Irish Countrywomen’s Activist
Kathleen Delap was born Kathleen Orpen 1910 in Dublin. She had a comfortable upbringing in Carrickmines, where tennis and garden parties were the norm; servants worked in the large family home; and her early education came via governesses. Her father, Charles St George Orpen, was brother of the painter, Sir William Orpen.
She studied architecture at UCD for four years, but did not complete her degree. At 23, she married Hugh Delap, an engineer.
The two of them jointly designed their modernist house, Ards, in Cabinteely, which was built in 1938. They had four children. Ards was to become a focal gathering point for family and friends. At Ards, Delap used a haybox cooker, was sorting rubbish for recycling long before the word was ever in wide circulation. She grew her own vegetables and fruit, kept hens, and cultivated a lovely flower garden.
In the 1930s, Delap, along with her sisters, Cerise, Grace and Beatrice, joined the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA). The ICA was exactly as old as she was, having been formed the year she was born.
Delap went on to become a influential and thoughtful leader within the organisation, whose progressive ideas shaped the physical and psychological welfare of many women living in rural Ireland. Her focus was on how women living in rural Ireland – as so many were in the first half of the twentieth century – could be empowered.
She is quoted as saying that she believed the average countrywoman’s most pressing needs were: “money which she can call her own, horticultural and agricultural advice, better housing and advice on food and nutrition, health and hygiene, child care, home planning and management.”
Delap drew attention to how this could be done through horticulture, poultry, crafts income, and education, editing the ICA news in the then Farmers’ Gazette.
At that time, farmers – overwhelmingly male – tended to spend money on a piped water supply for their cows, but not for their homes. The ICA controversially openly discouraged women from marrying farmers who were not also committed to paying for a piped water supply to their houses.
In time, she became the ICA’s honorary secretary, and became known as the face of the organisation, even though she never wanted to be its president. She was involved in founding An Grianan, the ICA’s residential adult education college in Co Louth.
By 1965, the ICA had over 20,000 members.
Delap was a member of the 1970s Commission for the Status of Women. She was a founder, and later, an honorary member of the National Women’s Council of Ireland. She kept a diary all her life, until the day before she died, in 2004.
Her obituary in The Irish Times described Kathleen Delap as a women who “acted locally, thinking globally.”
It also included the anecdote from her funeral, as told by her son Michael. In 1995, when Bill and Hillary Clinton visited Dublin, she was invited to a lunch with Hillary Clinton. She turned it down, because she had a prior ICA appointment, the organisation to whom she had a loyalty that overrode even a lunch invitation with the woman who could well be the first female president of the United State.
Thanks to Rosita Boland for Kathleen’s herstory.
Image: ICA women