Guides not out of step

The Irish Girl Guides celebrate their centenary this year, and have moved with the times, despite other distractions. Claire Droney reports

ALL I can remember are woggles. And kerchiefs. And drinking thick soup cooked over a fire while camping. And playing the part of the Major in our patrol’s stage version of Fawlty Towers. But that was over 20 years ago. Are these wholesome, Enid Blyton-like activities still suited to today’s Justin Bieber-loving 13-year-olds?

With over 10,000 members in Ireland, and currently celebrating their centenary, it seems that the Irish Girl Guides (IGG) have not only abided but also adapted to a fast-changing world.

IGG now have Facebook and Twitter accounts. Instead of earning interest badges to operate old public telephones or for millinery, the Girl Guides now earn badges in pop music, skiing, fair trade, road safety, computers and community service. Guides with special educational needs are welcome, and the ‘God’ in the Girl Guide promise now applies to Gods of every denomination.

“Over time, we have modernised the IGG and kept it relevant to the girls of today,” says IGG spokesperson Catherine O’Connor.

“Parts of the programmes have changed, and parts haven’t. What service the girls give now is very different to what they would haven given in the 1900s.”

Two of the biggest changes happened last year, with the introduction of a new uniform and a new logo. Gone are the impractical dresses and in their place are new blue and pink hoodies, polo shirts and fleeces, often worn with skinny jeans and UGG boots.

“We’ve worked hard on our image and it’s a much more practical uniform for being in the outdoors,” says O’Connor.

“It’s a constant challenge to update and let the girls guide us and let us know what they want.”

Founded in Britain in 1910 by Agnes Baden-Powell, and established a year later in Ireland, the ethos of IGG is to promote self-esteem, team work, leadership skills and personal development in each Girl Guide.

“It’s about the girls doing their best, and being happy in their own skin. They’re not in competition with anyone. Every girl is unique and we try to promote that uniqueness,” says O’Connor.

There are four age-groups in the Guides. These are Ladybirds (age 5- 7), Brownies (age 6½ -11), Guides (age 10½ -15) and Senior Branch (age 14½ -26). However, many teenagers quit the Girl Guides in favour of different pastimes.

“We’d lose a good number of members in the 13 to 14 age group when they start secondary school,” says O’Connor.

“Their whole interests change and they have new activities like sports and discos. They may chose to stop going to Guides, although we still get some girls who come at 15.”

Annual membership of the Irish Girl Guides is €36, and weekly meetings cost €3.

There are waiting lists around the country, as adult volunteers are needed to run the groups. “We’ve had the interest from girls but struggle to get volunteer leaders. Guiding is only possible through our leaderships. It’s a great way for adults to make new friends,” says O’Connor.

“Our strong ethos is to be in the environment, involved with the community and for the personal development of the girls. There’s really something for everyone.”

And if the achievements of former Irish Girl Guides, Sonia O’Sullivan, Kathryn Thomas and Myrtle Allen are anything to go by, it might just be worthwhile giving the IGG a go.

‘We learned to love being outdoors’

SINCE she was a 10-year-old, Elaine O’Connell (pictured) has been active in the Girl Guides. “To me, the spirit of guiding is friendship. It’s been a big part of my life,” says Elaine, now 73.

“We were way ahead of our time. Team building is what we were doing and our patrol system was like a little military unit. Lots of guides have taken leadership roles in business.”

Camping and being in the outdoors were O’Connell’s favourite guiding activities.

“From the time I was 12 years of age, I went camping every year. And I went hiking with my Guide captain every Sunday.

“The smell of camp fire was beautiful. You came home from camp and everything smelled of woodsmoke and you just wanted to jump into a hot bath. “We cooked our own food in the open air — sausages, beans and stews — and we learned all the names of the trees and birds. We just learned to love being in the outdoors. We were woken up to the sounds of pigeons in the morning, and I still love that sound. We learned never to leave anything behind us but our thanks.”

O’Connell and her friends would cook the morning porridge the night before in an open pit and slow-cook stew in a sawdust barrel in the ground.

“We had a trench for toilets at camp, and piled earth on top when we were finished. It was very hygienic. Then they got posh and put a timber seat on it,” laughs O’Connell.

“One day I picked gorse to make a fire, and just as we were about the set it alight, a hedgehog crawled out. I would have never seen a hedgehog before.

“Another day, while camping in Tipperary, I picked up a mouse. When I put him down, he licked his paws and ears to wash away my smell, before running off. Where else would you see something like that?”

As an adult, O’Connell remained active in the IGG, becoming a captain, camp chief and quartermaster. “In those days, I didn’t work, and it was very good for me to do something outside the home. It wasn’t something I was being paid for, but rather something just for me.

“We were very conscious that we were minding other people’s children,’ says O’Connell, who would bring her five daughters to the camping events. “Nowadays, we wouldn’t camp without men on the site. We used to have 10-day camps, but people don’t have the time off now.

“There aren’t as many Girl Guides today because much of what was unique to us then is now being done by the schools,” says O’Connell, whose mother volunteered with the Brownies until she was 80, and whose grand-daughter attends the Brownies.

O’Connell is now an active member of the Trefoil Guild, a group for retired members of the IGG, and remains great friends with her fellow Girl Guide, Brenda Stanke, who lives in Germany. “I have friends all over the world, from guiding. We keep the spirit of guiding alive and we keep the fun too.”

WHY WE LOVE GUIDES — VERA O’RIORDAN AND JANE GOLDEN

WE love being members of our Guide unit because of the unique experience.

Guiding gives us the opportunity to learn important life skills such as teamwork, co-operation and leadership.

Most importantly, we get the chance to have great craic on cook-outs, camping, and lots of other outdoor activities.

We love Guides because of the great friendships we make through it. Together, we make totally epic songs about everything and anything.

We remember arriving at Camp Dundrum in Tipperary for our first big camp ever. We had camped for two days a few weeks previously to practise our skills, and were looking forward to the second time. With the sun beaming on our necks we pitched our tents and set up our store tent and cooking area.

We had backwoods cooking, hikes, sports, campfires and a visit to the Planetarium.

Most of all, we love Guides because of the fantastic trips abroad. We will never forget our trip to England. It was our first visit to a Guide World Centre, Pax Lodge. We met Guides from many different countries.

We had a fantastic international evening, learnt the Haka, Greek and Maltese traditional dances, sampled food, and started chatting to the other Guides and learning about their countries, customs and Guiding traditions.

Now we are patrol leaders, we have responsibility for organising the weekly programmes, planning camps and activities and parties for our Guides and their friends on special occasions. This responsibility has shown us how much we can do for ourselves and the other Guides in our unit.


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