Subscriber OnlyPeople

‘If she can do it, I can do it’: 10 inspirational Irish women on their heroines

Ahead of International Women’s Day, 10 women tell us about the female leaders who paved their way

10 women on 10 women - main montage - 1

Behind every inspirational woman is a woman who inspires them: a person who taught them that they can become who they want to be, fight for what they need to fight for, or live the life they yearn to live. To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, we ask 10 inspirational women living in Ireland about the women in this country who inspire them. They have chosen women from across different industries and careers, who have all achieved incredible things – and who, whether they know it or not, have helped them become who they are today.

10 women on 10 women - Edna O'Brien
EDNA O’BRIEN by Rachael English

‘She enabled those who came after her to tell stories of Irish women’s lives’

I was 14 when I read Edna O’Brien’s novel The Country Girls. Until then, almost every Irish book I’d read had either been aimed at children or had focused on the concerns of men. For the first time I was reading about young Irish women and their desire to lead bigger, more colourful lives. That the book had once been banned added to its appeal. Something else was important too. To my teenage self, growing up in Shannon, it felt remarkable that a woman who had been born just a few miles away had written a book that was known around the world. A few years ago, I reread The Country Girls and was astonished at how brave it was. Edna O’Brien’s empathy and honesty shine through on every page. I’m also inspired by the way she has retained her curiosity and willingness to take risks. She has written about war criminals and abuse victims, dysfunctional families and obsessive love. At an age when many authors would be content to live on past glories, she travelled to Nigeria to research her most recent book, Girl. But more than anything, I’m grateful for the way she pushed open the door and enabled those who came after her to tell stories of Irish women’s lives.

  • Rachael English is author of Whatever Happened to Birdy Troy? and a presenter on Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1
10 women on 10 women - Lavinia Kerwick

‘Her bravery seeped into my world’

The Irish woman who has inspired me most is Lavinia Kerwick. We have never met, yet I owe her a great deal. In July 1992 I stood mesmerised listening to a caller to Gerry Ryan’s RTÉ radio show. The caller spoke of how her rapist’s case had been adjourned for 12 months, just the day before. The echo of her distress and rage filled my kitchen. When Ryan, expecting anonymity, asked what name he would call her, she spoke her own name: Lavinia. In that moment, Kerwick smashed through the taboo around sexual violence prevalent in 1990s Ireland and the shame of anyone knowing you were a victim. The longer I listened, the louder I heard, beyond her distress and rage, to her courage and bravery. Just a few months later I received a letter from Gary O’Toole, asking if I might have been a victim of Irish swim coach George Gibney, who was accused of sexual abuse. As I faltered, I remembered Lavinia. Without realising it, her bravery and courage had seeped into my world. I may have never met her, but I had heard her. She was wronged. She fought back. I would too. So have many more. Thank you, Lavinia.


‘Hannah told me to keep going’

Dr Hannagh McGinley really inspires me. I met her at the Irish Traveller Movement’s AGM and heard her life story; we became good friends. She does so much work for young Travellers in education. It’s tough for young Travellers today, but when Hannagh did it, it was even tougher. She showed me it’s okay to realise you can get burned out. When I was part of the Repeal movement and didn’t feel support, Hannagh would say: keep going, don’t let anyone stop you from using your voice.


Another inspiring woman is Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. She flew the flag for women in Ireland when it wasn’t sexy to do so. One of her quotes that really stands out to me is: “We were born into an unjust system; we are not prepared to grow old in it.” For me and for many Travellers, we grew up in that unequal society.

I became friends with Bernadette. I was nervous when I met her – but I knew she got me. We can’t forget about the women before us. Going for the Seanad, knowing Bernadette was so young and coming from her community to become an MP gave me strength to know that this was possible.

I feel like the Irish women’s movement isn’t as radical and we’re not as demanding as we were decades ago. Not everything needs to be like that, but we can learn from women like Hannagh and Bernadette. We need to lose the middle-class momentum in the women’s movement and go back to the roots of what women like Bernadette and Hannagh did. I’m really passionate about change for us all, rather than the few.

  • Eileen Flynn is an Independent Senator
10 women on 10 women - Samantha Mumba

‘Representation is everything: she broke the mould’

My hero growing up was Samantha Mumba. She’s the reason I pursued music. I saw her and I believed I could do what she did. Representation is everything and, growing up as a young black Irish woman, you go through an identity crisis. She broke the mould when it came to pop stars in Ireland. To see that she was doing it as a black Irish woman, not only here in Ireland but in the UK and in the US, had a huge impact on me. When I saw her it made me believe that I could achieve that one day. I’m still working towards a hell of a lot of stuff, but she has been super important in my growth as an artist. It’s full circle now. Fast-forward to 20 years later, I’m in her house having dinner with her in LA. She’s a really good friend, and she will forever be important to me.

  • Erica Cody is a singer and television presenter
10 women on 10 women - Katriona O’Sullivan

‘She is a courageous truth-teller’

The first time I heard Katriona O’Sullivan speak, she drew sustained applause from Gaisce Gold Medal Award recipients and an emotional response from President Michael D Higgins, who had the difficult act of following her purposeful speech and rallying-call to action. On that day in Áras an Uachtaráin, in the pages of her award-winning memoir, Poor, and through her innovative work with Stem Passport for Inclusion, Katriona has consistently called on us to consider how we use our privilege to effect change in the world around us, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In telling her own childhood story about addictions, abuse, neglect and homelessness, Katriona has reminded us of the importance of creating equal opportunities through education and the importance of caring adults (often teachers) to influence critical milestones and meaningful opportunities. Her story of persistence and resilience inspired a speech to the United Nations (UN) Commission for Social Development in New York last month [February] where she emphasised the importance of free, local and timely support for children and young people. She is a courageous truth-teller. She is a modern-day change agent. And in her own words, the lecturer, researcher, activist, mother, friend and intellect is now on a mission to “change the world”.

  • Áine Kerr is an entrepreneur, women’s advocate and broadcaster
10 women on 10 women - Katie Taylor
KATIE TAYLOR by Katriona O’Sullivan

‘She has changed female sport forever’

Yesterday I got an email from a 48-year-old woman who just got accepted for a degree course in an Irish university. She is a lone parent and comes from working-class roots – she never believed she could do it, until now. It is women like this who inspire me. Ordinary women who are working hard to live their best lives – despite facing struggles or hardship. If I had to choose one inspiring woman who is famous and Irish, it would have to be Katie Taylor. She is a trailblazer. She has changed female sport forever. She is a role model to young girls, not just because of her achievements, but because she is a kind and decent human being. She is a woman who lives by her values and I love that about her.

  • Katriona O’Sullivan is digital skills lecturer at Maynooth University and author of the award-winning book Poor
10 women on 10 women - Mary Robinson
MARY ROBINSON by Phillipa Ryder

‘She serves as an example to us all’

Ireland changed for the better in 1990 with the election of Mary Robinson as the first female president of Ireland. She brought a new vision and a more inclusive and diverse idea of what Ireland could be as a modern European country. Her passion for the human rights of all was evident in her being the first world leader to make visits to Rwanda and Somalia following civil wars, genocide and famine.

She continued this work when she became UN high commissioner for human rights, then a member of The Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela and where she is now chairwoman. She continues to work for gender equality and for women’s participation in peace-building, human dignity and climate change.

She inspired me to become involved with the campaigns around improving rights for the LGBTQ community in the late 1990s, initially for transgender rights, then the referendums on marriage equality and Repeal the Eighth, feminist issues and more recently to work on the most urgent crisis facing our planet, climate change. Robinson’s qualities of compassion, inclusion, acceptance of diversity and concern for the planet serve as an example to us all as to how to live a better life.

  • Phillipa Ryder is an LGBTQ+ and feminist activist and author of My Name is Philippa
10 women on 10 women - Sonia Sullivan
SONIA O’SULLIVAN by Olivia O’Toole

‘I thought, if she can do it, I can do it’

It was the 1990s. I was at home. Sonia O’Sullivan was on the television and I was in awe of her. I followed her from the Olympics on. Every race she ran, I was running with her. I’d be screaming at the television, making sure that she got the support. It was about the sense of pride that she gave me as well. A girl from Ireland having the passion to go it alone and go to the Olympics. It was unbelievable. She was an inspiration. I was around 24 or 25, and I was playing international football at that age. I was playing for Ireland and, for me to be in that league of football at that time, I thought: if she can do it, I can do it. She has contributed so much to Ireland’s athletics. Rhasidat Adeleke, Sarah Healy, Sarah Lavin: all those girls got their inspiration from Sonia and that is what her legacy is about. Athletics in Ireland is thriving. Years ago, they hadn’t the facilities. When I would see her on the podium, I got goosebumps. She inspired me as a footballer to be the best that I could be.

  • Olivia O’Toole is a former footballer, who played for Ireland for 18 years and is the top goal scorer of all time in Ireland’s women’s league
10 women on 10 women - Niamh Ní Chonchubhair

‘She gave me the tools to remove the limitations I put on myself’

Niamh Ní Chonchubhair immediately pops into my head when I think of brilliant woman. Many will recognise her as the powerhouse at the helm of Axis: Ballymun, known as a community centre with an arts centre at its heart. This definition also sums up Niamh – an ally to many unheard voices, with theatre as her passion. I wouldn’t be the artist I am today without her support. She has enriched my artistic development over the years by giving me the tools to expand and deepen my skill set while gradually removing the limitations that I had put on myself. What makes Niamh a great person to have in your corner is her willingness to listen. No question is too small, regardless if you are a theatre-maker or a Ballymun teenager. She also has the ability to create an inclusive space where a collaborative sense of creation is key. It’s this kind of environment where strong connections are made that hidden voices have the ability to be brought to the forefront. An example of this is In My Own Words, a cross-Border writing project between axis Ballymun and Prime Cut Productions that brought together stories from women on the margins. I will be performing these pieces as part of the upcoming Disrupt Disability Arts Festival. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what makes Niamh a legend. Go raibh maith agat Niamh as chuile rud a dhéanann tú dom!

  • Mairéad Folan is artistic director of NoRopes Theatre Company. She will perform at the Disrupt Disability Arts Festival on March 8th:
10 women on 10 women - BREEGE O’DONOGHUE
BREEGE O’DONOGHUE by Aimee Connolly

‘She has a sharpness that is unique’

I had the pleasure of being on a round-table with Breege – the award-winning business woman who helped Penneys grow into the global Primark brand – as part of Going for Growth, which supports female entrepreneurs growing their careers. She is an amazing businesswoman with a more-than-impressive CV, who really showed me the importance of a brand. She has a sharpness that is unique in the detail she sees, and she really has done such brilliant things within the Primark expansion, with women in business and in her championing of new indie brands. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with her and she’s someone I’ll always thank for the advice garnered.

  • Aimee Connolly is an entrepreneur and founder of the Sculpted By Aimee make-up brand