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'Shows like Bake Off have benefited us, but we are not just buns and cakes, WI can be a lifeline for members'

Genteel rural pursuits may be its trademark, but at the Balmoral Show you'll learn there's more to WI than meets eye, writes Stephanie Bell.

Published 11/05/2016

Beth Irwin, Elizabeth Warden and Agnes Kennedy of the Women’s Institute yesterday
Beth Irwin, Elizabeth Warden and Agnes Kennedy of the Women’s Institute yesterday
The ladies prepare for the show
Mary Berry

It is one of the most popular marquees in the Balmoral Show, where visitors get to relax with a cup of tea and a home-baked bun courtesy of the ladies from the Federation of Women's Institutes (NI).

While thousands will enjoy the hospitality served up today, tomorrow and Friday, few will appreciate just how important an event it is for the WI or the extensive work that has gone in to providing such quality refreshments.

It takes eight months of preparation by a dedicated committee to get ready for what is the biggest and most important fundraiser in the WI calendar.

The Balmoral Show has always been looked upon as the shop window for the WI and, while initially it was a chance for members to sell their handicrafts in aid of the federation, the role has evolved to become an essential service for the show.

The famous baking by WI members makes the Harberton Rooms a must for visitors who view it as a haven of rest.

For the WI it is the main source of funds for the federation, amassing around £20,000 over the three days as members serve up around 1,500 cups of tea and tray bakes daily.

The WI is still an essential part of the rural fabric in Northern Ireland with over 6,000 members in 161 branches.

The Balmoral Show gives people a chance to sample the very best of the home produce that the WI is famous for. But those involved also believe it is a great opportunity not just to showcase their work and explain what it means to be a member, but also to drive home the point that the organisation is as relevant to women today as it was when it started back in 1932.

Federation chairperson Elizabeth Warden has been a member of her local Ballyblack WI for 25 years. Married to Alex (69), a beef farmer with whom she has two children, Sarah (26) and Graeme (23), for Elizabeth being in the WI runs in the family.

"I work as a solicitor and run my own business from a stable block on our family farm in Newtownards," she explains. "Sarah has recently qualified in law and joined me in the business. We specialise mainly in conveyancing, wills and managing estates.

"I come from a farming background and my mother was in the WI. After I got married I found that it was a great way of getting to know other women in the district. It has also been about enjoying the friendship and the fellowship.

"I couldn't imagine life without the WI. I have just finished my first year as federation chairman. It is a three-year post and you are second in command to the president.

"It is a busy role and you represent the federation at events in Northern Ireland and at our sister organisations across the water, and the Irish Country Women's Association.

"It has been a very busy 12 months but, thankfully I have a very supportive family."

Elizabeth says that while initially WI was mainly made up of women living in rural areas, its members now include many who live in towns and cities.

"We still have our crafts and, in recent years, our membership has benefited from TV shows like The Great British Bake Off, which have helped renew interest in baking. We have benefited as a result.

"We also do a lot of fundraising and we support the Associated Country Women of the World, which funds projects worldwide that help make women self-sufficient. Last year our federation donated £25,000 to their work.

"A lot of people associate us with the Church, but in actual fact we are non-political and non-sectarian, it just happens that a lot of our meetings are held in church halls because they are available to us."

Recruiting members in their 20s and 30s can still be problematic, though. "It has been hard to get younger women to join and we are constantly trying to attract new members," says Elizabeth. "We're also working with the Young Farmers Club to get more young people involved.

"The renewed interest in baking and cooking skills has helped and we can help young women to develop these skills. We also have festivals of music and drama - there is something for everyone in the organisation."

Preparation for the fundraiser at this week's Balmoral Show began last year, with the planning committee keen to find as many ways as possible to boost takings. "As well as serving tea and tray bakes made by members we also have a market stall selling home produce and displays of our crafts and paintings.

"It takes a full 10 days of setting up and working during the show, and then there is a lot of time involved taking everything down again.

"It is quite a commitment and it is a real team effort. The money raised over the three days is used to run the federation and we would hope that people who are interested will take the chance to fill in a leaflet at the show or, for more details about joining, they can go to our website."

Elizabeth adds: "I can't imagine life without the WI. It gives you another side of life and I think everyone needs something else in their lives beyond work and the general pressures of life."

The chairperson of the Balmoral committee is Agnes Kennedy (75), a retired primary school teacher from Coleraine, who has been a WI member for 42 years. Agnes is married to Robert (76), a semi-retired sheep farmer, and they have four children and six grandchildren.

Like Elizabeth, she found that joining the WI as a new bride helped her make friends: "When I got married my friend's mother was a member of the WI and, to help me to meet other women in the area, she took me along to my first meeting at Macosquin WI in 1964.

"I have made an awful lot of friends through the WI and a few years back, when I was in a car accident, I just realised how many friends I really had in the WI.

"It is very caring and everybody looks out for everybody else. I was coming back from the Balmoral Show when I had an accident and my car overturned a few times. I was in hospital for a week and was quite badly injured and it has left me without the proper use of my right hand.

"Everybody rallied round me and looked after my husband and did what they could to help. To me, that is what the WI is all about."

The past few days have proved particularly frantic as last minute preparations got under way. "I spent yesterday collecting food from all the members in my area and I have so much food that my husband will have to take his car as well to carry it all," says Agnes.

"As well as tray bakes to sell with the tea, we have lots of jams and chutneys for our market stall. Hopefully people will take the chance to come along and see what we are about. There are a lot of benefits for younger people joining the WI. We have members in our group aged from their late 30s up to my age.

"We are known or our baking and we have some of the best bakers in Northern Ireland in the WI, but there is a lot more to us. Friendship and camaraderie is a big thing and everyone is made to feel very welcome."

Beth Irwin (58), a housewife from Pomeroy, was just 18 when she joined her local WI and is the current vice-chairman of the federation. She is married to Norman (70), a retired farmer, and they have four children.

She says: "I come from a rural area and I was really interested in crafts and so I joined the WI as a teenager.

"I have held many offices down through the years including being president of my local group, and this year I was involved in bringing out a book on the history of the WI in Pomeroy to mark our 50th anniversary.

"Most of my spare time is devoted to the WI and I am up and down to headquarters two or three days a month. There always seems to be something to do.

"I have got so much out of it. When you are living out in the countryside you don't get to see people that often, and without WI I wouldn't have as many friends.

"I like helping people and I also run my own craft class every week. We have a craft syllabus in the WI and it can take years to complete - I have completed my 24 craft gold circle badge, which I will be wearing at the Balmoral Show.

"I am passionate about crafts and really want to keep that tradition going in Northern Ireland.

"But it's really not just about baking and crafts - I am also a member of my local choir and we do drama and there are lots of things to interest different people. Oh, and we also serve a lovely supper."

Belfast Telegraph

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