Wednesday 24 October 2018

It's fun to be in the ICA

IN HER introduction to the recently issued history of Wexford ICA, county president Breda Banville describes the association as a welcoming and fun organisation for women.

A ' fun' organisation, Breda? My, how things have changed. Hark back to the days when the United Irishwomen was first established back in the merry month of May, 1910. Though many of the founding mothers were of very conservative stock, the title, with its undertones of ' 98, smacked not so much of fun as of rebellion and agitation.

The lady given the credit for coming up with the idea of women coming together regardless of class or creed to advance themselves was the English born Anita Georgina Edith Studdy from Devonshire, later Anita Beatty of Borodale, later again Anita Lett of Bree. And she had much more on her mind than mere fun.

It appears that she was the ideas woman in the United Irishwomen, which later re- styled itself the Irish Countrywomen's Association in 1935. While Anita's good and noble friend Lady Frances Talbot Power of Edermine concentrated on the 'good cakes, barmbrack, oranges and tea' end of things, she was more the militant.

As the splendid '102 Years of Wexford ICA' reveals, it was Anita Lett who set the radical tone which gave the association its cutting edge and contemporary relevance. Perhaps her intensity was a little scary. Certainly, the newly formed national organisation lost little time in replacing her as national president and gently ushering her back home to the hall (little more than a shed, truth be told) in Bree where the very first meeting was held.

The early ICA was a crusading body. Its remit went far beyond the sewing circle. The United Irishwomen went into battle on the issue of clean water supplies. They fought for rural money spinners such as butter making and poultry rearing. They were in the front line on vaccination and a host of health issues. Anita concerned herself in everything from provision of funeral cars to the playing of camogie.

Yes, camogie. The same Anita Georgina Edith Lett, she of the big house and the grand vision, takes the credit for training the Davidstown/Bree team which won a district final in 1913. With her voluminous dresses and chocolate box hats, she was a true soul sister of the high performance, mini-skorted Amazons who brought the O'Duffy Cup back to Wexford last month. She must have been intriguing and stimulating company.

THE book on the 102 years also contains a portrait of another true heroine from Bree. Nurse Margaret Breen (née Cowman) of Ballybrennan was hired by the countrywomen to provide a mobile midwife service to the Bree and Clonroche district. She was sent for training at the Charing Cross Hospital in London in 1911, returning to patrol her beat on bike, by donkey cart and eventually by car. Through Nurse Breen, the ICA saved lives, as she safely delivered 1,793 babies during a career that continued until 1963.

The ICA has also contrived from the start to have the fun that Breda Banville refers. If it was not enjoyable, then the organisation would scarcely command the loyalty that continues to attract a Wexford membership around the 600 (and growing) mark to this day. The book refers to many of the activities that have provided entertainment and diversion over the decades in the various guilds.

The countrywomen have always shown themselves willing to try their hand at making all sorts of things, from baskets and bread to fudge and flower arrangements. In Adamstown, they used to run classes in the manufacture of string bags and seagrass stools. Please, someone tell me what on earth are seagrass stools? Are they for sitting on or for growing mushrooms? At Ballyoughter, they favoured slipper making in the sixties and turned to binca embroidery in the seventies.

At one time, Caim guild ventured to explore the art of lambskin curing, which sounds horribly smelly. In Kilmyshall, they have been known to vary a diet of card making and gardening tips by examining the art of making income tax returns. The 'can do' spirit is bred into the ICA bones. If not 'can do', then 'will learn'.

We almost take it for granted that the ICA is ready to lend a hand. The call goes out at times of funerals, field days or senior citizens' parties and the local guild will slip into catering mode. Their competitions are the stuff of legend – ' best apron made from sack', 'nicest pair of legs', ' best polished shoe', ' biggest potato' and so infinitely on. They have been behind a raft of community initiatives from badminton leagues and chiropody clinics, to the Bunclody Show and pioneering days out of the institution for the patients of St. Senan's Hospital. The photos illustrating '102 Years of Wexford ICA' are a wonder. Most of the pictures are of the members in groups at monthly meetings or outings or cheque presentations or prize givings. They give rise to one very serious question: why is it that the vast majority of ICA women have medium to short length hair.

It's true. In pic after pic, scarcely a lock may be seen brushing a shoulder, so much so that the exceptions stand out, such as the free flowing mane of Mary Halligan ( page 94, Glenbrien drama group 1976) and the untrammelled curls of Monica O'Brien (page 120, Oulart 30th anniversary 1993). And there on the back cover is another personality with loose hung tresses – Anita Lett herself.