ICA: Sew far, sew good for Ireland's largest women's group

Three months ago, Ireland’s largest women’s organisation, ICA, retreated behind closed doors. Women used to doing, used to giving, are contributing again, even while cocooning, answering the call to sew scrubs for our frontline heroes.
ICA: Sew far, sew good for Ireland's largest women's group
ICA President, Josephine Helly

Three months ago, Ireland’s largest women’s organisation, ICA, retreated behind closed doors. Women used to doing, used to giving, are contributing again, even while cocooning, answering the call to sew scrubs for our frontline heroes. ICA members tell Helen O’Callaghan what’s motivating them and how it’s all going.

Even before lockdown officially started, members of ICA – Ireland’s largest women’s association – began to retreat back to their homes.

Almost 10,000 women in over 500 guilds countrywide – used to meeting at least monthly to talk about competitions and community work, to chat and craft over tea and homemade cake – withdrew behind closed doors.

The vast majority of these women had for decades put themselves at the service of their communities: helping out at parish events, with funeral catering, fundraisers and fun-days. Now, with the advent of a pandemic, they found many of their members were older, had underlying conditions, were the very people who needed to cocoon safely at home.

But when the call went out to sew scrubs for Ireland’s healthcare workers, these women – used to doing, used to giving – answered that call. “My God, did they answer! Every federation in the country responded,” says ICA president Josephine Helly, who – at time of interview – confirmed that of 27 ICA federations, 20 were already working on scrubs and the other seven were waiting on material to get started.

“Getting the scrubs [to be sewn] to members – most were cocooning – was difficult. They were sent from Dublin to a key person in the federation who in turn sent them to her members.”

Limerick Federation craft officer Mary Moloney thought it was all a great idea. “The ordinary member could do something to help. They could sit at home and sew without leaving their house.” Mary immediately emailed costume supervisor and designer Sinead Lawlor, who’d spearheaded the sew scrubs appeal. “I said I’d no problem coordinating the Limerick ICA effort if that helped,” says Mary, who soon received 80 sets of scrubs, which she dispersed among ICA members – 29 women from nine guilds stepped up to sew.

Marina Malone, assistant secretary of Ballyanne ICA Guild, whose son recently taught in Wuhan.
Marina Malone, assistant secretary of Ballyanne ICA Guild, whose son recently taught in Wuhan.

“My son, Colin, was the voluntary courier. He said this was his contribution. He went to Mungret, Meelick, Lisnagry, Murroe, Boher and Cappamore. I’d contact the ladies to say he was on the way. He’d leave [the material] on top of the wall or inside the gate. Another man, John O’Mahony, delivered them to Oola.”

Most of the women expected to be able to “run up the little top and pants in a few hours”, but Mary says it was a tricky enough pattern. “If you sat down at your sewing machine and didn’t budge, it would take six hours to do a set. There’s a V placket in the front and you have to place it exactly or it won’t lie right. That took a bit of doing and I’m used to sewing, but once I got two done I didn’t have to look at the pattern – it was in my head.”

Adding that she “might do a bit, go off, put on the dinner and come back to it”, Mary says the 80 sets of completed scrubs arrived to her within two weeks. “We gave them to St Anthony’s Nursing Home, Pallasgreen, to St Vincent’s, Lisnagry, to St John’s Hospital, Limerick, UHL and Milford Care Centre. We spread them out as much as we could between those looking for them.”

In Co Wexford, Marina Malone, assistant secretary of Ballyanne Guild, is cocooning because of underlying condition fibromyalgia. Covid-19 has impacted big-time on her family’s life. Her son, Paul, a teacher of English half an hour by high-speed train from Wuhan, returned home in mid-January (“they knew at Christmas something peculiar was after raising its head, something that wasn’t ordinary flu”).

He’d been due to go back to China in March, but now “it’s wait-and-see” when he does. “It’s a big adjustment for him, being home with his parents again – a big adjustment for all of us!” says Marina, whose other son, Michael – due to get married on the June bank holiday – has had to postpone his wedding.

Marina wanted to sew scrubs because “I’d hate to think somebody could be without important survival gear”. Her daughter, Grace, a fashion student in LSAD, along with her Sudanese partner, Patrick, and their one-year-old daughter, Nieve, live with Marina. “Grace said ‘put me down too’ to sew scrubs, and Patrick said he’d do a set, so there are three of us sewing here.”

Marina has set up her sitting room as a sewing room. “It has good light, a stove and two fan heaters for a quick burst of heat if I’m working at 11 or 12 at night or at 6am. I sew early when the house is quiet or at 8pm when Nieve’s in bed. I love that somebody’s going to step into these scrubs and it’ll be a help to them. From a selfish point of view, it’s therapeutic because it’s an accomplishment to feel I can help in a small way.”

ICA President, Josephine Helly
ICA President, Josephine Helly

Galway-based Josephine Helly has sewn two sets of scrubs. “They aren’t the easiest to sew. You’d need to be an experienced sewer,” she says. Her granddaughter’s nursing in Beaumont Hospital. “She’s dealing with Covid-19 patients. Of course you worry. She doesn’t discuss it much but she’s very positive and when she’s happy I’m happy.”

When Mary Moloney first heard about the ‘sew scrubs’ appeal, she thought ‘why would they want them – they have plenty’. “Afterwards we found out they hadn’t,” she says, adding that Limerick Federation donated funds to buy more material. “The Limerick lady footballers and hurlers also donated funds. It bought 200m of material – it’ll make 40 to 45 sets of scrubs. I cut out the material myself – I didn’t want to waste an inch.”

Mary’s heartened that ICA members, though cocooning, are still contributing as they always have in times of need. “I know somebody who’d been wearing their uniform inside their PPE. It was so hot and uncomfortable. These scrubs are light cotton – you can wash them at 60 degrees. It’s good to make life for healthcare workers a little more comfortable, a bit easier, less stressful. It means one less worry for them.”

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