Sisters doing it for themselves

Carmel Garrett, President, County Galway Federation ICA. Photo: Brian Harding.
Carmel Garrett, President, County Galway Federation ICA. Photo: Brian Harding.

The ICA is celebrating 70 years in Galway, during which time it has seen its popularity rise and fall – and rise again. DENISE McNAMARA met some of the organisation’s driving forces – and found that its ethos is hugely relevant,  no matter what age you are.

Artist Sharon Kelly was nagged by her frame-maker to attend a meeting of the Irish Country Women’s Association (ICA) – but she held out for a few years. “I used to say, ‘oh God, no’. I’m too young,” she laughs.

She finally relented and attended a meeting of the Gort Guild. Her main motivation was to learn how to use a sewing machine.

“That was seven years ago – and look at me now. After paying the membership money I just kept coming.”

At the following AGM, the native of Newcastle in the UK was voted in as President of the Guild. She went on to become President of the County Galway Federation – and then last year became Regional President, in charge of the north-west counties and its 84 Guilds.

“It was a stupid thing to say that I was too young. I’ve learned so much. I can turn up a pair of jeans on a sewing machine now instead of sending them to a dress maker. I know so much more about cooking – I can bake scones, brown bread, a sponge cake, meringues.

“Really with the recession there was a lack of money so there was a bit of trend for people to go back to basics – get rid of things from the shop coming in plastic, go back to how it used to be and make it ourselves rather than relying on ready-made meals.”

This year marks 70 years since the Galway County Federation was formed with nine Guilds operating at the time.

The first Guild in the county was set up in Cleggan by Mary Browne whose family owned Rossleague House. An Oxford graduate, who taught in South Africa and England for many years, she founded the Guild after returning to Rossleague House to care for her mother.

She was very typical of the women drawn to leadership roles in the ICA, opines Carmel Garrett, current president of the County Galway Federation.

“They were Anglo-Irish landed gentry, very educated women who had a desire to improve the lot of Irish women who were mainly in agrarian communities, marrying young, rearing big families, there was very little for those women to do outside of the home,” explains Carmel, who is with the Knocknacarra Guild.

“At the time 78% of the population were on farms of less than 30 acres. These women wanted to help them do crafting to improve their home – embroidering things, making curtains, help them grow and sell produce. They were one of the key bodies which fought for rural electrification – otherwise it would have been left to the big towns and cities for another 20 – 30 years.”

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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