A guide to go-getting girls


The Girl Guides, who are coming up to their centenary, have revamped their image to appeal to adventurous, trendy young women of today but many of the traditional values still stand, writes FIONA McCANN

‘TRUSTY, LOYAL, helpful, sisterly, courteous, kind, obedient, smiling and witty, pure as the rustling wind.” When I was about 11 years old, I made a promise to be all of the above. It was, after all, the Guide law, and if I wanted to get myself a dashing blue uniform, complete with yellow neckerchief, I had to promise to abide by it.

Of course, if you took it seriously, you had to spend the whole time drying dishes and cracking jokes, but the upside was weekends away toasting marshmallows and making fires, not to mention a chance to win some of the coveted Guide badges, like Knotter or Needlecraft, and the favour of Brown Owl.

These days, Girl Guides don’t know how lucky they have it. Not only are they no longer required to be “pure as the rustling wind” but the badge-potential has new and infinitely cooler options like a cultural awareness badge, a beautician badge and one even I, who had a hard time remembering whether the reef knot started right over left or vice versa, might have snagged: the chocolate badge.

It’s all part of the Irish Girl Guide rebranding to coincide with the World Girl Guide Association’s centenary celebrations, which kick off tomorrow. The Irish Girl Guides are a year younger but although 99 years old now, they’re still going strong and set to prove that Irish Girl Guides do more than make biscuits and tie knots.

“I don’t think I’ve ever, in my life, sold a cookie,” says Róisín Fitzgerald, Irish Girl Guides’ public relations officer. She has, however, tied some knots in her time: “You never know when you’re going to need a knot, even if it’s just hanging up the clothesline out the back!”

And she has used the skills she learned in the Girl Guides in all manner of other scenarios. “I went travelling in Australia at 27 years of age, and the amount of people who couldn’t light an outdoor fire when we’d be camping, who had no idea how to put up a tent. . .”

There are, however, other skills that the Irish Girl Guides can offer to the young girls, who range from the five- to seven-year-old Ladybirds through Brownies, Girl Guides right up to the Senior Branch.

“I worked in radio for a few years and, to this day, I would say that I would never have got into that without Guiding, because we learned about talking to strangers and self esteem, about being able to stand up in front of people and talk,” says Fitzgerald.

Confidence, self-esteem, friendship and fun: as the Girl Guides I speak to tell me all the things they’ve garnered from their long-term membership, I’m beginning to regret having chucked in my Girl Guide promise by the time puberty hit – along with the snazzy blue uniform that was never worn again.

To ensure that they get a little more wear these days, a new Guide uniform has been designed along with a new logo, as part of the organisation’s rebranding.

Yet how do they go about combating the perception that Girl Guides are worthy do-gooders who sit around campfires singing Kumbaya?

“I think we all went through stages where we came out of our meetings, took off our neckerchiefs and put them into the bag,” admits Fitzgerald, who says that part of the rebranding is to combat that image, and point to the range of activities that come with joining the Irish Girl Guides.

And while some might still be unaware of what being a Girl Guide actually means – “Even now, at 30, when I tell people I work for the Irish Girl Guides they say ‘Oh! Do you meet Roy Keane a lot?’” says Catherine O’Connor, outreach development officer – the organisation is hoping to use this Saturday’s celebrations as a chance to highlight the numerous initiatives in which they involve their young members. These include road safety awareness, fundraising for developing countries, and even visits to the local Garda and fire stations.

And although membership has dipped from the high of 20,000 in the 1980s to closer to 10,500 today, Roisin says it’s on the rise again, with members attending weekly meetings all over the country including at Crumlin Children’s Hospital.

“We go around the wards and find out if there are any girls well enough to attend Guides that evening, and we offer parents a chance of a break and do fun activities and crafts with the girls,” says O’Connor.

There’s clearly more to this Girl Guide business than my own hazy recollections of toasted marshmallows and Taps (a Guides song). After all, past members include Sonia O’Sullivan and RTÉ presenter Kathryn Thomas, not to mention the Lord Mayor of Dublin Emer Costello. “I do think that for a young girl’s CV, employers will recognise the qualities the girls have developed,” says president Dilys Lindsay.

But beyond the fact that a stint in Brownies could put you on a path to the Mansion House, you get the feeling that there’s something more to this Girl Guide business, which keeps people signing up.

“It’s a real community thing,” says guiding development officer Maeve O’Reilly, who goes on camp weekends to the same cottages she visited as a Brownie. Recalling the sensation of melted marshmallow, the smell of campfires and the pleasure of a parent-free chase through a forest with a host of new-found friends, I am suddenly reminded about why I ever promised all that courtesy and obedience in the first place. “It just feels really magical,” says O’Reilly.

The new Irish Girl Guides logo and uniforms will be launched tomorrow in Thurles where Guides will take part in 100 challenges and a fashion show of uniforms down through the last 99 years.

'New uniform would not look out of place in a shopping centre'

CERTAIN THINGS are anathema to sartorial success: Ugg boots, legwarmers, 99 per cent of clothing that lists Lycra among its components. . . and the uniform.

Where fabric and skin meet, fashion dies a small death. With uniforms come myriad rules about one’s presentation, above and beyond the monstrosity itself. No make-up, no jewellery, no self-expression of any kind. This is where the Girl Guides always stood out; in a uniformed sea of androgyny and 1980s’ utilitarian chic. The neatly tailored dresses were a balm to the uniform-hating mind. In the heady days of the early 1990s, there was nothing more chic than a Girl Guide uniform – with it came the promise of boarding school and midnight feasts. Well, we may draw the curtain on that particular fantasy with the reinvention of the Girl Guide uniform.

Now, instead of conforming to an idea of olde Ireland, we must conform to the Ireland of today: fleecy sweatshirts, navy bootcut trousers and shoulder bags. The sad fact is, the older uniforms implied an elite club, where members learned to tie knots like sailors, bake like Rachel Allen and climb trees like their brothers. Today’s uniform suggests nothing of the sort: in these fleecy tops and neon T-shirts, you shall roam the shopping centres of Ireland, chewing gum and talking on your mobile phone. Vive la difference.

Rosemary Mac Cabe