THE energy of youth and the wisdom of age are combined to great effect through the Cairde group at St Joseph’s Secondary School, Tulla. For more than 17 years, the initiative has brought together students and older members of the community of East Clare for all kinds of activities from baking and knitting to music, song and discussions about life in bygone days. While the pandemic has put the normally popular face-to-face sessions on hold, Cairde has been a lifeline for members over the last year. Students have learned the art of letter writing and correspondence has been exchanged regularly between the 14 older members of the group and their younger counterparts. At 98 years of age, Dun Purcell, from Feakle is the intergenerational group’s most senior member and very popular with the 48 students taking part. And, because some former members of Cairde now live at Raheen Community Hospital, the group has also been staying in touch – remotely – with them.
“Cairde was started up by two ladies, who have since retired from the staff, and the idea originally came from Dr Mary Surlis at NUI Galway who put the call out for schools to get involved in friendship groups with older members of their community,” said Siobhán O’Sullivan who coordinates the programme along with her colleague, Deirdre Hogan. “Normally, the older members would come in to St Joseph’s for two hours every Tuesday and we’d have baking, singing, art, poetry and more activities. We also have ‘Artefact Day’ where the adults bring in items like baskets or tilly lamps and talk about how they would have been used in their youth. Everyone really enjoys that.”
The pandemic has changed all of that and while the school visits are missed, Cairde members have been finding other ways to stay in touch. “The students have been writing to the older people and receiving the most beautiful hand-written letters from them. The handwriting is incredible, we won’t see the likes of that again. One lady, Rose De Courcy, wrote an eight-page letter. At one point, Dun Purcell’s daughter, Kate, also arranged a video call and the kids were just enthralled with that.”
For the group’s older members, the ongoing contact has been a lifeline. They are drawn from a wide hinterland covering Tulla, Feakle, Broadford, Kilkishen and Sixmilebridge, an part of the county where social isolation can be a problem in normal times, never mind during lockdown. “We have been determined to stay in touch and we’ve also been keeping former members at Raheen in mind,” she said. “Normally, students would go up there twice a year for a musical performance, but that hasn’t been possible. What we did instead was record a 90-minute video with music and poetry. The school is really rich in musical talent and we have even got some baking and knitting included. When the school opens up again for the Leaving Certs, we’ll be getting the DVDs sent out to all of the nursing homes in the county.
“Cairde members have also been knitting rugs for residents at Raheen. All members have been involved in knitting, even the boys and they’re very good at it. We’ve been making the rugs every year for last three years and just presented some more recently. That always goes down well.”
Adult members of the Cairde group are gradually getting their vaccines and hopes are high that normal activities will be able to resume at some stage in the future.
“When Dr Surlis put the call out originally, around six schools on the western seaboard signed up,” Siobhán said. “Cairde at Tulla is still going strong. It’s a wonderful programme and there’s so much that Cairde members have learned from each other.”