off into the woods and fields to camp, they are putting into practice what they have learned in their scout dens in weekly sessions up and down the country - from knot-tying to first-aid training to learning how to light a fire without a match.

Overnight camping may be a crucial part of Scouting, but this activity was thrown into doubt earlier this year by the child and family agency Tusla.

Striking out: Cian Casey (Cubs) and Cian O’Donnell (Scout) light a camp fire. Picture by Frank McGrath
Striking out: Cian Casey (Cubs) and Cian O’Donnell (Scout) light a camp fire. Picture by Frank McGrath

Calling for an immediate review of how Scouts are supervised, Tusla said Scouting Ireland should "consider the viability of continuing with overnight trips".

To say that the suggestion that overnight trips could be banned as a result of well-publicised child-welfare concerns has caused consternation in the Scouting movement would be an understatement.

"If we were to turn around and say there would be no more camps, people would wonder what we are here for," Cathal Gahan, one of the Raheny Scout leaders, tells me.

The chief organiser of the camp Ger Clancy says: "It would be like a football team being told that they could not play football at the weekends."

Cathal and Ger, both now aged 36, have been in Raheny Scouts since they were boys, and proudly show me around the camp. Soon after I arrive, shivering cub Scouts in wetsuits are whooping with delight as they swoosh down a water slide into a pool of water.

Laser battle

The Scout leaders show me the scene of the archery battles, where boys and girls appear, looking like Darth Vader in Star Wars, dressed in dark helmets and masks, as they shoot each other with arrows.

Just next to the archery battlefield is an inflatable maze, where other groups of Scouts shoot each other with laser guns.

Laser guns may not have been around when Englishman Robert Baden-Powell created the Scouting movement over a century ago, but some of the skills taught have hardly changed.

At his first camp on an island off the English coast, Baden-Powell taught boys "camping, cooking, observation, deduction, woodcraft, chivalry, boatmanship, life-saving, health and patriotism".

Members of the 73rd Raheny scout troop ,Carragh Hardiman, Ronan O Sullivan, Lorea Hurley and Siún Kelly, tackle the monkey bars during the obstacle course, at their camping weekend at Portlick Scout Campsite in Westmeath. Picture:Frank McGrath
Members of the 73rd Raheny scout troop ,Carragh Hardiman, Ronan O Sullivan, Lorea Hurley and Siún Kelly, tackle the monkey bars during the obstacle course, at their camping weekend at Portlick Scout Campsite in Westmeath. Picture:Frank McGrath

Ger Clancy says Scouting used to be more regimented, and there was a greater emphasis on parading and having the correct uniforms. There used to be two separate Scouting movements, one for Catholics under the auspices of the bishops, and a second multi-denominational group that attracted Protestants. The two scouting bodies finally merged in 2004, and Scouting has long been open to both boys and girls.

In the centre of the camp, as they gather in a circle for the official opening next to the red-and-white Raheny flag, the Scouts still observe a traditional three-finger salute - standing for the three original aspects of the Scout promise to honour God, help others and obey the Scout law.

Everybody has to wear their distinctive neckerchief, threaded through a holder known as a woggle, but overall the atmosphere is informal, and the boys and girls mostly wear what they want.

Many of the adult leaders are parents of children involved, past and present, and may not have been in the Scouts before their child joined.

They themselves may enjoy learning survival skills, popularised by television personalities such as Bear Grylls and Ray Mears.

"The main requirement is that you like the outdoors," says Cathal Gahan.

When I visit the camp, a group of leaders are learning how to start a fire by rubbing a knife against fire steel next to birch bark in the woods.

It is a laborious process, requiring patience, but eventually the sparks begin to fly and the flames take hold.

One of the Scout leaders, Sandra Reynolds, who only joined in January, says: "One of the great things I have found with Scouting is that it is very inclusive.

Mya O'Hara gives her brother Daniel a safety talk on wood craft during the 73rd Scout Troop camping weekend at Portlick Scout Campsite in Westmeath. Picture:Frank McGrath
Mya O'Hara gives her brother Daniel a safety talk on wood craft during the 73rd Scout Troop camping weekend at Portlick Scout Campsite in Westmeath. Picture:Frank McGrath

"It is not like team sports, which can be very competitive and do no suit all children. In the Scouts, kids find things that they are good at, and get a lot out of it as a result."

Other parents say that joining the Scouts helped their families to link up with the local community when they moved to a new area.

On the shores of the lake, a group of Cubs (aged 9-11) in life jackets and wetsuits are being taught how to use a kayak, and how to hold the paddle so that they do not sweep each other into the water.

A lot of the activities at the camp are built around teamwork. In one corner, a group are taking part in an exercise known as crate stacking. One Scout builds up a pile of crates, while another, held by a harness, has to climb up on the crates and try to maintain their balance. The challenge for the climber is to go as high as he or she can without falling off.

Looking back over three decades, both Cathal Gahan and Ger Clancy say scouting helped them in their chosen careers. Cathal works for the Environmental Protection Agency while Ger is a special needs assistant in a school.

"I am an out-and-about sort of person," says Cathal. "I would not like to be at a desk. I think Scouting teaches you social and leadership skills and also how to work in teams." Some of the ideas of Scouting's founder Baden-Powell seem old-fashioned nowadays, such as his advice to boys: "Sleep with your windows open, summer and winter, and you will never catch cold. A soft bed and too many blankets make a boy dream bad dreams, which weakens him."

In other ways, the founder of the Scouts was ahead of his time and preached about environmental awareness.

"As a Scout you are the guardian of the woods," he wrote in his original Scouting guide. "A Scout never damages a tree by hacking it with his knife or axe."

It's a message that is still taught by Cathal and the Raheny leaders. Scouts are told only to use dead wood for fires, and to leave the countryside in pristine condition.

Waiting list

"Scouts can get environmental badges for what they do and 'Leave no trace' is a big motto when we camp," says Cathal. "The message is to leave only footprints and take only memories."

By early evening, the Scouts are beginning to get hungry, and gather together outside the hut, each carrying clanking metal or plastic plates and cutlery, ready for their evening meal.

Dozens of them gather at 30ft-long table in the open air to wolf down bangers, beans and mash, served out of vast pots.

It has been a long day and some of the younger Beavers, unaccustomed to being away from home, are feeling a little homesick. But their adult leaders jolly them along and the feelings pass. In organising a camp near Athlone, Ger Clancy has deliberately chosen a venue that is not too far away from Dublin in case parents want to pick up their children.

When news about controversies in Scouting Ireland and past treatment of abuse cases emerged in recent months, there were natural concerns about whether camps such as this could survive.

It seemed unlikely that a ban on overnight camps would ever happen, but would parents still allow their children to join the Scouts and go on overnight trips? That was a genuine worry.

So far, the controversy has not had an impact on numbers and Scouting in Dublin continues to be hugely popular, according to Cathal.

"We have 200 youth members in our group and the demand for places is higher than it has ever been. We have a waiting list of three years."

Cathal says that when controversies emerged at a national level about past abuse cases, he himself questioned whether it was the kind of organisation with which he wanted to be involved. And he worried that volunteer Scout leaders would call it a day.

"Thank God that did not happen and I think that is testament to what we do. We have built up a relationship with parents and they trust us to bring the Scouts away."

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