125 Years On

The Girls’ Brigade light continues to shine

(From the July - September 2018 issue of VOX)

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It may come as a surprise that the small Co. Leitrim town of Manorhamilton is home to The Girls’ Brigade Ireland’s largest company - an award-winning group of 100 girls that meets every week under the leadership of Shirley Hewston and her team of volunteers. Just days after the company hosted a special celebration for The Girls’ Brigade Ireland’s 125th anniversary, VOX editor Ruth Garvey-Williams visited Shirley to find out more.

The Girls’ Brigade is an interdenominational Christian youth organisation, which is led by teams of volunteers throughout the world. It was begun in 1893 in Sandymount, Dublin by Margaret Lyttle. During Bible Class, the girls became very cold so Ms. Lyttle began exercises with music to keep them warm. From then on The Girls’ Brigade expanded to Scotland, England and around the World. The GB programme consists of activities under four headings: Spiritual, Physical, Educational and Service. Activities include Bible study, drama, dance, crafts, singing, baking, camps, musical theatre, games and so much more.

“40th Company Manorhamilton began in 1997 with 17 girls. After celebrating 20 years last year with 75 girls the company won the community award for social inclusion and then the overall award for Co. Leitrim for our contribution to our community. Membership increased to 100,” Shirley said. “We have had to put a cap on membership but have 20 on the waiting list for next year.”

With many girls of different abilities as part of the company, one of the vital themes is “acceptance” and this is evident in the way that girls are included from different cultural backgrounds, abilities and church denominations.

We want to empower the girls to be the best they can be.

“We want to empower the girls to be the best they can be, no matter who they are. We sit with the girls and ask what they want to do at the beginning of each year within the wide and varied parameters of the GB Ireland Programme - so there is a real sense of ownership,” Shirley explained. “We tell them, we’ll do anything apart from bungee jumping! Looking back over the last few years of The Girls’ Brigade in Manorhamilton, we have grown not only in numbers but also in our faith in God.

“The Girls’ Brigade motto is to Seek, Serve and Follow Christ. We are an inter-denominational Christian youth organisation. So much youth work is trying to water down the Christian message but I’m seeking to keep it at the forefront. I don’t think we need to be ashamed of sharing about the love of God,” Shirley explained.

I don’t think we need to be ashamed of sharing about the love of God.

Rev. Richard Beadle, who recently began working in Manorhamilton with the Church of Ireland, was amazed to discover the size of local 40th Co. Manorhamilton Girls’ Brigade. “Many Christian youth groups would be struggling or finding it difficult these days. To find that they are 100-strong and with a waiting list is amazing,” he said.

The Christian ethos of The Girls’ Brigade was evident in planning for the 125th anniversary celebrations that brought together companies from Sligo, Leitrim, Monaghan and Donegal. At the end of April, 240 girls (aged between four and 18 years) and 60 adults gathered in Manorhamilton for a birthday party on the theme of “Fruitful and Overflowing” - based on the Fruit of the Spirit. This is the theme for The Girls’ Brigade worldwide International Conference, which will be held in Zambia in July this year.

Volunteer Maureen said, “So many people prayed for safety and smooth running and that God’s hand would be upon it all. When all the buses started arriving, it could have been pandemonium. There was excitement and fun but there was also peace - we were blown away by the calmness of the children. God did exceedingly, abundantly more than we could have asked or even imagined!”

Each company wore different coloured T-shirts reflecting diversity but with a logo marking the 125th anniversary of The Girls’ Brigade. In preparation for the event the girls had all shared what GB means to them and their feedback was reflected in the words printed on the customised T-shirts.

Bishop Ferran Glenfield and the local clergy from all the churches in the community officially opened the event. Local leaders were joined by the Vice Patron, President, Commissioner, National Chairperson and National Director from The Girls’ Brigade Ireland

Throughout the day, the girls took part in a whole range of fun and educational workshops including crafts, photography, baking, messy church, a prayer space, fitness, magic, drumming and the multi-cultural world. At the end of the afternoon, they were divided up into different age groups for a time of praise and worship with input from OM Ireland, CEF, yKEA, Drumcliffe Centre of Mission and local Christian youth workers.

“After all the worship times, we sang happy birthday to The Girls’ Brigade. It was an honour to welcome our Vice Patron of GB Ireland Joan Darling who brought in the cake with six of the youngest members representing each company in the district. To conclude the party we had a net filled with 400 balloons and after the countdown it was balloon madness as they were all released in the hall! That was so exciting. The calmness was gone at that point,” Shirley said.

“I feel like God has a sense of humour. We had been praying for good weather for the day and when the very last child got on the bus, it lashed with rain,” Shirley grinned.

During the weekend, 40th Manorhamilton Company also organised a pop-up museum in a local shop unit to display memorabilia of The Girls’ Brigade over the years and to highlight the organisation to the community.

“All I can think of is the hymn How Great Thou Art. He blessed us in every part of the planning and the weekend itself. We pray now for the legacy of the celebrations - that all who came will have been touched in some way to know God’s love and to overflow with the Fruit of the Spirit, wherever they live.

“The Girl’s Brigade would love to welcome more members into every company around the country to empower and enrich the future generation to Seek, Serve and Follow Christ.”

For more details contact www.girlsbrigadeirl.ie.