The future of Foróige – and of Ireland’s leaders

As Foróige marks the milestone of its 60th birthday this year, local volunteer John Sullivan looks back on how the organisation has changed and prospered – but what he really wants to focus on is the future.

As Foróige marks the milestone of its 60th birthday this year, local volunteer John Sullivan looks back on how the organisation has changed and prospered – but what he really wants to focus on is the future.

The youth organisation is Foróige is 60 years old this year, but as one local volunteer says, it’s also “60 years young,” because the clubs reinvent themselves every year as new members come on board and make their mark on the organisation.

John Sullivan, leader with the Cuffesgrange/Danesfort club, has been a volunteer with the club since it started in 1964, building on from the success of the first ever Foróige club, which was set up in Mooncoin in 1952.

“I read an article in one of the national dailies about an organisation – Macra na Tuath, it was called at the time,” he recalls. “I knew the first leader, Seamus Doran, who was a VEC teacher.”

“The first meeting had two ministers present, the minister for agriculture and the minister for education, so they gave it a good start-off,” he says of the organisation for those aged 12-18, which in the early years was sponsored by Macra na Feirme, Muintir na Tire and the Irish Countrywomen’s Association.

“I would have great admiration for the people who started it, because they were starting from a green-field situation. There was no template, there was nothing. I think they based it to a certain extent on the American 4-H clubs – that was the only thing they had to guide them.”

The idea then, as now, was “to do something for the young people, to give them an organisation that they could grow and develop in, and to get the members involved as much as possible in the running of the club.”

To illustrate this ethos, he gives an example of a cake sale recently run by the Cuffesgrange/ Danesfort club.

“When it was over, one woman came to us and said, ‘If you had let us know in time, we could have got a lot of women to bake cakes and it would have been a lot more successful.’ And that’s all right, that’s great, but the situation you would have had then would be the adults doing the work and the members would be excluded from the activity,” he says. “There’s a growing and a learning experience in doing it themselves, even though the financial reward at the end mightn’t be as great as it would have been.”

Members’ activities vary from club to club, depending on their facilities and interests. Locally, upcoming events include a sports day on April 28 at Dicksboro GAA Club grounds, finishing up with a disco.

It’s a noticeable change from some of the activities undertaken by some of the early Foróige clubs.

“When it started first, I can remember several of our members borrowing money in the bank – some of the lads bought pigs, believe it or not, fattened and sold them,” John recalls. “There was an arrangement with the bank that they would to into the bank and negotiate the loan themselves. They had to keep the accounts and keep record of it and make sure that it showed a profit. It was a great experience.”

Other clubs’ members were allowed to plant a quarter of an acre of sugar beet in an arrangement with a sugar company, he adds.

“At first the organisation was very rural because it started in a rural environment but it has changed now, especially since the 1980s when the name was changed to Foróige,” he says. “It’s everywhere; you get it in the most urban parts of Ireland now, right in the heart of Dublin.”

Starting new every year

“Some people say, ‘You have an old club,’ but we don’t have an old club, because our club starts again every year. You have to look at it like that, because there are new members coming on every year, and it wouldn’t be fair to them to say, ‘We have an old club,’ and expect them to be in step straight away,” John says.

“That’s the way I see Foróige. It’s 60 years old but you wouldn’t be dwelling on the fact that it’s 60 years old as much as what it’s going to do today, because today is the important day. This moment in time is important, not what’s gone.”

And at the moment, the focus is on allowing young people to develop into valuable contributors to the community.

“You also have to look at it from the point of view that ‘out of a cottage comes a prince’ – or ‘out of a cottage comes a president’,” John says. “Somewhere in Ireland there’s a young person who will be a future president or taoiseach or minister for health, and we try and see that and do whatever we can to challenge people to rise to the occasion.”

And it isn’t always the ones you’d expect who continue on to lead in Foróige and other roles.

“I am lucky that there are three other group leaders with me at the moment – all former members,” he says. “That’s the thing about it that I have noticed over the years, that the ones who are more likely to come back in later years and talk with enthusiasm for the club are the ones that broke your heart.”

“You thought they were getting nothing out of it,” he says, although there will always be people who are more, or less, vocal about expressing such sentiments. “Somebody said to me, ‘If they keep coming back, they are getting something out of it. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be coming back.’ They have obviously got more out of if than you’d be thinking.”

What he hopes for the coming years is that Foróige will continue to grow, and for this it needs more people to come forward as leaders.

“I hope to see Foróige getting stronger, and it will continue to get stronger if we can get more leaders,” he says. “When it started in 1952 people were starting from a very new situation, and we are now in a very new situation in this country.

“But there’s only one way to go and that’s forward.”