Darragh Miller is the new Chairperson of An Óige. At 25, he is one of the youngest chairpersons of a youth organisation in Ireland. It was not something he anticipated. He grew up listening to his parents talking about hostelling in Ireland during the 60s and 70s. Back then hostels were the best way for young people to explore the countryside. Foreign travel was for those who were looking for work or with lots of money. His parents would trek from hostel to hostel through the Irish countryside. Hitch-hiking, walking and cycling were their means of transport. There was no such thing as phones that told you where you were.
Fast forward to Darragh’s generation. “Everything is under control now. We have global information at our fingertips. We can see what is happening in the far-flung corners of the globe. We are searching for the next hip place to visit. Asia, Papua New Guinea, Outer Mongolia. Travel has to be epic.
We are constantly connected but we always wonder what we are missing. A lot of the time we miss what is right in front of us. I grew up in Templeogue and I was lucky that my parents dragged me up into the Dublin and Wicklow Hills. Being outdoors was something that they taught me was as important as studying.”
Darragh finished school in 2008, when the recession was hitting hard. While his schoolfriends emigrated or went on to college, Darragh was unsure about which direction to take. He did not want to rush into college for the sake of it. He had an idea that starting at the bottom and working his way up was the best way to earn a career.
He got in touch with An Óige and asked them about a position. An Óige were feeling the recession too. They had an aging membership base. Travel into Ireland was in decline. The banks were putting them under pressure. They were looking for new volunteers though.
Darragh attended a meeting for young people about volunteering led by inspirational GAA manager, Jim Gavin. The organisation was founded on volunteerism but appeared to have lost its way somewhat. They were struggling to attract young Irish people.
This was just the opportunity that Darragh was looking for. He started to attend volunteer weekends. He met people who had been volunteering since before he was born. Slowly he began to meet other young people who were interested in hostelling. He handed out flyers to let people know about An Óige. One of the first initiatives he got involved in was the Adventure Forum. This was aimed at young people who wanted to use hostels for more adrenaline based activities than walking.They organised surf weekends, rock-climbing expeditions, scavenger hunts and even murder mystery weekends. It was a lot of fun and was a great way of making friends outside the pub.
“It was the social aspect of hostelling that really attracted me to it. Meeting people is what hostelling is all about. The first time I arrived in the Killarney Youth Hostel it was bucketing rain. I sat by the fire in the living room for the whole weekend but I wasn’t bored. I was the only Irish lad there.
As the weekend went on I ended up in conversation with a bunch of young hostellers from France and Germany. Once they found out that I was Irish they wanted to have the chats. They wanted to know what it was like growing up in Dublin (deadly), if I played GAA (badly) and what I thought about climate change (wake up people!). That is why young people travel to Ireland – to meet other young Irish people, but more often than not I was the only Irish young person in a hostel full of nationalities. It was weird.”
Hostelling allowed him to go further than before. This was something that all the older volunteers impressed on him. It opened up new experiences that he would otherwise not have come across. He got into long distance hiking. All he needed was a hostel at the end of his daily trek and someone to have a chat with before moving on and he was good.
He took off to explore France, Spain and Portugal. He did the Camino over the course of a few Summers. He volunteered along the way and stayed in a different place every night and met new people every day. “When I add it up, I have walked over 5000km so far. That is the same distance from here to New York!”
Ireland was where he wanted to explore most. “Ireland is tiny in comparison to most countries, but it is like every turn on a road or a trail offers a different experience. I think it is because of the weather. It is just so changeable.”
He explored the network of hostels in Ireland, from Donegal to Dun Chaoin, from island hostels to cities. He went on work parties to help maintain properties, armed with paint brushes and weedstrimmers. He brought Gaisce school groups on their treks.
He represented An Óige at gatherings of other national associations. He joined and headed committees who were looking for new ways of attracting young people to the outdoors. As he found his direction he decided to enroll in university. He is currently in his second year studying philosophy and sociology in UCD. Everywhere he went, he met new people and explored new ideas. In 2014 he was asked to join the Board of An Óige.
This year he convinced the board that the concept of membership needed an overhauling if the organisation was to stay relevant to young people. As a result, An Óige are planning on offering free membership to anyone who lives in Ireland so long as they stay at least one night in one of the 24 hostels in the network. This will come into effect in January 2016.
“Once people get over their prejudices about hostels they always return. All hostels have had to look at themselves or stay stuck in the 20th century. While we want to hold onto our volunteerism ethos, we also have to provide properties that are up to international standards and can pass review on sites like Trip Advisor.
So on the one hand, our most Northerly hostel is the volunteer run Trá na Rosann which was originally a hunting lodge and not far from there we have the ultra modern Errigal Youth Hostel. Both are award winning architectural buildings unlike anything else you will see in Ireland. Both follow the same standards that all our other hostels must follow. Safe, secure and affordable accommodation. Both of them are managed by experts who know the area like the back of their hands. At the end of the day, the only difference between them is the type of person that each attracts.”
When the previous Chairperson, Margaret Collins decided to step down to go travelling, Darragh threw his name in the race for the position and was elected.
“The experience of hostelling provided continuity for me at a time when most options were closed off for young people in Ireland” he explained. “I want to make hostelling more accessible. As one of Ireland’s oldest Youth Organisations with a primary aim of introducing young people to the Irish countryside, we can help implement the National Youth Strategy. If I can introduce young people to the adventure of volunteering while I am at it, I will be happy.”
We wish him well.
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