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‘I’ve seen her on the news a lot’: Teenage girls on Mary Lou McDonald, Holly Cairns and women who inspire them

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, we asked students from St Louis High School in Rathmines, Co Dublin, to discuss the women who inspire them

Every generation has their own set of heroes. In advance of International Women’s Day, we asked 11 teenagers, aged between 15-18, at St Louis High School, Rathmines, Dublin 6, to discuss their role models and female inspirations in their lives.

Our participants were: Keelan Palmer, 15; Sahasra Paruchuri, 15; Anastasia Barsukovska, 15; Beth McCarthy, 16; Althea Sutton, 16; Lucie Walsh, 16; Phedra Kingston, 17; Melanie Abbey, 17; Mia Kostić, 17; Isabel Maharg Bravo, 17; and Áine O’Malley, 18.

We broke the conversation down into three parts: role models from public life across popular culture and society; women roles models in contemporary Irish political life; and role models on social media.

We’d like to thank St Louis High School for facilitating this conversation, especially the principal Clíona McDonough, and most of all the pupils, who offered incredibly thoughtful responses throughout.


This conversation was edited for brevity.

1. Role models from public life

Lucie: The defining person for me is Mary Robinson. She spearheaded immense social change when the country was in transition from the more conservative era of 1970s, pre-EU. At that time, Ireland was still seen as a small, secluded country on the outskirts of the European Union. She turned the tide in terms of international recognition for the country. Her leadership was incredible. I watch interviews with her sometimes. Her views will stand the test of time. She’s not afraid to speak her views clearly, yet not controversially, and I feel that’s a really fine balance to strike, especially in the world of politics.

Melanie: I’ve recently been inspired by Patti Smith. I think she’s a legend. Her whole aura is so authentic. Her music is brilliant, but she also used her performances as a way to get across her opinions on a lot of topics, like talking about civil rights. She never gave in to the press saying that she had to look a certain way. She opened up a voice for artists to stick to their guns and be their authentic selves.

Phedra: Judith Heumann. She was a disability rights activist in the US, and participated in the 504 Sit-in, which got the motion passed that you couldn’t discriminate against people based on disabilities. It’s hard to imagine that the world we live in now has progressed so much in terms of disability rights. She’s a strong example of the power of members of the public seeing a problem and doing something about it.

Keelan: I’m really inspired by the writer Audre Lorde. As someone who wants to be a writer, I really look up to her. She used her voice to try and make a change. She was obviously a massive advocate for the civil rights movement and LGBTQ+ rights. She portrays emotion really well, and her writing is so easy to understand.

Beth: I feel like I have to say Greta Gerwig. She’s an incredible director in a field dominated by men. Barbie is such a good movie. It reached such a wide audience and delivers a really important message. It’s inspiring she was able to do that in such a fun way.

Áine: Sinéad O’Connor is someone who was totally authentic in her life. When I look back on her life or listen to her music, I hear such a distinct and unapologetic voice. It was just really uncorrupted by any concern for someone else’s ideas or opinions. Just seeing someone with that confidence and self-assuredness, as a young person coming into your own, you feel like, ‘if they can do it, so can I.’ To see a woman who breaks convention, and did things in her way, without any fear, is very encouraging.

Sahasra: Someone I’ve been thinking about a lot is Jane Austen. I really like the way she portrays women. They have opinions, they speak their mind, they’re strong-minded. But even though they are [this way], they still fall in love, they have families, they have hopes and dreams. I love the way that even if you are feminine, or you’re more emotional, you can have opinions, you can speak your mind, and people around you have to listen.

Isabel: A role model for me is Vicky Phelan. Our politics class got to see her documentary last year. Coming back to that point of the civilian voice and the power it can hold, honestly, I feel all Irish women have her strength to thank. In such a difficult period of her life, she fought for justice.

Althea: When I was really young, my aunt had all these old DVDs and would show me Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day movies, insisting I had to be cultured. I really enjoyed Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady, which is my favourite. As I got older, I researched old Hollywood actresses: I thought it was really inspirational how they overcame things in their lives, especially in the fifties and sixties when sexism was more prominent. Hedy Lamarr created the [technology] that would go on to become bluetooth and wifi, which is something we use every day. She’s been a big part of history but not many people know that about her.

Mia: I find Catherine Tate an inspiring role model. The way she captures her audience, her comedic timing, her acting skills, and how she got so big in an industry that has so much competition.

Anastasia: I’m really inspired by Malala [Yousafzai]. I think her determination and all that she has done is amazing. She was just 15, my age, when she was shot, just for making things better for girls her age. Despite all that she’s been through, she keeps going and keeps speaking her truth. Right now she’s helping in the efforts to get a ceasefire in Gaza.

2. Role models in Irish politics

Moving on to role models from contemporary Irish political life, we focused on a number of high-profile women politicians. These included three women party leaders (Ivana Bacik of Labour, Holly Cairns of Social Democrats, and Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin); Minister for Education and Fianna Fáil TD Norma Foley; and two Fine Gael ministers, Helen McEntee and Heather Humphreys. Bear in mind, the location of the school is in the Dublin Bay South constituency, and Bacik maintains a high profile in the constituency.

First, we tested the recognition factor of these politicians by presenting the group with photographs. Then, we asked for their opinions on each politician.

When we held up a photograph of Bacik, the majority of the group knew who she was, and mentioned the presence of her image on posters in the constituency as part of the reason they recognised her, but they also demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of her career.

Beth: I think she’s brilliant. I know that she’s campaigned for abortion rights, and she paved the way for the Repeal the 8th [referendum]. I know that she’s an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights as well and women’s rights. I think she’s definitely a great voice for everyone.

Next, we held up a photograph of Norma Foley. The group announced her name in unison. Foley had the highest recognition factor among the group. This, they said, was due to their engagement with her announcements during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in relation to the Junior Cert exams.

Áine: We probably have a unique impression of her. We sort of had a parasocial relationship with her via RTÉ News [during the pandemic]: ‘What’s she gonna say now?!’ We are a particularly political generation, not necessarily because we chose to be, but because we had to be. When you see her, it just reminds you of a particular time in your life. People probably have varying opinions on the handling of the situation, but seeing a woman make those decisions was a slight ... not reassurance, but you gain a sense that she’s decisive, in power, and making the call.

Keelan: Whenever there was an announcement from the Taoiseach, the whole family would sit on the couch and watch that fella, Leo Varadkar. It’s kind of like you know these people.

Melanie: I kind of admire her. Being Minister for Education, it’s not easy. Now, being a minister for anything is not necessarily easy, but it’s a unique enough position because it’s very based around young people. So I think she has to be admired for giving us a voice, in a sense. She makes decisions for how we are going to be educated. It’s a hard enough position, and she should be given some credit for it.

Phedra: I’ve seen her speak. It was after a schools competition and, regardless of her policies, it was quite admirable how she managed to speak in a professional manner but also adjust it so it was accessible to people of quite a wide age bracket, and maintain a sense of warmth, which is a good skill for public speaking, and, especially for a minister for education, knowing your audience.

The group volunteered that the presence of politicians on social media increased their engagement with and recognition of those politicians.

Beth: During Covid, seeing politicians on TikTok, I kept thinking ‘this must be fake’, but then you click on to the account and it wasn’t. It was just funny, and it was relatable. It’s unexpected, but it’s interesting. It’s a good idea.

Next was a photo of Helen McEntee.

Melanie: Is that Helen?

Beth: Helen McEntee?

The group agreed that it was indeed McEntee. At least two of the group referred to a discussion in one of their classes about the controversy around her maternity leave as Minister.

Isabel: When you’re in the political system, you expect it to cater to all people, but it was just one of those things, obviously, when she went to take her maternity leave, it had never really occurred. It wasn’t a suitable system to accommodate that. That will hopefully change with more and more women in the political sphere.

Next, Heather Humphreys. None of the group recognised Humphreys, and had little awareness of who she was.

Next was Holly Cairns. There was broad recognition of Cairns within the group, and she was a politician they generally approved of.

Áine: She’s been doing brilliant things. Her coming to power in the Social Democrats, for politics as a whole in Ireland, it’s been a reinvigoration. Not only is she bringing a young voice and a female voice, but she’s also bringing an unapologetic voice. When she speaks in the Dáil, she’s confident and affirmed. In terms of the Irish political spectrum, the Social Democrats are something new. They’re catered slightly more towards the younger generation. When you see someone more tangible and closer to you in age and more in touch with things, you get a sense of [having] confidence in her and in her ability.

Isabel: She’s the only female TD in Cork, which is interesting. She has a very powerful voice in the Dáil. She’s one of those figures that, when she does come up, she’s bringing up interesting social issues. She’s a recognisable face when she comes up on the news, and what she has to say and her point of view is always interesting.

Finally, we presented a photograph of Mary Lou McDonald. While there was general recognition, it was not as instant or vocal as the response to Bacik, Foley or Cairns. The group did not express any opinion on Sinn Féin, but one or two were interested in the prospect of her potentially becoming the next taoiseach.

Isabel: That’s Mary Lou.

Keelan: Sinn Féin.

Melanie: I don’t really know much about her, but I’ve seen her on the news a lot.

3. Online role models

A lot of airtime is given to the negative impact of influencers and online figures on the lives of teenagers. However, the group articulated a nuanced awareness around the level of insincerity and inauthenticity in social media culture, and said they felt a change was under way in the use of phones and social media among their peers. They also expressed concern for how omnipresent screens were in the lives of young children.

Phedra: I think a lot of people are becoming more aware that there can be a stark difference between people’s presence online and their presence in real life. Maybe this is just me, but I’m always a bit hesitant of putting too much weight on role models who are – this is going to sound kind of bad – still alive, because, well, bad things can always happen. People let you down.

Sahasra: My parents always told me not to idolise people I see on TV, because the reality is I don’t know them.

Phedra: [Online influencers are] not viewed as seriously.

Althea: You could look up to a celebrity and want to be like them and look like them, and then you find out that maybe they edit their photos, or actually maybe they’re a terrible person.

Melanie: Amongst my friends, a lot of people are trying to actively take themselves away from social media. I’ve had Screen Time on for years now, and so have all of my friends. I’ve started reading more this year. If you’re not looking at Instagram every day, you have room in your head for things that you’re interested in. Your mind opens up. When I ask anyone my age ‘would you rather just have a little Nokia?’, nearly everyone says ‘yeah’. It’s just the fact that everyone else has it, that’s the reason that everyone keeps it. I think a lot of people are slowly moving on. They’re definitely starting to anyway.

Phedra: There are just so many things online that are blatantly untrue.

Keelan: I am influenced by people online, definitely. I don’t think it’s always necessarily a bad thing. As someone who has grown up on the internet – obviously everyone here has – you do find yourself influenced by people. There are people on YouTube and stuff, where it’s more of a comfort to watch it, rather than ‘I want to be like them’. You wouldn’t think ‘this is who I want to be’, unless you want to go into that industry.

Althea: I’m scared for children now. There are eight-year-olds on Instagram like, ‘this is my skincare routine.’ They’re growing up chronically online. These kids, Generation Alpha or whatever they’re calling it, they have phones from the get-go. They’ve got no one else to look up to but these people, because their parents are like, ‘go on your phone, do something else, don’t bother me.’ They’re reliant on these influencers who are just false, I guess. I think what Melanie said is good. Removing yourself from that world to discover yourself is good. Just be true to who you are, rather than becoming this Barbie doll of a person who has no authenticity, and is just a clone of whatever you see on Instagram.

Lucie: Sometimes role models can come from fiction as well. For instance, last year, I was doing my Junior Cert, and we studied Much Ado About Nothing. The central character in that, Beatrice, she’s an absolute inspiration to me. She’s so intelligent and witty in a way I look up to. With real life role models, it’s always difficult. You feel like you have to guard yourself a bit, like Phedra saying be sceptical until they’re dead.

Anastasia: People mentioned all the misinformation online, and that is true. But it goes the other way as well. I think the internet is a great way for people to use their platform to spread awareness about things that are happening around the world. The internet lets you see opinions and stories from all over the world. It gives people knowledge and awareness. For example, I think Bisan [Owda], the reporter in Gaza who posts content about what’s going on there right now, I think that’s so important.