Many parents quite naturally dread the onset of teenage years, when their dearly beloveds are subsumed by a fog of mental hormones for a few years while they painfully begin to learn their way in the world. For the lucky ones, a sporting bias will show early, and a simple pair of football boots are all that’s needed to keep your horror from a regular appearance in the Garda station.
However, if the turbo-burst of newly found energy is not channelled onto a green rectangle, a parent’s dilemma can become a bit more problematic.
Fortunately, there is a global organisation in Westmeath that has, for the last 80 years, been able to get such teens to walk 20 km on a rainy night and actually enjoy it.
This ability to engender a sense of achievement, along with such hard bought attributes as confidence, leadership, self-reliance, and teamwork, are just a few of the lifelong skills that Scouting Ireland has been able to impart to the youth of Ireland for the best part of a century.
In a effort to discover a bit more about the organisation, the Advertiser spoke to the Westmeath secretary, Sean Mimnagh, at the scout den in St Mary’s Hall in Athlone this week.
“Scouting has been in Athlone since 1930, and in this building for 40 years. There’s been scouting in Ireland since 1908,” said Sean, a metalwork and science teacher in Ballaghadreen.
“After a series of Baden-Powell books called ‘Scouting for Boys’, it started with lads on adventures, camping. Adults began to get involved and put structure on the organisation. That’s how it began.”
He explained how the pursuit was divided between two professions - teaching and the military.
“Both are great, but both with their particular drawbacks. People come from the military and use scouting for that. People who come from teaching try to use it for education. It sort of falls between these. I mean, kids don’t like being at school, and they don’t like marching and drilling too much,” he pointed out.
“For me I like to see them in uniform, particularly when travelling, but we won’t spend hours polishing buttons,” he added.
Scouts operate in patrols of five or six, led by a patrol leader, and can facilitate boys and girls from six to 18 years of age.
“After that, a lot want to stay on as leaders, and we’re quite successful keeping the lads on,” said Sean.
Last month saw Sean and Keith Tuohy bring 20 scouts and five leaders on a nine-day annual camp to Cork. This included a two-day hike to Kinsale, with 16 km overnight, before they could enjoy two days of rock climbing and sea canoeing.
The camp included the training of two new leaders - Hugh Nolan from Ardnagowna, Elphin and Luke Keogh from Moydrum, Athlone - who looked after signals and meteorology training.
“The effort and enthusiasm put in by the younger leaders was a credit to them”, said Sean.
The trip to Cork also saw the first deployment and erection of the new dining tents recently purchased by the Athlone den to facilitate inclement al frescoes.
Last year saw a 30-strong troop take on Mount Snowdon, the highest peak on these islands outside Scotland at 1,085m, and despite some awful weather: “We had a great time doing it”. Next month, the challenge will be Carrauntoohil in Kerry, the highest mountain in Ireland.
“We’re going to take the pedestrian route. I’m not interested in taking them to the edge of exhaustion or fear,” said Sean.
“I wouldn’t want to be in a place where we might get caught in a moment. Kids don’t like being in danger,” he pointed out.
“Sometimes you just can’t press on because there are kids who will just follow you because you’re a leader, and they’re just not able to realise they can’t look after themselves as well as an 18-year-old might.”
“You might like to press on to camp but have to decide that here is good enough. I’ve seen some young lads on Croagh Patrick, and they wanted to make their own path up. Some of the sheep were probably smarter,” he lamented.
Officialdom also takes the children’s safety very seriously, and though Garda vetting of leaders was brought in six years ago, Sean tells me that only last week he found out that this will have to be done every three years.
“I can’t really disagree with it, you know, but it is madness,” said Sean.
There are 110 scouts in Athlone, between the four age groups, and with only 18 leaders, Sean does not anticipate this getting any bigger for a while.
“We are trying to keep the numbers down. It’s very hard to keep that age under control, and if they’re not supervised they might as well be playing on the street,” he said.
Last year there was a vote to accept girls, but he doesn’t see this as a move that might lead to pressure on the numbers as: “There is an active Guides movement and it is growing”.
“Boys are the problem sex at 16, 17, 18. Girls tend to sort themselves out and not solve problems with alcohol and violence...they [boys] need lots of adventure to keep them busy.”
“Away from the GAA lots of boys are competitive, and will compete between patrols,” he added.
Sean told a few lovely stories of how a number of lads with varying issues had come around, and were now examples to the rest of the troop.
“Another leader said to me ‘Your lads have great empathy’, and they do look after each other,” said Sean proudly.
“Boys do look for a positive male role model. They’ll sit down for half an hour and suck information out of you. They just love encouragement. Any sort of positive affirmation of their behaviour and they’ll grow,” he explained.
“The lads are a credit to themselves and their families. They’re a great bunch,” said Sean.
The Advertiser enquired if the Scouts volunteering tradition of ‘bob-a-job’ was still going.
“It’s really about groups of young people working together, with adults only there to make sure things didn’t go too awry,” he said.
“Bob-a-job has sort of disappeared. People’s attitudes have changed concerning duties and obligations. I haven’t heard dib-dib-dib in 20 years,” he added.
Scouts in Westmeath are funded by monthly subscriptions of around €10, a Christmas raffle, as well as some VEC and LEADER grants.
“There’s an awful lot more could be done if we had more money - painting, paying the ESB, buying new tents,” he added.