Stepping stones

Youth hostels, good-will and reconciliation

Youth hostels had always been practical, all about self-help, with “a vigorous tradition of eager volunteers going off on their weekends to help build or convert new hostels…” *

Jack Catchpool, first national secretary of YHA (England and Wales), was sure that, in bringing young people together to work at hostels, he could bring about reconciliation between different people, classes and nations.

He thought few things were better calculated to increase “understanding, and dispel the enmity often artificially induced by politicians, than for the young of different nations to live together and work together on a limited piece of constructive manual work.” **

He saw the potential for this spirit in Ireland, after he took a holiday there and discussed the idea of a working camp with his old friend, Terry Trench, secretary of An Óige, the Irish association.

Dispelling enmity induced by politicians

They found a project in Donegal. Opposing sides in the fight to free Ireland had destroyed five coastguard houses on high cliffs at Bunnaton, overlooking Lough Swilly.

Jack intended the camp as an act of reconciliation. English participants would show regret for the past, tragic misunderstandings between Ireland and England that had led to the Irish war of independence.

Volunteers would sleep on straw mattresses, with blankets, and cook in a field kitchen. Anyone wanting to camp could bring their own tents as there would be space.

He took his car filled with essential tools but asked everyone to bring paint brushes and light carpentry tools if they could.

He called their party the Donegal Drones, promised that Irish ballads would beguile them and they would meet “the goodliest preacher and kindliest teacher in all Donegal”.

The volunteers cleaned out the cottages. They removed rotten joists and floor boards, re-laid concrete floors and renewed broken windows. They rehung doors, redecorated rooms, and built a terrace around the cottages. They knocked out the walls of one cottage to make a large common room with an adjoining kitchen.

100 volunteers came in relays of 25 at a time. Walter Wilkes, a builder from Welwyn Garden City, was there. Ruth Catchpool, Jack’s wife, took charge of the cooking. Frank, his son aged 13, declared that his father gave him the most unpleasant jobs, with drains and cesspits, to avoid any show of favouritism.

The camp lasted six weeks from August into September.

A group of young people from Jack’s old school, Sidcot the Quaker school in Somerset, was also there.

Jack took the organising role. He saw materials and tools were ready when needed. He drove to Londonderry or Letterkenny, to meet groups arriving or to take back those whose time had ended.

They held parties with local school teachers, farmers and fishermen, when everyone joined in nights of singing and dancing. 200 attended one.

The local community benefitted also, after volunteers built a dam, high in the hills, for a water supply and dug a trench half a mile long, through rocky ground, down the side of Knockalla mountain, across the valley of Glenvar and up through the village to the cliff-side cottages.

Coming through the village, they added a stand pipe, with a chrome plated tap, so the villagers had their own water supply. Until then they had carried their water or brought it in on the back of a donkey. On 8 September, work completed, they met for dancing and singing on the village green.

The oldest villager, an old lady in a green shawl, turned on the tap for a little ceremony and, though she spoke little English, “her joy was most moving when she felt and saw water splashing over her feet.” * A photo of that event is above, at the head of this article.

The music of our hands

Catchpool led other working parties. Groups went to France, Belgium and Denmark. They built a youth hostel in Norway, at Mjolfjell inland from Bergen, in 1939 and returned to complete the work, when the war ended. That youth hostel is still open today. Many parties went to Germany, the Netherlands and France after war ended.

Catchpool summed up the mood of the work. “We want to express, not by words alone, our great regret for all that happened… We want to work beside you; and ‘with the music of our hands’ as we labour together, with pick and shovel, with hammer and saw, you will know that we ask you to forgive and forget, and let us be friends”. *

After 1950, much of the initiative for reconciliation through work parties passed from youth hostel members to UNESCO and the IVS.

You can read the full story of Jack Catchpool’s life, and of the working parties he led, as he championed the role of youth hostels in building bridges of peace among nations around the world, in Youth Hostel Pioneer.

The image at the head of the article, taken by Catchpool, shows the oldest villager turning on the tap, and the second shows a group, from Sidcot school, digging the trench that brought water to the village and the hostels. Images in the collection of HI, Welwyn Garden City.

*Quotes from Candles in the Darkness, Jack Catchpool.

**From Youth Hostel Story, Oliver Coburn.

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