Helen Carroll of Ear to the Ground fame was guest speaker at a recent function organized jointly by Dualla/Cashel ICA and Cashel Arts Fest. The evening was a resounding success with representatives of neighbouring guilds and Federation Officers attending.
Helen began her talk saying that over the past two years she had been involved in two television programmes involving the ICA.She first got the idea of doing something on ICA when filming a report for Ear to the Ground in 2008. ˜Dinner on a Tenner" and got women from Kilkenny City guild of ICA to sample the food.
The mention of the centenary in 2010 sparked an idea so she got to work doing a little bit of research on ICA. Helen added; I thought we should mark the centenary on Ear to the Ground. If any programme should give credit to the ICA, then ETTG was the obvious one.
While researching this report Helen came across some very interesting facts. As she said; "Interesting to me, because I never knew them before."
The ICA was founded in 1910 by a small group of well educated and largely Protestant women in Bree, Co Wexford. Initially called the Society of the United Irishwomen, this organisation played a very big role in the women's movement in Ireland.
From the start, they were doing something no one else in the country and very few people around the world were doing addressing the needs of women living in rural areas. At a time when a lot of families were living in hardship, money was scarce, families were big and living conditions were very poor €" the United Irishwomen set out to make women's lives a little bit easier.
They were offering friendship, hope, support and leadership. They ended up giving women that and an awful lot more. This pioneering group offered women the opportunity to educate themselves (and I
don't mean academically, they were taught how to budget properly, how to run a farmhouse efficiently, how to keep up with the changes in domestic technology, how to care for their children's health).
In 1935 the United Irishwomen became the ICA and over time their influence grew, they started having an impact both domestically and politically.
They played a massive role in the development of basic utilities in Ireland, like water and electricity. Even up to the 1950s a lot of families living in rural Ireland didn't have access to electricity and safe clean water. But because of the ICA, all of that changed. Part of their campaign
around rural electrification included encouraging young women not to marry a man unless he agreed to bring electricity into the house. Believe it or not a lot of men at the time did have power in their outbuildings and milking parlours, but really didn't see the point of bringing it into the house. Well if it wasn't in the house, the ICA were insistent no woman should ever agree to live there. They also prepared a lot of women for electricity when it finally did make it into their houses by touring the country with a mobile electric kitchen and demonstrating to groups of women how to use newfangled contraptions like electric cookers.
The ICA also gave many Irish women some financial independence. Think of it, these women were entirely dependent on their husbands for money. So this organisation showed them ways they could make money from their farms, just as their husbands were, like keeping turkeys to sell for Christmas.
Another big source of income were the country markets, set up by the ICA and still going strong. Women used produce from the farm to make food to sell at the markets, or they sold some of their homemade crafts. But all of the money they made was theirs and theirs alone. But where could they keep it?
Well the wonderful women in the ICA came up with the ideal solution when they helped establish the first ever personal savings accounts for women in the credit unions. Their husbands couldn€™t have access to it, which they relished. And a lot of times they had no idea how this money was spent. No
wonder, a name given to these savings money was their running away fund
Although this was Ireland in the 50s and 60s, not too many women were running away from their husbands, no matter how difficult they were.
In truth, most money was spent on bills and buying things for their children.
To a lot of young women today, these achievements don't sound very impressive but the impact they had on the lives of families all over the country cannot be underestimated. They quite literally changed women's lives.
Unfortunately they don't always get the acknowledgement they deserve, particularly from other people in the women's movement. In fact, a lot of the written history about the struggle for women's rights in Ireland fails to mention the ICA.
Why? Well I think a big reason for this is that the ICA was essentially a conservative organisation. These were wives and mothers living in rural areas, quite religious and a lot of them were busy having a lot of children. They weren€™t out marching, burning their bras or hopping on the contraception train to Belfast. They were seen as a domestic group concerned with domestic matters and they were those things. But that, I think, was their strength.
If you think of women in the developing world today, they first have to fight for a decent standard of living for themselves and their children. They have to tackle issues like health, education, and poverty before they can even think of tackling issues like equality. Once you have improved your quality of life within your home, then you can turn your attention towards your quality of life outside the home.
Yes some women fought for our right to vote, our right to contraception, our right to equal pay. The ICA fought for our right to a decent standard of living. And we should thank them for that.
Helen showed the report put together by €˜Ear to the Ground€™ marking the centenary of ICA. It featured the current president of ICA Anne Maria Dennison and €œan amazing woman called Mamo McDonald, a former president of ICA and something of a campaigner€?. When Mamo was the mother of
eleven young children she championed the rights of mothers living in rural areas now that she€™s an older women, she€™s busy championing the rights of other older people in Ireland.
The excerpt from Ear to the Ground also featured renowned historian Diarmaid Ferriter. He is a massive fan of the ICA and is one of the few historians who have acknowledged the important role the ICA played in modern Irish history.
Not content with that seven minute report on Ear to the Ground, Helen and a director called Sarah Barrow got their thinking hats on and thought €œhow could we do something bigger and longer to mark the Centenary.
Helen said the time of straight up documentaries is dead. If we wanted to get the ICA on television, then we had to choose a different route. Something we thought the broadcasters would run with, and that was a reality tv programme.I know a lot of people think reality tv is the lowest common denominator, and sometimes it is. But if you want to get a programme made, you have to make some compromises, so we did and thanks be to God we got commissioned. Not a full series but a one off programme or pilot. IF RTE were happy with it and the audience liked it, then maybe it would go further.
The starting point for this programme was the question, how do you make the ICA relevant to today€™s young women? They are a million miles away from those pioneers back in 1910. These were girls who grew up in a time of plenty, spent money like it was going out of fashion and were more concerned with ugg boots, fake tan and hair straighteners than how to run a household.
We went out on the streets and started asking girls in their 20s what they thought of the ICA. Most of them thought nothing, because they hadn€™t even heard of them. And those that had mentioned things like crocheting, flower arranging and jam making. They imagined sweet grey haired old ladies with nothing better to do than baking cakes and knitting tea cosies.
We wanted to set out to prove them wrong and, more importantly, show them how relevant the ICA still are today. In fact, we wanted to show them and the viewers that the ICA are probably more relevant today than they have been for many years.
Many young people are living through unprecendented times, money is scarce, they're losing jobs, they€™re having to do without for the first time in their lives. They haven't lived through a recession or crash like this before. But the ICA woman has. And she survived it, not only that she
flourished. And there are plenty of things she could teach us to get through the next few rocky years.
Wouldn't it be great, we thought, if the ICA could run some sort of bootcamp to teach today's young women how to fend for themselves. If we could bring them up to an Grianan, the ICA's headquarters in Termonfeckin, and prepare them for the tough times ahead and do it in an enteratining way.
Because first and foremost this programme had to be entertaining, we were making it for RTE's entertainment department This was not a serious programme, there had to be plenty of laughs and it had to be fun.
So that was the premise of the programme which we called ICA Bootcamp. Once we had that all we needed were the women. We thought it would be very difficult to find three impressive, strong performers who could carry a programme. We wanted what we called matronly seargent majors - strong, formidable and capable women. And we found them so easily, in fact we could have found 30 of them. The ICA were a huge help, they pointed us in the right direction and we came up trumps.
We ended up using a woman from Leighlinbridge in Carlow called Imelda Byrne, Josephine Helly from Ardrahan in Galway and Breda McDonnell from Mullinavat in Kilkenny. They were wonderful, good fun, very skilled and incredibly warm and friendly.
We set them the task of spending a week in an Grianan with four young, glamorous women who could barely boil an egg. Their job was to whip them into shape and boy did they do that.
At this point Helen showed a clip from ICA Bootcamp which aired on RTE television in September.<
Now not everyone in the ICA was happy with the programme.
Some of them thought it was too flippant, some of them thought things like making black pudding and plucking chickens were dated and irrelevant. But the audience loved it and so did RTE. And whatever your thoughts on reality tv, it did introduce a new generation to the ICA and it brought in some much needed publicity for the organisation. It even brought in some new members.
So all in all the ICA and were very happy with ICA Bootcamp and they're even happier now because we are just starting to film a full series of the show. RTE have commissioned us to make a four part series, which is starting filming in an Grianan next week with the full co-operation of the ICA. We're hanging onto our three matronly seargent majors and we've found 12 new girls ready willing and able to be whipped into shape.
Mrs. Petronelle Clifton Browne, Chairperson of the Cashel Arts Fest and Mrs. Ann O'Connell, President of South Tipperary ICA thanked and complimented Helen on her very interesting talk which was part of the Cashel ArtsFest Programme in co-operation with Dualla/Cashel ICA.