AN INAUSPICIOUS gathering in the sitting room of a Mrs Bob Patterson on Dunmanway’s Sackville Street in the winter of 1947, saw the start of the local ICA Guild.
Now celebrating their 70th anniversary – with a host of events lined up to celebrate the momentous occasion – they are one of the country’s few ICA guilds to boast of an unbroken record.
An integral part of the fabric of West Cork – and the entire country – the ICA has special memories for women of all ages, either of attending meetings themselves or of their mothers being involved in the organisation and lifelong friendships being formed.
But there’s far more to the organisation than just chats over cups of tea, baking and outings – as important and enjoyable as these might be – points out long-standing Dunmanway member Eileen O’Mahony.
Founded in 1910 as the Society of United Irish Women, it was to the fore of women’s affairs for many decades. What many younger women will not know, is that lobbying by the organiation saw certain laws changed bringing about huge improvements to women’s lives.
They changed their name in 1935 and currently have around 16,000 members in over 1,000 active guilds in the country in every county.
The objectives of the Association are ‘to bring women together in fellowship and through co-operative effort to develop and improve the standard of rural and urban life in Ireland having due regard to Irish culture.’
Eileen, originally from Crookstown joined in 1972 –to make friends – and has been a vital part of the Dunmanway organisation ever since.
Holding various positions including secretary, treasurer all the way up to president, she said joining Dunmanway ICA was the best thing she ever did: ‘I loved it – I learned so much, from sewing and cooking skills to confidence; before that I wouldn’t have had the courage to speak in public.’
But there was more to them than that she insists pointing out they also successfully lobbied the government on a number of issues.
The ICA’s website points out that these included campaigning for ‘better living,’ which called for the access to electricity and safe clean water across Ireland. In the 1950s there was still limited access to electricity in some parts of Ireland, introducing a counselling service and helpline, offering confidential help and support to its members and their families, working to reduce levels of depression and promoting easier access to breast and cervical cancer screening for all women. They also helped lobby to make Irish the 25th recognised language within the EU
The ICA was set up at a time when there were fewer social outlets for women but Eileen feels there is still a place for them in today’s society – although she acknowledges there are more demands on women’s time than before.
‘If you are new to a place it’s a great way to get to know people. You do get a lot back if you join.’
Dunmanway ICA Guild brought out a book to mark their 60th anniversary – some 10 years back – and it’s provides an invaluable insight to their history, with page after page of remarkable detail that could otherwise have gone unrecorded.
Their official formation was on January 8h, 1948 and their first year brought them 65 paying members each paying an affiliation fee of one shilling.
President was Mrs Patterson; with Ms A Kingston, The Rock, vice president; Mrs Flor Crowley, Mill Road, was the first secretary and Mrs Dalton, Sackville Street, treasurer.
They met ever Friday at 8pm and, over the years, their meetings took place in Colaiste Chairbre, along with St Patrick’s Hall and the Labour Hall. Meetings comprised a demonstration or talk followed by a social half hour - which usually went on for longer!
Records from their initial meetings back in the ’40s show their activities to have been things leather work; raffia work; talk on horticulture and making dolls.
Down through the years the nature of these changed with the times and included a talk on ‘how to use a pressure cooker’; demonstrations of arts and crafts; various guest speakers.
There were organised dances and socials; outings to Garretstown and more high profile visits to places like Aras an Uachtaran in 1998 along with a trip to ICA’s HQ, An Grianan, and regular courses including a popular one on Home Nursing.
Other stand out memories include appearing on the hugely popular Live at Three back in May 1997 hosted by Mary Kennedy.
Mary Walsh is another active member and Dunmanway guild’s secretary. She joined in the late 70s – again to make friends – and she’s also keen to dispel the myth the ICA is not just about drinking tea, saying there’s lots of fun to be had as well.
‘It’s about friendship, camaraderie – and a bit of craic! You also have an opportunity to learn lots of new skills. We’d definitely love some new and younger members to come on board on join us and see what we’re all about – give us a call!’
They currently have around 17 members, ranging in age from 40s to 70s and beyond.
Information officer for Dunmanway, and several other West Cork guilds, Eilish Hurley echoed her sentiments, explaining how the guild planted a tree in the grounds of the new swimming pool to mark their anniversary with their eldest member Nora Crowley helping to turn the sod.
They also organised an art competition for all the schools of the parish with over 200 entries and they are busy planning a gala dinner for later in the year.
The names of those who made a difference to the organisation over the past 70 years are too numerous to mention, but all get a worthy mention in their book.
The current officers are: President, Lily Pattison; vice president Rose Hurley; secretary, Mary Walsh; treasurer, Anna O’Donovan; assistant treasurer, Nora Crowley.