FERMANAGH members of the Women’s Institute (WI) are marking its 90th anniversary in Ulster with a special exhibition taking place in libraries across the county.
A nostalgic look back through the years, the exhibition features photographs from the many events, activities and gatherings of the Erne Area WI and will be running at Lisnaskea, Irvinestown and Enniskillen libraries until the end of the month.
The Brookeborough, Lisnaskea nad Newtownbutler branches will be represented at the Skea exhibition, Irvinestown and Kesh photographs will be on display at the Irvinestown Library, while Derrygonnelly, Enniskillen, Lisbellaw and Tamlaght will be on display in Enniskillen.
While many of the uninitiated may associate the WI with their stunning flower arrangements and yummy jam making, there is so much more to the organisation, which has its origins in nineteenth century Canada.
The WI was first established by a woman named Adelaide Hoodless, who became a campaigner for better hygiene practices at home and on the farm following the tragic death of her young son due to contaminated milk in 1889 in Ontario, Canada.
Adelaide devoted herself to the better education of new mothers and young girls and, after being invited to speak at the Farmers’ Institution’s ladies night, she suggested forming a group where women could learn about domestic and agricultural science, socialise, and share their thoughts and concerns.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Derrygonnelly WI member Norma Heap, a past executive member of the WI, noted there was a semi-local connection to the institute’s founder.
“Adelaide, known as Addie before her marriage, was the youngest of 13 children born to the farming family of David Hunter and his wife Jane. He grandparents had emigrated to Canada from Co Monaghan,” she noted. “Addie was a descendant of Ulster stock.”
Another Candadian woman, writer and activist Margaret Robertson Watt, later brought the idea and values of the WI across the Pond, helping set up the institute in the UK. The first branch was established in Llanfair in Anglesey in 1915.
“By the end of the First World War the WI movement was credited with being a strong force in agriculture, having increased the food supply from 35 percent to 60 percent of the country’s requirements,” said Ms Heap, outlining the institute’s close ties with agriculture, and the impact it had on society.
The WI continued to grow over the decades, and in 1932 the first branch in Ulster was established by a Miss Dorothea Maccausland in Garvagh.
“Dorethea travelled widely throughout the province establishing branches in many towns and villages,” said Ms Heap.
In 1942 a Federation of Women’s Institutes was formed to bring together the branches of Ulster. There are now approximately 4,000 members across the province, with over 130 branches, including nine in Fermanagh, which is known as the Erne Area of the WI.
Members meet monthly from September to June and are encouraged to wear the WI badge, which was first introduced by Lady Brooke who was federation chairman until 1965, which depicts the traditional white pillars of the Ulster countryside.
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