Since its start in 1910, the ICA has been working to make life better for all its members as well as the public. The ICA has been at the forefront of many life-changing improvements for Irish families, and it continues to work to build a better Ireland. For more information on our current campaigns, please click here.

Table of Contents

ICA - The Next 100 Years

Centenary Celebrations

The Beginnings

From UI to ICA

Electricity and Water



An Grianán

Agriculture, Horticulture and Rural Life

Arts and Crafts

Irish Culture

ICA Woman

Networks for Change


ICA - The Next 100 Years
A Strategic Review of the ICA was undertaken in 2008 and resulted in massive membership support to continue the work of the ICA through a programme of Reinvention & Modernisation. Work is well underway to implement the changes that will provide strong foundations for the future of the ICA.

Centenary Celebrations
In 2010 the Association celebrated its Centenary. This wasbe a great occasion and an opportunity to celebrate and honour the women of vision who founded the ICA, as well as those who through their hard work and dedication sustained and built the ICA during its first 100 years.

Over the years the ICA has widened the horizons of its members and the communities in which we live and work. The regular Guild meetings, whether in a remote village or a town or city, enrich the lives of members, encouraging fun, friendship, learning and participation in our communities. 100 years on the ICA continues to have it all.

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The Beginnings
The ICA was founded in May 1910 by a small group of well educated and largely Protestant women in Bree, Co Wexford. Called the Society of the United Irishwomen (UI), its aim was “to improve the standard of life in rural Ireland through Education and Co-operative effort” From the start the UI was non-denominational and non-party political, principles which continue to this day and our members are drawn from every background and shade of opinion.

The inspiration for the UI came from the Co-operative Movement whose motto was “Better Farming, Better Business, and Better Living” Speaking in 1910 the founder of the Co-operative Movement, Horace Plunkett, remarked that the better living would come from “the women of Ireland”. At the time, life for women in rural Ireland was in the main one of hardship and drudgery and the Society set out to offer friendship, hope, support and leadership.

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From UI to ICA
In 1935 the Society of the United Irishwomen changed its name to the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, to avoid being associated with a subversive organisation of the time, the United Ireland Party. The ICA was generally perceived to be a rural organisation, and at around the same time Town Associations were formed, to cater for the needs of urban women.

Today the ICA has 700 local Guilds throughout Ireland in towns, villages and rural areas. For the vast majority of women in Ireland there is an ICA Guild which meets within a short drive of their home. They offer, as they have always done, support and fun, and opportunities to make friends, learn new skills and contribute to the wider community.

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Making a difference
From the start, the Society of the United Irishwomen tackled the big issues of the day that affected women’s lives, and this has continued throughout the decades. The ICA has been instrumental in providing practical support in the development of basic utilities in Ireland, such as water and electricity, and in influencing policy in health, education, adult education, agriculture, horticulture, arts & crafts, and on a range of other issues

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In the 1950’s, the ICA recognised that if the objective of “Better Living” was to achieved, the two basic issues to be addressed were access to safe, clean water and to electricity, especially in rural areas.

Rural Water
It may seem hard to believe that in 1960 the cause of rural water was still a major concern for women. Many homes still relied on outside pumps and there was opposition to extending water systems into homes. Most vocal opposition came from the National Farmers’ Association as they feared that it would increase their rateable valuation.

In the 1961 the ICA organised a successful “Turn on the Tap” exhibition at the Mansion House and a Conference on rural water supply at An Grianan, the ICA Adult Education College in Co Louth. Group water schemes became ICA’s primary focus for discussion and action, with the onus being shifted from central government to local authorities.

Electricity in Our Homes
In the first half of the 20th century electricity was another utility with limited application in our homes. In 1956 the ESB invited the ICA to design a traditional farmhouse kitchen using modern electrical appliances, which was exhibited at the Spring Show of that year. The following year a more ambitious labour saving kitchen was exhibited and in 1958 the ICA/ESB “Model Farm Kitchen” was put on display. This became a mobile unit and toured the country, demonstrating and showing women just what was possible. The rest, as they say and as we switch on everything from dishwashers to microwaves, is history.

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An early ICA project focussed on health, something that was very much neglected in rural Ireland. Girls were sent to England to do a basic course in Nursing. Nurses’ Cottages were decorated by the U.I. and were used as “Demonstration Cottages”. Classes were held on health care, hygiene and domestic economy specialising in nutrition, and care was given to the sick. Tuberculosis was rampant in the country, so goat’s milk depots and even a goat farm were set up, as goat’s milk is Tuberculosis free.

In more recent years there have been intensive campaigns for breast and cervical cancer screening, and these continue to be priorities as we work to achieve the best possible preventative and care services for women. Not content to wait for Government initiatives, ICA members have been determined fundraisers for Breast Cancer research and strenuous in highlighting and supporting women in the Breast Cancer misdiagnosis debacle of more recent years.

On a practical level the ICA itself has responded to its members’ health needs and in 1990 established the ICA Counselling Service and Helpline, giving confidential consultation, counselling and therapy to members and their families. 

The ICA has made its mark in many areas of education in Ireland.

Adult Education
The ICA was the first organisation to introduce Adult Education in Ireland. From the beginning classes were organised which served local communities and covered a variety of subjects. It was a time when women tended to have little or no formal education and so these opportunities were profoundly important. Well before the establishment of the VECs in 1930 ICA was leading the way in this field of education, and this remains a core part of our work to the present. Classes and learning opportunities happen at Guild and Federation levels and since 1954 the ICA Adult Education College at An Grianán has provided thousands of courses and continues to do so.

In 1998 the ICA opened “The Sanctuary” at An Grianán, The six self catering bungalows available for rent to anyone seeking a break and time out to enjoy An Grianán or the many facilities and the beautiful countryside of the North East.

Summer Schools
They may be two a penny in modern Ireland, but the concept of the summer school was another ICA milestone, introduced in 1929 at the first Summer School organised on the slopes of Sliabh na mBan, Co. Tipperary. From then, Summer Schools and Colleges were held annually at different locations until the I.C.A. found a permanent home in 1954, when they acquired An Grianan, Adult Education College, at Termonfechin, near Drogheda, Co Louth. Through the generosity of The Kellogg Foundation, this unique Residential College, the only one of its kind in Ireland, is held by the ICA in trust for the people of Ireland. For more than fifty years it has offered a range of courses and is open to ICA members and non members alike and to men and women.

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In the early days of the United Irishwomen, potatoes, cabbage and onions were about all the vegetables most people grew and ate. The U.I. bought a wider variety of seeds and encouraged women to grow a bigger variety of vegetables, and special cookery classes on cooking vegetables were organised. They also started gardens in schools. As the membership grew advice was also given on poultry and egg production, cow-testing and cheese making, and bee-keeping, and the initiatives resulted in better diet and nutrition and improved health. One of the other results was the opportunity for women to generate their own income from the surplus products.

This focus on agriculture, horticulture and food had a number of spin offs and the ICA legacy can be found in some surprising places today.

Horticulture College
It had long been a dream in ICA to train girls in horticulture and in 1968 this became a reality with the opening of the ICA Horticulture College for girls at An Grianan. It may seem extraordinary now, but until then such a facility was not available in Ireland. Later the College became co-educational and hundreds of young women and men were trained over the following 35 years. The Hort College, as it was affectionately known, kept pace with changing ideas and demand – in 1985 courses in ‘Green Keeping’, ‘Sports Turf Management’, ‘Floristry’, and ‘Competency in the use of Pesticides’ were introduced. In 1990 a Garden Centre was opened which is still running successfully today.

2003 saw the closure of the Horticultural College, due to overcapacity in the sector. The ICA remains proud that it had fulfilled the purpose for which it was set up and sees its influence in the thousands of garden centres across the country, the pleasure that gardening and horticulture offer so many and more recently in the green agenda and its emphasis on locally grown, organic and quality produce.

Country Workers Ltd
In 1930 the Country Workers Ltd. Shop and Restaurant opened in Dublin. This non profit making company aimed to support home industries, such as hand spinning, weaving and hand knitting. For the following 48 years until its closure in 1978, the Country Shop, as it was known to many, provided a cosy place for high quality coffees and lunches, and to buy the beautiful products made around the country.

1935 The Irish Homespun Society was set up to advise and support the home spinners and weavers in an economically viable way, working with the Irish Folk Lore Society.
1947 Country Markets Ltd, was formed jointly by ICA and Irish Homespun Society. The first market opened in Fethard, Co. Tipperary. The aim then was to help Ireland’s small producers and traditional craft workers organise the co-operative marketing of their garden and home produce and crafts. These markets still flourish and are an outlet for many organically produced home produce.

Rural tourism
In 1957 the first course in Farm Guest House Management was held at An Grianan. This was a totally new idea in Ireland but success brought both Bord Failte and the ESB to co-operate in the development. Today Farm Guest Houses and Irish Bed and Breakfasts are a bye word for a real Irish experience for visitors from at home and abroad, promoting tourism across the country.

In 1956 a Conference on Rural Youth Work held at An Grianan lead to the formation of Macra na Tuaithe by the ICA and Macra naFeirme. Fifty years on thousands of young people have enjoyed and benefited from the organisation that we now know as Foroige.

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As branches of the United Irishwomen were started throughout the country, the organisers identified many craft workers, usually living and working in isolation with no sales outlets. In 1911 the R.D.S. Spring Show gave a free space for exhibition and sale of crafts and platform was used by the UI to demonstrate and exhibit traditional crafts . This happened over the following years and members were also encouraged to exhibit their crafts and home produce at Agriculture Shows throughout the country.

The ICA has continued its encouragement and promotion of the best of arts and crafts in Ireland contributing in the 1970s to the formation of the Craft Council of Ireland, renowned for its support for a promotion of Irish crafts.

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Since its foundation the ICA has always encouraged Irish culture and language. Irish nights were organised and summer schools always included Irish oriented activities. With the opening of An Grianan, courses in Irish singing, dancing and literature were included in the programme.

Sponsorship from Bord na Gaeilge now an Foras Teanga enables the ICA National Education Committee to organise special training courses for Federation Timire (Irish Officers) during the annual Seachtain na Gaeilge. The Timire organise Irish activities in their own areas.

The ICA was part of the lobby which succeeded in gaining recognition of Irish as the 25th official EU Language.

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ICA members have played an important role as individuals in initiatives which continue to benefit communities today.

The Credit Union
Founded by Nora Herlihy, an I.C.A. member, the Credit Union movement received its first funds from Country Workers Ltd, through a contribution of £5, which was used for administration and Guilds nationwide were also responsible for introducing the Credit Union to their areas.

The Montessori Method
Montessori teaching was introduced to Ireland by an ICA member from Waterford, Eleanora Gibbon, who had studied in London in 1919. On returning to her native Waterford she taught in several local schools and this teaching method later spread throughout the country. Today we remember Eleanora Gibbon through a bequest which funds a drama related competition, marking the importance of the creative arts in Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy.

The National Council for the Blind
Individual ICA members have also played an important role in health issues – one member, Olivia Hughes, being instrumental in the setting up of the National Council for the Blind.

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The ICA has been instrumental in the establishment of wider representation and networks of women at home and abroad.

Ireland North & South
The ICA has very close associations with the Women’s Institute of Northern Ireland and local contacts between members have developed close supportive relationships over the decades. Many WI members are regular visitors to An Grianan.

1933 saw ICA represented at an international conference in Stockholm and becoming a Founder Friend of The Associated Countrywomen of the World. The ACWW is a worldwide women’s organisation, and in 1965 and 1986 the ICA hosted its Triennial conference in Ireland. This commitment continues with the hosting of the ACWW European Area Conference in 2011.

1st Commission on the Status of Women and the Council for the Status of Women - Ireland
In the 1960s the ICA was one of a small number of women’s organisations which lobbied for the establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women in the lead up to the 1st UN Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975. The report of the Commission began a new phase in the development of women’s rights in Ireland and included the establishment of the Council for the Status of Women (now the National Women’s Council of Ireland) as the umbrella body for women’s organisations in Ireland. The ICA has participated at all levels of the NWCI since its foundation.

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In 1977 ICA became affiliated to COFACE – the Confederation of Family Organisations in the European Community. COFACE lobbies for better policy in relation to family issues through its representation in Brussels where it work with all EU institutions.

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Irish Countrywomen's Association, 58 Merrion Road, Dublin 4,Tel: 01 668 0002 Fax: 01 660 9423 Email: office@ica.ie
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