The link between Athy I.C.A. and Robert Owen, the father of the co-operative movement, or co-partnership in industry might seem at first to be somewhat tenuous. Owen, who was born in 1771 in the Welsh village of Newtown, became a legend in his own lifetime, combining his success as a businessman with that of rational thinker on education and his pioneering role as social reformer. Owen, who died in 1858, influenced many people including John Vandaleur who having attended a talk given by Owen in Dublin returned home to Limerick and founded the Rahaline Co-operative Association in 1830. Within three years the Workers co-operative centered in the area around Bunratty had failed and the next stage in the development of co-operatives in Ireland would not come for another 56 years.
Horace Plunkett, son of Lord Dunsany, imbued with the ideals of Robert Owen, started the next co-operative in Ireland when he founded the Dunsany Co-operative Society. Plunkett was to devote himself to the development of the co-operative movement in Ireland and assisting him in that task was Robert Anderson whom he had chosen as the first co-operative organiser in 1889. Anderson would become a central figure in the co-operative movement in Ireland as secretary of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society.
It was the work of Horace Plunkett and an address given by the Irish writer George Russell at the A.G.M. of the I.A.O.S. in December 1909 which inspired a number of women attending that meeting to organise an Irish version of the Woman’s Co-operative Guilds which were to be found in Britain.
Mrs. Ellice Pilkington whose brother Sir Thomas Esmond was a member of the I.A.O.S. was appointed the first organiser of the Woman’s Movement which was to be called the Society of the United Irishwomen. The first branch was set up in Bree, Co. Wexford on 15th June 1910 and the national organisation was registered as a co-operative society which in its initial years was helped financially and otherwise by the I.A.O.S. and the organisers of the co-operative movement in Ireland.
The Society of the United Irishwomen changed its name in 1935 to the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. It was, by and large, perceived to be a rural organisation catering for those whose families worked on the land. In the years after the name change, town associations were formed to cater for the needs of women in Irish towns and villages.
Athy I.C.A. was founded in October 1957 when a small group of local women from the town and surrounding countryside came together in the Macra na Feirme rooms in the Town Hall. Those involved and whose names have come down to us were Eileen Condron, Carrie McDonald, Gertie Gray, Mrs. Siobhan Kingston, Mrs. McNamara of Park House and Mrs. Elizabeth Kemp of the Model School. All have now passed on, with Mrs. Siobhan Kingston being the sole survivor when the Guild celebrated its 50th anniversary three years ago. The first President of Athy I.C.A. Guild was Eileen Condron.
As a national organisation the I.C.A. campaigned for rural water schemes, rural electricity schemes and organised summer schools from 1929 onwards at different locations throughout the country. The summer camps offered the first organised adult education courses in Ireland and since 1954 the I.C.A. Adult Education College at An Grianán has provided hundreds of courses for adults. In that year An Grianán at Termonfechin, Co. Louth was given to the I.C.A. by the W.H. Kellogg Foundation of America in trust ‘for the health, recreation and welfare of the people of Ireland.’ The Kellogg Foundation gave a further grant to the I.C.A. in 1967 to help finance the building of a horticultural college for girls in Grianán. That college unfortunately closed in 2003.
It is over 40 years since I was invited to give a talk at An Grianán to a small group of women on the role of local authorities in the annual Tidy Towns Competition. I was then a very young Town Clerk of Kells in Co. Meath which had achieved a small measure of success in that competition. I can still recall that evening as it was my first time to speak at a public gathering and it showed!
Athy’s I.C.A. members now meet in the Dominican Hall and apart from raising monies for charity are actively involved in cookery lessons (Italian and Thai I’m told), line dancing, digital photography, painting and a range of other interesting activities. Commencing on 18th July the local Guild members will be putting on an exhibition in the Heritage Centre. ‘Reeling in the Years’ will be an exhibition jointly organised by Athy and Fontstown Guilds to celebrate the centenary of the I.C.A. and offers an opportunity for the younger generation to see how life was lived in years gone by.
From Robert Owen to Horace Plunkett to Ellice Pilkington to Eileen Condron and the other ladies of Athy of 1957 there is a link which stretches back four if not five generations. The co-operative movement, the seed of which was first sown by Robert Owen and nurtured on Irish soil by Horace Plunkett, blooms today in the work and achievements of the members of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association.