She recalls the late football manager, Kevin Heffernan, saying she’d never get the role because ‘country people don’t vote for people’. O’Toole is glad she has broken that trend. The ‘country’ in Irish Countrywomen’s Association refers to the whole of the country, she says – not just rural areas.
“We have 1,500 members, spread across 34 guilds. My own guild, Portmarnock, with 125 members, is one of the biggest.
“Many members do originally come from rural areas but in a large guild like Tallaght – with 100 members – the majority are from the area.”
O’Toole joined in 2002 after her only daughter, Caragh, observed that when she retired she’d know nobody in the community, having worked so long out of the area.
O’Toole had always been interested in community issues but her friends were work-mates from her life assurance job. On the night she joined Portmarnock Guild, 250 women turned up.
The new guild had a huge membership – and a waiting list. “It has gone fantastically well,” she says, adding that she rose ‘through the ranks’.
After becoming Portmarnock ICA president in 2004, she subsequently held every office at guild level, became secretary and president of Dublin Federation, national press office and then a member of the National Advisory Committee.
“When I joined, I’d already been working in a very good job. It wouldn’t have cost me a thought to do a presentation. But giving a talk in front of your friends and neighbours can be a bit daunting, because you know the people very well. But I did. It gave me confidence.”
O’Toole lost her husband, Martin, four years ago – he was “so supportive”, she says.
As national president, she wants to increase membership. She believes in “getting them when they’re young”.
Pointing out that already ICA has a presence in schools, with members teaching crafts in classrooms, she wants to target Macra Na Feirme and senior Girl Guides.
“For Macra members it’s a very natural transition – they have to leave that organisation when they’re 35. I also want to pursue overseas membership.”
She sees the new magazine as having a role in helping women abroad – who miss their connection with – to feel that connection.
“I’m hoping in each issue of our new magazine we can hone in on a different federation.”
She also wants to pursue national issues such as farm safety, proper road signage, radon gas and broadband.
As a breast cancer survivor, she’d like to see Breast Check rolled out to whole of life.
And she intends to continue the great work done by her predecessor, Liz Wall, in mental health awareness-raising.