Catherine Shanahan


Overnighters and trips away should be a key part of every childhood

It would be a crying shame to let the thought of what might happen put an end to the kind of wonderful experiences I enjoyed as a Girl Guide, writes Catherine Shanahan

Overnighters and trips away should be a key part of every childhood

It would be a crying shame to let the thought of what might happen put an end to the kind of wonderful experiences I enjoyed as a Girl Guide, writes Catherine Shanahan

Two weeks in Auchengillen Outdoor Centre with stunning views of the Campsie Fells feature in the top five of my most memorable holiday destinations.

At 14-years-old, it was the longest stretch I would spend away from my parents.

I was not intimidated. My older sister was going, along with many of the good friends I had made from the time I joined the Catholic Guides of Ireland as a Brigini, age six.

I had overnighted with the association prior to Auchengillen, but just for weekends. I can’t have been more than eight years old when we stayed in a hostel near Mount Brandon in Co Kerry, before tackling that climb next day. Another memorable weekend was spent at Nagle House in Youghal where I won my first and only song-writing competition. Even then, Ireland had talent.

There was a sodden week in Mount Melleray, Co Waterford, with “six-plus-kit” packed into tents that failed, spectacularly, to shelter us from driving rain.

Spirits were lifted when we won Patrol of the Year for producing an edible dish of smoked haddock, white sauce and potatoes, cooked, against the odds, on the campfire.

Although our troop never won the overall award, the Major Shield, we were widely acknowledged as the “Campfire Champs” because of the unrivalled and infectious enthusiasm of our wonderful Captain, Anne O’Callaghan, who knew just about every campfire song every written and belted them out with such gusto that no-one was ever going to Hide our Little Light under a Bush.

The Auchengillen trip was a class apart though. It was abroad, in a foreign country. I had to travel over water to get there, starting with a trip by coach to Dublin Port before leaving by ferry for Liverpool. It was my first time leaving Irish soil and oh the excitement. And the seasickness. And the futile efforts to sleep on Pullman seats while all around, the Olympics blared from the telly.

Bleary-eyed, we clambered aboard the coach in Liverpool for the unfeasibly long trek up the M6 to Stirlingshire in Scotland. We broke the journey with breakfast in a truck-stop café. The wonder of it. We barely had motorways back home.

As well as representing the acme of my trips with the Girl Guides, Auchengillen remains, to this day, the only time — three-legged race aside — that I shone in a sporting contest.

I came from nowhere in a table tennis tournament to take the title. I had never picked up a bat before but I somehow laid waste to far more seasoned players. In the final, I saw off the challenge of the best-looking member of a troop of Welsh scouts who had arrived at Auchengillen during the second week of our stay.

Not only was I table tennis champion, but I had beaten a boy in the process. It doesn’t get much better than that.

We cycled the legs off ourselves, up every morning at the crack of dawn. We swam in a campsite swimming pool that modern-day health and safety would shut down in a heartbeat.

We went by bus to Loch Lomond and, as good Catholic guides, to Mass on foot, hiking through breathtaking scenery, watched by magnificent long-haired brown Highland cows.

Not once in the whole two weeks did I ever feel in danger except when I jumped on a springboard, catapulting myself into the air and down into the depths of a plunge pool. It took almost too long to emerge.

Ultimately, I got far more out of the association than it got from me. I learned how to tie knots: Clove Hitch, Fisherman’s, Double Fisherman’s.

I learned marching drills, orienteering and pioneering. I learned songs and games and struck up lasting friendships. I learned respect for uniforms.

Catherine Shanahan is enrolled as a Brigini age 6.
Catherine Shanahan is enrolled as a Brigini age 6.

I learned the Semaphore, rescue signals using my arms, in case of emergency. I never had to use it, but the day may come when I’m stuck, phoneless, on a hillside.

I learned how to sew, build a campfire and pitch a tent. I took part in winning action songs in the Opera House.

To paraphrase the pledge we took on enrolment, On my honour, I had a ball. It was the most practical, gender-equal, forward-thinking education I ever got and I will always be thankful for that.

I did give a little back, in a brief stint as a Beaver leader, the feeder group for Scouts. It was demanding work. A chaplain would come to the Scout Hut in Cork city regularly to inspect the Beavers. He also ran a soccer team for altar boys.

He subsequently did time in Britain after pleading guilty in a London court to a number of charges of abuse against young boys in the diocese of Southwark 20 years previously.

Fr James Murphy had served as curate at Glounthaune in Cork for eight years and, according to a diocesan spokesman, had impeccable references from his former diocese and bishop.

He was never accused of abuse here.

There are many organisations, other than Scouting Ireland or the Catholic Girl Guides where children go on overnight trips. My own daughter regards a weekend stay at a campsite in Cuskinny, Co Cobh, as the high point of her guiding year.

I get that there is a level of trust involved. My decisions are informed by my own trauma-free experience as a Girl Guide, and by the fact that I know the female leaders and the kids she shares a tent with.

I want her to enjoy the independence of a couple of nights away from her parents, just as my parents allowed me the same freedom.

I know Scouting Ireland is currently convulsed by historic allegations of abuse. I know concerns have been raised about inappropriate sexual behaviour by some children who go on overnight camping trips. I know child and family agency Tusla has raised concerns about the ability of Scouting Ireland to keep children out of harm’s way and to “consider the viability of continuing with overnight trips”.

But if it’s asking Scouting Ireland, it should be asking every organisation where kids are away from their parents. Children who behave inappropriately aren’t confined to a single organisation, just as paedophiles aren’t fussy about whether a child is wearing a neckerchief or altar boy vestments or a swimsuit or a soccer kit. Their main concern is access.

None of us knows where and when they will strike. It would be a crying shame to let the thought of what might happen put an end to the kind of wonderful experiences I had the privilege to enjoy as a child.

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