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11 Inspirational Irish Women Who #ChoosetoChallenge

"We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women's achievements. "

For the day that's in it, here's a reminder of just what Irish women are capable of!

This year’s International Women’s Day is unlike any other. After almost a year of pandemic life, women around the world are feeling stretched to their limits. Many have had to be parents, partners, professionals, home-schoolers and live-in chefs - all while shouldering the emotional load of existing through a global health crisis. 

The theme of International Women's Day '21 is Choose To Challange. And so, in honour of that theme and in an attempt to raise spirits and remind us just what women are capable of, we've asked some of Ireland's most influential women to reflect on the experiences of the past year.

Across fields such as music, design, STEM, business, politics and more, below are all the ways these inspirational Irish women #ChooseToChallenge the status quo, to ensure the world becomes a more aware and equal place for us all. 

Vanessa and Lisa Creavan founded Spotlight Oral Care in 2016 and what started with the Creavans wanting better and cheaper whitening solutions for their dental patients in the West of Ireland has exploded onto the international market. The sisters are now managing multi-million euro investments while creating a new understanding of the need for toxin-free and sustainable oral care.

“People need to be thinking about oral care the same way they think about skincare; clean, based on science and bio-compatible,” Vanessa says. Despite the pandemic, they signed a deal this year with CVS, Ultra Beauty and Target to bring their products to thousands of stores across the United States. “Irish people tend to underrate themselves, something that doesn’t do
us any favours in the US. It doesn’t serve us to be modest,” Vanessa says. “You have to think, why wouldn’t you be the person to do it? It is never about being the smartest person in the room, but about having the grit and resilience on a daily basis.”

This year has been a “perfect storm” for the magnetic Denise Chaila. Audiences have demanded more airtime be given to female artists whose voices have long been unheard and the Black Lives Matters movement helped ensure Chaila appeared on Irish TV. Eloquent and unapologetic, Chaila is empowering those who “have never felt empowered for anything in their lives” through her music and her work.

While it was an appearance on The Late Late Show that announced her “national treasure” status, it was her performance in the National Gallery of Ireland earlier this year that was for her, her “beautiful arrival”. “Maybe twenty years ago people wouldn’t have wanted to see black people performing there, sharing our culture,” Chaila says. “We’ve all suffered and had different stories and it has been a series of heartbreaking events trying to get our voice heard.”

In Chaila's song Anseo she refers to herself as a “black James Bond”, inverting stereotypes and laying claim to any cultural, political and social power that has ever been denied to her for the benefit of another. “I honestly believe there is nothing I can’t
do,” she says.

Ireland’s first supermodel and award-winning actress Caitríona Balfe stepped into a new political space this year and has been committed to forging unity online. Balfe started a book club, each month selecting authors of different nationalities, writing about diverse cultures and periods of time. “I think something you get from reading other people’s points of view is empathy and a real sense of our similarities and our differences,” Balfe says. “For most of my life all I witnessed was  the taking down of borders and the unification of people and it seems we have come to a point in the world that politics is going in reverse.”

Alongside wide acclaim for her exploration of female agency and sexuality in the drama-series Outlander, Balfe continually uses her platform to draw attention to social injustice. “I feel we all have a responsibility to see what is going on in the world and if you see things that can be fixed or done better we should all try to hold the people we’ve elected accountable to do that,” she says.

As a woman working in the technology sector in Ireland, Evelyn Nomayo encountered prejudicial experiences. Rather than accept or ignore the bias, Nomayo, a Nigerian-Irish full-stack web developer, set about changing it. She founded Phase Innovate, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to bridging the gender and race gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields in Ireland. Nomayo mentored six teams of girls to enter Technovation Girls, a global technology entrepreneurship competition. A highlight for Nomayo this year was one of the teams, made up of three Nigerian-Irish teenage girls, winning the senior category prize and also the popular vote globally, for their app aimed at helping people living with dementia.

Another standout moment for Nomayo this year was founding BAMETech Coders. “It’s an initiative to train and mentor women from the underrepresented communities in Ireland,” Nomayo says, whose work and passion is changing the technology sector in Ireland.

A graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Róisín Pierce made international waves last year as the first Irish designer to win the inaugural Chanel Métiers d’Art Prize at the prestigious Hyères Festival of Fashion and Photography in France. Pierce’s beautiful designs are encoded with generations of pain and the oppression of Irish women who were incarcerated in Magdalene laundries. “I was fuelled by my anger and disgust, and I wanted it to be a really good collection to get at a subject that was so dark, that many people don’t know about,” Pierce says.

This year, Pierce returned to the Hyères festival with her Bláthanna Fiáin, or Wildflowers, collection, which again honours the uncredited skill of the women who were incarcerated in Magdalene laundries and whose free labour produced exquisite lace bridal gowns that were shipped abroad and sold in stores like Harrods. Pierce’s success has worked to inform international audiences of Ireland’s past.“Outside of Ireland people aren’t really aware of what happened,” she says. “It’s a subject that has been hushed up.” For Pierce, the shame that was cast upon women remains alive today, infusing her work with poignancy.

“When all around us has come undone, our dreams on hold and our songs unsung, we can’t go back to what we knew, but I stand for hope when I stand with you.” As lockdown hit, Eímear Noone penned these words for an animation film she was scoring. They are characteristic of the superstar composer’s ability to evoke emotion from her pen or the tip of her baton. Noone is known globally for composing the scores for the most successful video games in the world but this year she became the first woman to conduct the orchestra at the 2020 Academy Awards. In a characteristic display of solidarity, Noone wore an Irish designer, Claire Garvey, for the occasion. “Why have one Irish woman on stage, when you can have two?” she says. The moment reverberated around the world. “I thought to myself, I am not going to go out there and be apologetic, I am going to go out there and be in full possession of the moment because that is what Irish girls need to see, someone who is owning the moment.”

Sarah McInerney has worked in journalism since 2003, but this was the year she went from a household name to an essential daily listen. Her skill as an interviewer, when she took over a three month stint on RTÉ Radio One's Today show, became the antidote to political spin at a time when the nation sorely needed it. McInerney's show frequently set the news agenda for the day and week ahead, earning her a permanent slot as the co-host of Drivetime.

One of the most respected broadcasters in the country, McInerney cares passionately about women’s issues, voices and stories and fights hard for their prominence. “I can’t get over the number of women who contact me who tell me the difference it makes to them to have a younger female talking to them from the radio, it seems to make things more relevant to them than when it is an older man,” McInerney says.

It was a “rush of blood to the head” that sent Mairead McGuinness, the EU Commissioner, into politics. A highly regarded journalist, McGuinness built her career in media for twenty four years, before deciding she wanted a new challenge. “If I had thought about it more deeply, I may not have made that jump. But if you have even an inkling that politics might be for
you, it’s better to explore it rather than push it aside.”

McGuinness’s appointment this year as EU Commissioner for Financial Services, Financial Stability and Capital Markets came during a reshuffle following Phil Hogan’s resignation in the wake of the “Golfgate” controversy. McGuinness is invested in bringing women to every layer of commerce and politics. “When I was 17, I thought that gender parity would come in time; I am much wiser [now] to the reality that change comes very slowly and if we don’t acknowledge the issue and take proactive measures to change it, then it stays the same.”

The title of Naoise Dolan’s first novel Exciting Times seemed to mock our contemporaneous climate as the week it came out in Ireland, the country was locked down and while the times may have been unprecedented, they seemed far from exciting. Irrespective of the timing and almost despite it, Dolan’s novel became an international bestseller and set Whatsapp groups alight, as friends passed it between each other, desperate for another soul to read it.

“It is a very human thing how we interact with books, because what they give us is a temporary moment of empathy and a feeling of being heard without having to do the same in return,” Dolan says. The author has also written and spoken candidly about Autism Spectrum Disorder; she was diagnosed several years ago, effectively increasing the understanding of ASD as an “identity”, as Dolan describes it.

Eileen Flynn made history this year, becoming the first Traveller to serve as a senator. “When Taoiseach Micheál Martin called to tell me, it was a shock to the system,” Flynn recalls. “My biggest focus was getting that seat and having someone who is a very visible member of the Traveller community in the Seanad.” Flynn has been outspoken on the issues that affect her community and is fighting for inclusion at every level.

“My sisters would even say to me, ‘A Traveller will never be anything,’ and that comes from never seeing Travellers having their identity and being able to work in visible places, and that is embedded in our community. “Breaking down the barrier in my community, and outside it, is what has kept me going,” Flynn says. She is now focusing on getting hate crime legislation enacted, and working with the government to combat discrimination against Travellers.

Jessie Buckley has had a stellar year and has cemented her place as one the film industry’s most in-demand stars. Nominated for a BAFTA for her role in Wild Rose, she went on to win widespread respect for her turn in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. It's a far cry from Buckley's first appearance on our screens in 2008, where she came second in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s reality TV show I’d Do Anything; Lloyd Webber's search for Nancy in a West End production of Oliver.

This year Buckley has starred in Charlie Kaufman’s dark comedy horror I’m Thinking of Ending Things, has filmed for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter, and announced she will be in a new rendition of the Shakespearean classic Romeo and Juliet. All in addition to gaining a cult status playing killer nurse Oraetta Mayflower in the fourth season of Fargo.

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara became the first Irish people to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award, this year. Since they founded Grafton Architects and began working together in 1978, the duo have championed great architecture as a public right. “What is marvellous about architecture is that you are always imagining a new future and to do that you have to be optimistic,” McNamara says. The urgency of the climate crisis is something Farrell and McNamara are constantly engaged in and address through their work, consciously viewing the “earth as a client”. “The built world is the new environment, and so people need to demand the best quality public architecture,” Farrell says. “Now, more than ever we can see the impact that buildings have on people’s health and well-being.”

Interviews and words written by Rosanna Cooney, as part of Irish Tatler's Women of the Year Awards coverage, earlier this year.