The Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster

Heather Simpson finds that there's more to Young Farmers Clubs than one might think

With a public image that is more cattle judging than cutting edge, the Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster have always been sniggered at by cityfolk. But look a little closer at the oldest rural youth organisation in the British Isles, and it’s easy to see why it has lasted 76 years and has a current membership of over 2,000 members.

Ever since its formation in 1929, Young Farmers Clubs have been the social centre of the rural scene. Founded by William Stavely Armour in 1929, during a period of agricultural deprivation and social inequality, YFCUs were seen as a solution to the plight of the rural youth.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the farming community was relatively self-contained and had little contact with the town or city. Radio and gramophone were in their infancy and television was non-existant. Churches were the main outlet for social activity, but they had a limited range of pursuits for young people.

Until 1929, contact between the sexes had been limited. Matchmaking duties were relegated to the classifieds; aptly demonstrated in one newspaper advertisement which said ‘Young Farmer wishes to meet girl with quiet Clydesdale horse. Please send photograph of horse to box XYZ’.

However in 1903, during his travels to Denmark, Armour found a solution to the problem and established the Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster. The YFCU movement took its concept from the Danish Folk High School Movement, which taught history, poetry, music, drama and civics and provided inspiration for young people entering into society. When Armour returned to Belfast he received support from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Young Farmers’ movement was born.

In 1930, Limavady became Northern Ireland’s first Young Farmers Club. Within a week it was joined by clubs in Kilwaughter, Islandmagee, Dervock, Bleary and Ballywalter. Amour later declared, 'It was the best thing I ever did.'

Initially clubs were male-dominated and women were only required to ‘make the tea’. Members engaged solely in agricultural pursuits such as machinery-handling and silage-making. But as interest in the movement grew, the numbers of activities were broadened and women became more involved.

During its early years, churches snubbed the clubs because they engaged in secular activities such as dancing. But as the YFCUs’ popularity grew, churches became more open, with many allowing local groups to use the church hall.

Under the motto ‘Better Farmers, Better Countrymen, Better Citizens’, Armour believed that all clubs must encourage members’ creativity and this was achieved through an educational program and competitions.

Initially, simple tasks such as home-making, flower-arranging and craftwork were introduced in the hope of encouraging young female members into the organisation. In later years, drama, public speaking and group debating competitions became an integral part of the YFCU’s calendar and contests in farm management, silage-making and machinery handling developed the young people’s practical abilities.

Nearly 76 years later Young Farmers clubs still maintain much of their vibrancy. At present there are about 78 clubs in the province. They are strictly non-political, non-sectarian and are open to anyone between the ages of 12 and 25. Their only prerequisite for membership is an interest in rural life.

Clubs today are no longer associated solely with agriculture. Every avenue and activity is explored from sports nights and public speaking to group debating and the arts. But the movement’s greatest achievement is undoubtedly bringing about a countryside revolution.

Before the clubs began, farmers were satirised as a figure of fun. People in rural communities were often viewed as inarticulate by outsiders, which did not help their confidence. However, today members are encouraged to find their own voice. This metamorphosis has been credited to the role of the public speaking, group debating and drama competitions and the success of these contests has done much to compound the movement’s image as a ground for fostering skilled orators.

But even more so, clubs have retained their allegiance to close-knit farming communities and have brought much-needed entertainment and knowledge to a community which is solitary in nature. Long before the advent of television, clubs made their own entertainment and formed an appreciation for drama and music.

Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster have undoubtedly been the most successful youth movement in Northern Ireland. It has pioneered many things, such as the first successful mixed boy and girl clubs. Clubs can be credited as being the catalysts for raising the profile of women in rural communities. Now women hold vital decision-making roles as secretaries, office bearers or vice-presidents.

Farming will always be Ulster’s mainstay and it seems important for farmers to have somewhere to make friends, share knowledge and compete. Young Farmers Clubs are run by young people, for young people, and will always be a keystone of the rural community.

By Heather Simpson