It survived the Second World War and Troubles, romances were born and friendships forged: how Ballywalter Young Farmers' Club has been a rural lifeline for 90 years

As the club celebrates its special anniversary, Leona O'Neill talks to members about its important role in the community

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Kendall Glenn, secretary of Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club

Kendall Glenn, secretary of Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club

Freddie Parkinson

Richard Kennedy of the rural lifeline for 90 years Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club with his father John who was also a member

Richard Kennedy of the rural lifeline for 90 years Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club with his father John who was also a member

Freddie Parkinson

Geoffrey Patton, president of the Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club

Geoffrey Patton, president of the Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club

Freddie Parkinson

Kendall Glenn, secretary of Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club

The Young Farmers' Clubs of Ulster have long been known to be the most crucial of lifelines for young people in rural areas of Northern Ireland. Members enjoy training, education and competitions that keeps farming youth at the top of their game. Clubs also offer non-farming activities such as swimming galas, public speaking competitions, fencing, group debating, choirs, photography and football among many others that bring rural youth together.

Rural youth faces many challenges, not least isolation, in the countryside and the young farmers' clubs across Northern Ireland work hard to forge connections and lifelong friendships, build skills and confidence in its youth as well as provide countless opportunities for members.

This year Co Down's Ballywalter Young Farmers' Club will celebrate 90 long years of building strong bonds in rural youth, helping young farmers succeed, not to mention the countless marriages and children that have evolved from the club, which now has 70 members.

It has survived the Second World War, the Troubles and big changes in the farming industry. Its club members say they are proud of how far they have come since William Armour held the very first club meeting in Dunover School in January 1930.

Twenty-one-year-old Kendall Glenn, from Glastry, is the club's secretary. The Royal Ulster Agricultural Society events assistant says the club plays a huge role in tackling isolation.

"I was brought up in a rural community," she says. "It wasn't necessarily a farm. Grandad always had a yard and kept animals. He had cattle but we were more about horses.

"I joined the young farmers' club when I was 11 years old. My dad Brian had been in it as a young man. My brother Oliver was also in the club.

"We meet up at Ganaway Activity Centre every other Friday night. We have an in-meeting - which consists of talks from the likes of the RNLI, the PSNI and maybe past members - and we have out-meetings, which means we visit places like Let's Go Hydro or farm visits.

"It's not all to do with farming and agriculture. We have different competitions. Yes, we do have our dairy, beef and sheep judging competitions, silage making and tractor handling, but we also have arts festivals, a swimming gala, public speaking and group debating, floral art, football and rugby. And those activities are for everyone from 12 years old right up to 30 years old. There is so much for everyone to do."

She says the club is like a 'big family'.

"It would be really important for younger members especially to come along and have something in the rural community," she says.

"Rather than sitting at home and playing their games console, it's about coming out and socialising, getting to know new people and taking part in loads of activities.

"It's just a big family, really. And everyone likes to get connected within that. Everyone knows that we are there for them. They can come along and speak to us and each other. Everyone feels like they can speak to us, because we are such a close little club."

She adds: "I don't know what I would do without it, really. I have just grown up within it. I'd be lost without it. That is where you build your friendships.

"If I didn't have the young farmers I don't know where I would have gone. Since the age of 11, I've grown up with all my friends in it and I'm still friends with them. It is just like a big family."

Kendall says that the club's special anniversary is particularly exciting this year.

"To be celebrating 90 years is absolutely marvellous," she says. "We have a very active club and we are so proud to become the first club to become 90 years old.

"It is a really great achievement for us, not just celebrating 90 years, but the fact that our club has been running strong for that entire time. It's 90 years of friendship and bonds and holding each other up."

Geoffrey Patton (44) is club president. The dairy farmer from Carrowdore, who is married to Suzanne with three sons, James (13), Oliver (11) and Will (8), says the young people look at him as a 'wise head' full of advice.

"I was a young farmer back in my day, from the age of 12 to 25 years old, " he says. "And my role as president is really to provide advice, to be someone to fall back on. It's someone to lean on when they hit times they need it.

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Geoffrey Patton, president of the Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club

Geoffrey Patton, president of the Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club

Freddie Parkinson

Geoffrey Patton, president of the Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club

"Young Farmers is a big family and it just passes down through the generations. With the contraction of farming in recent years, there are more people joining who just live in the countryside, who don't farm. No more than half the club would be from farming backgrounds. The rest are from rural backgrounds. It's basically like a countryside youth club."

Geoffrey says the club is somewhat of a family tradition for him and many others.

"I joined the club when I was about 12 years old," he says. "I joined because my parents were in Young Farmers and I was from the countryside. And it's what country kids seem to do. It's a tradition. It's somewhere to go, have good fun and meet people. Some of the meetings have a farming theme, and some of them are about getting together to socialise, to go bowling and other activities. And that is probably the appeal to country non-farming kids. It's something that is passed down through the generations. My mum and dad were both in the club.

"It is a proud achievement that our club is the first to get to 90 years old.

"It has survived war, troubles and a change in farming. It has come through a lot of things. To hold any club together for 90 years is great."

Twenty-two-year-old Ballywalter farmer Richard Kennedy says the club is part of who he is.

"I have been a member of the club since I was 11 years old," he says. "My mum Diane and dad John were in the club before me and my granny Isobel ran the junior club. I am the third generation coming through the club.

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Richard Kennedy of the rural lifeline for 90 years Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club with his father John who was also a member

Richard Kennedy of the rural lifeline for 90 years Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club with his father John who was also a member

Freddie Parkinson

Richard Kennedy of the rural lifeline for 90 years Ballywalter Young Farmers’ Club with his father John who was also a member

"I love it. It's really my lifestyle. It's my social life and I have met a lot of lifelong friends from all over the place through the young farmers. There are a lot of people who have met at the club and got married.

"Young farmers is really important to help bring people together who have the same interests as yourself. It pulls all the young ones together and it stops the isolation that you might feel otherwise in a rural community.

"Farming is quite a lonely career. You're maybe away all day by yourself and don't see anyone, and that's why it's so important.

"When I get to an age to have my own children I will be encouraging them to join the young farmers. I just love it. There is just a thrill and buzz about it, about the meetings and competitions."

He says he is immensely proud of the club history.

"It's a big deal for us to be the first club in Northern Ireland to be 90 years old," he says. "It's a lifetime. And I am proud of that, and very proud to be a young farmer."

Twenty-year-old Donaghadee woman Hannah Miskimmin, a student of Environmental Managing at Queen's University, says she owes her very existence to the young farmers' club. Her mother and father met and fell in love at the club.

"I joined the club at 11 years old," she says. "The official age for joining is 12, but I couldn't wait to get in. I love going to the club because of the fun and meeting everyone.

"It's a good excuse to meet up with everyone. And you don't have to plan anything, you know you'll see your friends every other Friday and at the competitions in between.

"It's a good way to meet people from all corners of Northern Ireland. Everyone knows everyone in the young farmers and I just love the community spirit of it."

She says it's not just about farming.

"There are special competitions," she says. "We have stock judging and other farming-related things. But there is also floral art, debating, public speaking and other stuff.

"Back in the day there would be a lot more dances happening, but these days they are special events. At Halloween we would have an event at a nightclub. And on the Monday before Christmas we have a St Trinian's themed night.

"The young farmers' club is my friend group," she says. "It's stops people from feeling isolated. I'm in Donaghadee in the middle of nowhere and it's a really good way for me to branch out and meet people that I wouldn't have known before. It fills your week, otherwise you'd be sitting at home."

She says her family has strong roots in the club and she is proud of their combined history.

"My mum Catherine and dad Hugh met at the young farmers, as did my granny Margaret and granda George," she says. "My brother Gareth and I basically exist because my mum and dad met at the young farmers.

"It's such a long and proud history," she says. "We have been looking at old photos over the last while in anticipation for the anniversary. We saw one from 1935 and it was just amazing to see. It was such a small club then and it has grown to be what it is today. It's amazing.

"For me the club is a real family tradition. Four generations of my family have come through the club.

"My great granny Agnew was one of the founding members. So we are extremely proud of the history and hope it will keep going for another 90 years."

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