An in-tents experience
Picture the scene. A full moon is creeping from behind scattered clouds overlooking a group of smiling youngsters perched in a forest below.
Surrounded by tents, the gang finish their sausages and beans and gather around a fire they've assembled for a cheery sing-along. They sound like a lovely bunch, but they certainly aren't modern-day scouts.
This year marks the centenary of Scouting in Ireland and to celebrate, Scouting Ireland is making history by holding the biggest jamboree camp ever seen on these shores. Ten thousand Irish Scouts, alongside 2,500 of their international counterparts, descended upon Punchestown last weekend for Jamboree 2008; a unique 10-day camping experience. The site has been transformed into one big "tented city", complete with a giant supermarket, showering facilities, internet cafes and a medical centre.
Those in attendance are taking part in activities both on and off site, ranging from the adventurous (kayaking, hot air ballooning, climbing) to the bizarre ("assassin", "spacewalking" -- I'll explain later). There will also be concerts and a "Jamboree's Got Talent" contest, which will take place on a festival-size stage, while some scouts will also get the chance to flex their journalism muscles. Oh, and the Camp Chief arrived by helicopter on the opening night. Now, methinks that stomps all over the "singing around a campfire" cliche.
It appears that scouting in Ireland has become more popular than ever in recent years. Since Scouting Ireland CSI and SAI merged together to form a single association in 2004, membership has grown by 10pc. Jamboree 2008 follows in the footsteps of last year's World Jamboree, which took place in London.
Three years in the making, the event is the result of endless hours, days and months of planning and hard preparation. When I caught up with Camp Chief, Christy McCann, a couple of weeks ago he could hardly believe that it was all about to kick off.
"It's been a rollercoaster in many ways," he said. "It's like a 10,000 piece jigsaw. You spend so much time working on each individual piece and it all looks fantastic. Then you start putting it together to form the jamboree picture and you realise that some of the edges are a bit sharper than they should be and some of the pieces don't fit, but that's what our job is; to try to integrate all the pieces together so that they don't work in isolation but as one big unit. And I think we've achieved it."
"This is the biggest jamboree that has ever taken place in Ireland," says media/PR Team Leader Jimmy Cunningham. "We always thought we'd make it but it has been a long road to get this far. We're professional about what we do, even though we're volunteers, and I think we have a great programme for the young people."
"There's a lot more adventure in Scouting than there used to be," said Jimmy, before telling me about just some of the activities that will be taking place during the jamboree. "We've what's called the 'elements' programme; every day we have activities involving one of the earth elements. On the 'fire' day, there's probably about 150 different activities to do with fire that the kids can take part in and then that culminates in the evening time with a big fire display with dragons and fireworks," he explained.
Traditional activities such as climbing walls and kayaking on Blessington Lake can also be enjoyed and there is something to suit everybody's interests.
The camp is broken into nine different sub-camps. "Hellfire" Sub-Camp Chief Darragh O'Briain told me about their plans for the jamboree: "What are we running? 'Assassin', which is a game where people knock each other out with socks full of flour," he laughs. "You sign up for it and get a secret identity. Let's say I go in and sign up and they say you've to get Chris Wasser, but they don't say it's Chris Wasser; you're. . . whatever. I'm going to go looking for you and when I find you I hit you with a sock full of flour! You'll also be looking for someone else so I take your target, and then I go after them," he explains.
Other activities include 'Capture the Flag'; building rockets from recycled building materials and plastic bottles; and the aforementioned 'Jamboree's Got Talent' contest.
Oh, and of course, 'Spacewalk', which involves thousands of balloons and people chasing each other around. I'm starting to wish I was there.
"There will be tons of madness," continues Darragh, who's also aware that there's a more formal side to all of the fun and games. "The serious side is meeting the troop leaders, making sure the place is kept in order and following the safety precautions, and there is also making sure everyone has a good time."
Of course, one aspect of the jamboree that fascinated this writer is the media section, where budding journalists are given the chance to produce and present shows for the official on-site radio station as well as Jam TV.
"Yeah, we had no problem getting volun-teers to take part in that programme," laughed Jimmy, who is heavily involved with the media activities.
"Each day at 12pm, young scouts come in to a training centre where they're shown how to use cameras and how to edit a piece," he said, explaining how Jam TV is operated.
"Then they choose a location, do a few interviews, come back in the evening and edit it down. We put together a 25-minute piece every evening that is played out on the big screens at the stage. It's called Jam TV News. It's great training for kids who want to get into the media."
One Scouting group that celebrated their own milestone birthday this year is out in full force at Jamboree 2008. It's 80 years since Donnybrook Scouts was set up and Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey, who is also President of the Donnybrook Scout Group, had his tent ready when I spoke to him recently. "I think scouting is the most modern youth movement in the world," he said.
"If you look at the things that are important now in education -- young people working in small groups and deciding for themselves, concerns for the environment, internationalism -- scouting was doing all of that 100 years ago.
"The challenge for scouting is for us to update our methods to keep in tune with society. But our values remain progressive and important," said Dermot, who believes he's learned more from scouting than anything else he's done in his life.
"Donnybrook Scouts is in great shape. We have about 200 kids and about 50 leaders and we've a great spirit in the group".
On a personal note, this writer's girlfriend just happens to be a leader with Donnybrook Scouts, so I've been able to see for myself the hard work and dedication she and her fellow leaders pour into their voluntary position.
The leaders I've spoken to genuinely love being part of Scouting Ireland. As the old saying goes, "Once a scout, always a scout", eh? "Well, I couldn't imagine leaving it," said Dermot.
"I remember when I was 13 or 14 and going to my first jamboree and thinking, 'Wow, this is Disneyland to me'," added Christy.
"All of the opportunities that I got, whether travelling, meeting fantastic people, getting involved in things like jamborees, it was all because of Scouting," he continued, before expressing his sheer delight at having had the chance to arrive at the camp in a helicopter.
Indeed, it appears that Jamboree 2008 is going to be as enjoyable for adults as it will be for all of the kids involved.
"Forget about the kids for a second," concluded Dermot. "Scouting can be great for adults, as well.
"If you are looking for a fulfilling, enjoyable, friendship-filled way of spending your spare time, I don't believe that you could beat Scouting with anything."