In October 1976, ten volunteers set up a social club for ten other people who happened to have a learning disability. The club was in Dundrum (the one in Dublin), and its founders consciously founded the club to be the first of a network of similar clubs to provide a much-needed social ‘scene’ for young people and adults with learning disabilities. The first club very soon linked with similar clubs in Dundalk and Tallaght, and by 1981, there were eight thriving Arch clubs in the country. Dundrum Arch club, which now has 85 members, recently celebrated its 21st birthday with the congratulations of its 40 brother/sister clubs now in the National Federation of ARCH Clubs. The number of clubs is still growing—Bray and Waterford/Tramore clubs opened last year. Nationally, over 1500 members are assisted by some 600 volunteers.
Most clubs meet for one evening session each week. A few clubs which have their own premises can meet more often; the Kilmore West Club in Dublin has four sessions a week, including a junior section, a video night, and cookery classes. The Tallaght Club has a Saturday midday club-time. Members pay a nominal entrance fee per session (primarily as an insurance requirement), and clubs engage in fundraising in order to pay for their more ambitious activities.
Leisure activities in each club depend, as far as possible, on members’ wishes, and on the skills and contacts of the volunteers. Very few of the clubs limit themselves to running discos, although disco dancing is a popular passtime in many clubs! At the Dundrum Club’s 21st party, Jim Bartley (aka Bella Doyle of Fair City) presented the St Raphael’s Celbridge perpetual shieldthe disco dancing competition trophy to the winning team from St Raphael’s. Bingo and other games are popular, and arts and crafts, hobbies and celebrations take up a lot of club time. Members are assisted to produce plays in several clubs; other may have public speaking, cookery, make-up demonstrations, or a variety of sports. The Northeast region has inter-club friendly matches in football and basketball. They held a Sports Day in Gormanstown in May. The Federation holds annual competitions in essay-writing, art, craftwork and photography; entries are exhibited at the autumn AGM. Members take part in a number of sports.
An increasing number of Arch Clubs plan short breaks, camping trips and longer holidays for their members. This year, and next spring, the Archers Club in Tipperary is engaged in a three-way holiday exchange with groups in Coventry and Portugal. Their leader is Ann Ryan, who last year attended a study visit in Germany on youth exchanges and travel groups for people with learning disabilities. She had organised an earlier exchange between the Tipperary club and a group from Provence in France, with the assistance of Léargas/Youth for Europe.
Arch Clubs are a federation; each club committee decides on local programmes and activities. As the editor wrote in the April-June 1996 issue of Keystone: ‘This issue focuses on widely differing Arch club experiences, from urban concerns, including the provision of self-defence courses for members, to life in the Midlands, to the transportation problems of rural areas. A mixed bag. ARCH is proud to be a mixed bag, with each club having its own preferences and unique style of being. Being comfortable with ourselves and enjoying opportunties to share are part of the Arch code.’
Member representatives take part in the organising committees of a growing number of Arch clubs. There is a national advisory council of eight persons, and two part time staff, Geraldine Birthistle and Bernie Wallace, who facilitate the member clubs. Clubs are also linked by the federation’s quarterly newsletter, Keystone, edited by Edward Gleeson (who is also Chairman of the Federation). In the very early days, Arch clubs sought advice from Gateway Clubs in the UK, and some border-county clubs in the Republic have continuing social ties with their northern neighbours in Gateway, but the two organisations are totally independent of each other.
The Arch Federation received funding from the Peace and Reconciliation Fund last year, and has engaged a research study of five border-county Arch clubs. The study will involve a survey of members, helpers, committee members and parents, to assist the Federation to support clubs and to provide future planning objectives.