BISHOPSTOWN woman Elaine O’Connell has spent more than half her life in dedicated service to the Irish Girl Guides.
The 80-year-old was recently presented with a 50-year service award at the organisation’s National Council meeting in Dublin for her hard work in roles such as skipper of the Irish Rowan Unit in Cork, captain of St Francis Ranger Unit, captain of St Brendan’s Guide Company and lieutenant of Bishopstown Rangers.
Her journey with the Girl Guides began when she was just 10 and her father came home one day and suggested she join.
“He used to go around the corner to have a cup of tea in a little shop that is now the SoHo Bar on the Grand Parade,” recalls Elaine. “It was run by Kitty Murphy who became my captain. She told him about it. They were meeting in St Francis Hall on Sheares Street so I went along and there were only three people there that day and by the time I left that company, which was called St Ita’s, there were 60 in it.
“We used to go hiking once a month. It was always about a five-mile walk in each direction and we thought nothing of it. We might leave at about 10.30am and might not come home until dark, thoroughly exhausted, but it was absolutely marvellous. We had great fun and we were out of doors the whole time.”
Another huge part of the outdoor activities was camping, which Elaine loved and still does today.
“I’ve been to loads of camps. My first one was in Little Island. We used to have bell tents and you had to sleep with your toes to the pole and your head to the canvas. Back then we didn’t have sleeping bags, we had three blankets and you tied them up with a blanket pin and that was your sleeping bag. We didn’t have toilets either so we made a hole in the ground and made a timber toilet with canvas around it and you had to keep filling it in. Of course we’ve modernised now. We’ve changed with the times.”
Elaine worked in England for two years before coming back to Cork to get married and have a family of her own — five daughters — but she believes that her experience in the Girl Guides helped her to be more worldly from a young age.
“When I was 15 I went to my first international camp in England. I wasn’t used to meeting people from other countries so it was great. We were learning about the Guides in other countries and from then on I always thought about the international aspect of it.
“When I was 18 I went to a camp in Switzerland and saw a glacier. I’d heard about glaciers in school but I’d never seen one. So for me it was the coming alive of what I’d learned in school.
“We went camping to Northern Ireland during the Troubles. We had fire irons as part of our equipment — they were like metal bars that used to go over the fire. They thought we had firearms when we got to the Border so they made us take them out and show them what we had!
“I remember learning how to wire a plug when I was 15. Nobody in my house could wire a plug properly because they never learned how to do it, but I did. We learned so many things and they’re all still there today, plus now they’re bringing in things like robotics and engineering.”
These days, Elaine is still involved with the Girl Guides, but in a less hands-on capacity.
“We have to have three people in charge of any unit so if someone is stuck they can ask me to go and step in,” she explains. “It wouldn’t happen very often but I’m there to help. I will always back away though because I feel that the leadership has to come from the young people. That’s what I’ve learned and it’s the way a lot of the Guides of my generation would do things.
“I was a commissioner for years but when I was younger we were usually used to old ladies being commissioners and I’d already decided that by the time I became an old lady I wouldn’t be a commissioner and I didn’t!
“I discovered in a lot of the other countries the idea is that it’s a youth movement and our policies are designed by people in their 30s, not by people in their 60s, and that’s the way we’ve done it. As older people we help, but we listen to the younger ones.”
Unfortunately, the organisation is not growing as much as it used to, she says.
“A lot of the stuff that we used to do that was particular to us has been taken over now by schools programmes and also by all the activities that are on for kids. They can only do so much. It’s a different world now. I didn’t work myself, but nowadays both parents tend to be working and there’s a limit to what they can do.”
That said, Elaine would still encourage young girls to get involved as the benefits are so far-reaching. “It’s great training really, especially in leadership. It helps them mix very well with other people and it opens them up to new ideas.”
She points to the Irish Girl Guides’ new honorary ambassadors Kate and Annie Madden, the award-winning teenage entrepreneurs who set up FenuHealth and were prize winners at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition in 2015.
“I heard them saying recently that the world is our oyster and there are lots of things girls can do now that they never did before. And I think they might never find it unless they’re in Guiding.”