The Omagh branch of the Irish National Foresters (INF) are still adhering to its traditional values of Unity, Nationality and Benevolence,’ 125 years since it was first formed in the town.
The organisation dates back to feudal times, when tenant farmers, living at the mercy of landlords who would evict people from their homes at whim.
Groups would gather to meet in secret (usually in a forest- hence the name) and soon took the form of the Ancient Order of Foresters, a benevolent society organised for the poor by the poor.
In 1877, the Irish National Foresters took the form in which it still exists today when it seceded from the Ancient Order of Foresters and soon became the largest friendly society in Ireland.
Branches were established all over the country with Omagh’s being formed 125 years ago in 1889.
Reflecting on the origins, chief ranger for the Bishop Kelly Omagh INF Branch, Ricky Dunne said, “The group was set up at a time when there was no national health or support services. A group of men got together and formed an association whereby everyone paid a subscription and if they ever fell on hard times the association would pay out a sickness benefit and offer much needed support. They also provided a death grant to do away with the paupers grave.
“People often ask why the association is called the ‘Foresters’? Well, originally the group was made illegal so they often met in secluded places like a forest. That is why we have branches and committee members have terms relating to trees and titles such as ranger.”
The Omagh Branch of the INF was formed 125 years ago and has proved to be of great service to the people of Omagh and District. It was probably one of the first community centres and has hosted numerous fundraising events over the years.
Almost every local charity and community group has availed of the free use of the branch hall over this time. It has also been a popular venue for the Tyrone Féis.
The Tyrone County Boxing Board and many other organisations host their meetings in the branch hall, also free of charge.
The basement of the INF hall was the birthplace of the Omagh Boys and Girls Club, founded by Fr Seamus Shields in the 1950s, and the Bishop Kelly Boxing Club was founded there in more recent times.
From the Ulster Herald archives Fr Shields was quoted saying, “The Irish National Foresters in the town deserve the highest thanks of both priests and people for their willingness at all times to do what they can to facilitate the parish in the holding of Catholic social functions and, indeed, it is true to say that this hall, though nominally the property of the INF, is in fact owned by the parish which was the benefit of it so often for functions.”
Throughout those years the introduction of the welfare state has reduced the need for benevolent services and the focus of the group has shifted to providing an outlet for social interaction and entertainment.
However, the organisation still provides much-needed financial assistance to charities and those who need it.
Standing on a site of at least a third of an acre and in a prime location in the heart of the town, the Foresters Hall and the branch members in Omagh have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds over the years for local charities.
Ricky said the group still abides by the motto and origins of the foresters over a century ago, with a huge emphasis on charitable support throughout the Omagh area.
The local chief ranger said, “2014 is a landmark year for the Omagh Branch of the Irish National foresters as it is our 125th anniversary. In that time the hall has been used by the members and the wider community for many different purposes. All styles of dancing, children’s Christmas parties. St Patrick’s Day celebrations, boxing shows, funeral lunches, Tyrone Féis, birthday parties, plays, quizzes, Christenings and in recent years we have hosted members weddings.
“Charitable events play a large part of our interaction with the local community resulting in much needed funds being raised for local and national charities. Our premises have been and remain freely available to local community groups.
“Over the years many great Brother and Sister members have passed through our ranks and it fills us with great pride today to be able to honour and continue what was started 125 years ago, while looking to the future and the next 125 years.”