The ICA was founded in May 1910 by Anita Lett in Bree, Co Wexford. It was originally 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” In 1935, due to political issues the then called UI changed its name to the now known Irish Countrywomen’s association (ICA). Around this time the ICA also let go of just improving rural lives and began focusing on all areas of Ireland. Contrary to popular belief the “country” within the ICAs name stands for the country of Ireland as a whole, as opposed to “country” as in rural areas. Most of the ICA’s biggest guilds today are in urban areas such as Blanchardstown Co. Dublin, which is their biggest Guild.
Since its beginnings, the ICA has been heavily involved in campaigns designed to improve people’s lives. The ICA was the first organisation to provide access to adult education, well before the VEC. In its very early years, the then UI focused a project based on the health system in Ireland, due to the fact that women and girls were being sent to England to do basic nursing courses. The UI used what they called “Demonstration Cottages” where classes were held on health care, nutrition and hygiene. These classes also provided care to the sick. In 1954 An Grianán was gifted to the ICA. Since then this has been used as an adult education centre teaching an ever changing wide range of courses.
In the 1950s they campaigned for “better living”, which called for the access to electricity and safe clean water across Ireland. In the 1950s there was still limited access to electricity in some parts of Ireland. To rectify this, the ICA joined up with the ESB to help promote the use of electricity. To do this they made a model of a traditional farmhouse kitchen fitted with all the latest electrical appliances. This was then shown later that year at the ICAs spring show. In 1958 the kitchen model toured the country, now fitted with a dishwasher and microwave, showing people what was possible. In the 1960s some homes still did not have water within their homes and relied on an outdoor pump. To improve this, the ICA began the “turn on the tap” campaign which involved an exhibition and a conference aimed at educating people on how to take action on bringing water into their homes.
In the recent years the ICA introduced a counselling service and helpline, offering confidential help and support to its members and their families. They have promoted easier access to breast and cervical cancer screening for all women. They opened “the Sanctuary” in An Grianán offering quiet getaways. They helped lobby to make Irish the 25th recognised language within the EU. They have also joined forces with other organisations aimed at improving lives such as SOS, See Change, COFACE with their most recent goal being to reduce the levels of depression within Ireland.