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Interview with Josephine Helly in the Irish Farmers Journal (Irish Country Living) – 2019 July

Looking forward

Galway woman Josephine Helly the recently elected president of the ICA tells Mairead Lavery of her plans for the next two years and explains why it’s time for the association to move on.

 There’s an air of delicious devilment about Josephine Helly. Here’s a woman whose attitude to life is one of fun. You could imagine her as the girl at the back of the class who’s mimicking the teacher and giving everyone a fit of the giggles. She brings that same sense of enjoyment and fun to her new role as National President of the ICA.

Josephine has taken up the voluntary position after a couple of difficult years for the association. She has ambitious plans for the ICA as it faces into its 110th anniversary and insists it’s as relevant to women today as it ever was in the past.   

Meath born

Josephine Helly was born and reared on a drystock farm near Oldcastle Co Meath.  “Dad died when I was 15 and by brother Eddie was 12. He had a stroke and died within a week. It was a terrible shock. Mam didn’t drive and she had to walk or cycle everywhere until my brother got driving. But they kept the farm going and it’s still with the family.”

Josephine went to a co-ed non-denominational secondary school in Oldcastle which was an unusual school for the time. After the Leaving she did a commercial course in the convent in Kells. She got a job with Hallmark Cards and worked there for six years when she married Mossy Helly in 1970 and upped sticks to Gort in Co Galway.

“I had friends in Galway and the first time I met Mossy was the day Galway Cathedral opened. We will be married 49 years this year. I moved in with my mother-in-law and she was a good woman who gave me a great welcome. ”

Champion crafter

Moving to a farm in Gort wasn’t easy and with no motorways and two young children she only got back to Meath a couple of times a year. She helped on the farm with milking and rearing calves and joined Gort gardening club where she got to know people. “I hadn’t a clue about gardening or growing vegetables until I did some courses with ACOT/Teagasc. I got good at it and used have busloads coming to see the garden and that kept me going.”

 It was through the gardening club that she heard about the ICA craft classes. “When I was working in Dublin I did a dress making course with the Grafton Academy and I also learned to do Carrickmacross lace in the technical school on Parnell Street. “I just loved crafts and the ICA opened a whole new world for me.”

Her love affair with crafts garnered Josephine an impressive 25 national awards and a teaching diploma for demonstrators.

New challenge

When the children, Aiden and Sandra, were settled in secondary school she did a Back to Work course. That led to the VEC and HSE taking her on as a craft instructor and to run workshops in lots of crafts including leatherwork and picture framing. Soon she was fulltime with the HSE as well as doing her voluntary teaching for ICA.

“During the boom people had money for travel and socialising and we developed into a throw-away society. That has impacted on young people who are not being introduced to crafts. Will the skills be lost? As you get older and are lucky to have your hands and eyesight, knowing a craft is a gift.” 

Produce is another big area of interest for Josephine. She says lost its track in the association. “Insurance was a big issue if we wanted to practical demonstration in VEC kitchens. I want to bring it back to basics, back to the guilds.  Revitalising produce and crafts are two key ambitions of my presidency. I also want to do more on art.”

Ambitious plans

Current membership of ICA stands at 8,500 across 479 guilds and Josephine has set a target of increasing that by 1,000 over the next two years. No easy task. “Our four regional presidents have been allocated counties and their job will be to promote every aspect of ICA in those counties. It can be done and it has to be done. When I was federation president we opened four new guilds in Galway.”

For Josephine it’s all about being creative. “Wexford federation supported the establishment of a new guild with transition students in Bridgetown College. It’s a functioning guild where the youngsters learn crafts, how to conduct meetings and a lot more.”

Making meetings more welcoming for women who are working and rearing families is essential she says. “Generally there’s two hostesses at a meeting and they prepare homemade cakes for the members. That was grand when people walked and cycled to meetings and needed something substantial. Now a cup of tea and a few biscuits will do grand. Why put that pressure on women who have enough to do already.”

Time to look forward

It’s no secret ICA has had its difficulties over the past couple of years and Josephine acknowledges this. But now she wants to look forward. “I would like to put differences aside and move on because if we don’t we are wasting our time. There’s more to ICA than court cases. We have welcomed, accepted and implemented Judge Una Ni Raifeartaigh’s ruling and now is the time to draw a line in the sand and move on.”

Josephine is anxious to dispel any uncertainty over the future of An Grianán and ICA headquarters at 58 Merrion Road. “We are extending the functionality of An Grianán and it now welcomes corporate events, conferences, team building and lots more. As for Merrion Road, personally I would never sell it. It’s a prestigious address and once sold, is gone forever. So it is safe under my presidency.”

The association has just appointed Niall Keane as interim manager. Part of his work will be to put GDPR, child and data protection policies in place and to review the association’s constitution.  Cross-border relations with the Women’s Institute will continue and Josephine is looking forward to welcoming WI members to An Grianán later this month.

She also wants the association to be more vocal on issues such as extending Breast Check to women aged over 69 and removing the means test for the Carer’s Allowance.  Redesigning the association’s web site is a priority. “It’s essential and if right will provide a showcase for everything the ICA involves itself in.”

It’s going to be a busy few years for Josephine with little chance of spending time in her Aladdin’s cave of a sewing room, packed to the gills with patterns, embroidery threads, wool, fabrics and so much more. But Josephine Helly won’t mind as she promotes the ‘fun and friendship’ that ICA offers to women right across the country.