Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Inspirational Irish women abroad

On International Women’s Day, three Irish emigrant women share their stories with Catriona Doherty

Fri, Mar 8, 2013, 01:00


On International Women’s Day, three Irish emigrant women share their stories with Catriona Doherty

Catriona Doherty

ELAINE BANNON, founder of Light of Maasai, Kenya

“My greatest achievement is the children I have rescued and saved. I care for a number of girls, including a small baby who was dying of starvation and malnutrition when I found her; I named her Ciara (her Irish name) Sainapei (her Maasai name),” Elaine explains. Born in Dublin, she now lives with the Maasai tribe in the heart of the Kenyan bush.

“In 2002 I went on holiday to Kenya to celebrate my 40th birthday. At that time Ireland was at the height of the boom and I had a great job as manager of a successful lighting company in Dublin. After I returned from my holiday I began to look around at Ireland of that time and I felt dismayed by how our lives were going. I had just visited a place where a simple thing like water was a problem and yet in Ireland we had so much and seemed always to be looking for more. So I decided to return to Kenya for one year and I’ve been here since.

“During my holiday I had heard about a lady named Caroline who ran a free school and clinic in Mombasa. I arrived back in Kenya in April 2003 and I stayed at her school for nine months teaching and running a small clinic. I also built a permanent structure for the clinic and a small house for orphaned children.

“I became friendly with some Maasai people from the village of Rombo in southern Kenya. They requested that I move my project to Rombo, an area without non-governmental organisations and so I did.

“On my first visit to Rombo the people seemed to appear from everywhere and before I knew it I was surrounded by 30 or 40 ‘mamas’ singing to me and spitting on me; spitting is the traditional Maasai blessing. Everyone wanted to touch my hair, rub my arms, examine my eyes and check out my clothes.

“The men wore a piece of material tied at the shoulder and clasped at the waist by a belt containing a huge knife. They wore another piece of material slung over their shoulders. The women had shaved heads and wore red underskirts with blue and white overdresses and all had a piece of material over their shoulders. Every man, woman and child was adorned with row upon row of beaded necklaces, bracelets and earrings that hung from enormous holes in their ears.”

Elaine quickly adapted to her new life in Rombo despite having to cope with a shortage of electricity, water and basic infrastructure.

“I found it quite easy to settle here despite having to go and fetch water from a stream to shower, and having to deal with snakes and strange insects. I very much enjoy my life here although there are many challenges; there are very few roads and everyday groups of people approach me begging for food or money. But I have good friends and at the end of the year I can look back and know I made a difference to people’s lives.”

In 2009 Elaine was awarded the prestigious Order of the Grand Warrior of Kenya (OGW) presented by President Mwai Kibaki in recognition of her work.

“One of my proudest moments was being awarded the OGW but my greatest achievement is the children I have rescued and saved, including baby Ciara Sainapei who was dying of starvation when I found her and is now a healthy four-year-old. I have a number of girls in my care that I rescued from genital mutilation or early marriage, and I run many projects to do with education, health care, water and feeding programmes that have changed lives.

“My charity is called Light of Maasai and I’m always on the lookout for volunteers to help or raise money. The people gave me the Maasai name ‘Narikuinkerra’ or ‘Nariku,’ which means brought by children. I hope I can not only live up to this name by helping the children but also somehow shape a better future for the next generation of Massai kids. I have no plans to return to live in Ireland; my life is here in Rombo now and I have a number of children in my care who know only me as their Mammy.”

For more information see

EIMIR McSWIGGAN, Ireland’s first Ice Climbing World Cup competitor, Korea

Eimir McSwiggan at Towangseong Waterfalls

34-year-old Tyrone woman Eimir McSwiggan had plenty of work as an architect in Dublin until the economic downturn kicked in. Undeterred she moved to South Korea to teach English where she took up a rather unusual hobby.

“This year has been a very special year for me, as just last month I had the great honor of becoming Ireland’s first Ice Climbing World Cup competitor, taking part in the 2013 UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup here in Cheongsong, Korea,” she says.

“When I started climbing three years ago, I found it extremely difficult as I was fairly unfit. I was so lucky to join a Korean climbing group who pushed me way beyond what I thought possible. That determination and refusal to ever give up is one of the things I admire most about Korean culture.”

In addition to competing in the 2013 UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup, Eimir’s achievements also include climbing Towangseong Waterfalls.

“The frozen Towangseong Waterfalls are the tallest in Asia standing at 350m so it was a real highlight for me to scale them. After that I competed in the Ice Climbing World Cup and finished 25th out of 34 in the preliminary round, but considering the level of the competition, it wasn’t bad! It was an amazing experience to meet so many outstanding climbers from all over the world who have inspired me to train harder and climb more.

“When living so far away from home it’s vital to have an interest or hobby outside of work. The Irish community in Korea is ever increasing and I would like to share my experience and make people aware of the amazing opportunities that Korea presents. Climbing has completely changed my life in the most positive way and I can’t imagine life without it now.”

REBEKAH SMYTH, associate producer of The National news programme on CBC News, Canada

Rebekah Smyth in the CBS News control room

“On breaking news day I usually spend my time frantically chasing people all over the world for interviews for stories like the tsunami in Japan, the Sandy Hook shootings or the Pope’s resignation. I play a central role in bringing a live news programme together on a story that the whole country is following,” 27-year-old Rebekah Smyth explains. Originally from Galway, she resigned from her job as researcher with TV3 to discover what Canada had to offer.

“Travel was always something I had planned on doing and I didn’t want to wait any longer at the risk of getting more settled and not leaving! Things were sloping downhill in the Irish economy and Canada seemed to be the buzzword,” she says.

Rebekah arrived in Toronto with a friend in August 2010 and began the job search.

“I had made minimal effort on the job front before moving over. I didn’t have any contacts or any notion as to what were the best media outlets to apply to. Initially I did volunteer work with a cable TV network. I worked for a live show called Daytime Toronto doing all kinds of crazy production stuff. Luckily I managed to get paid work after a few weeks.

“I got my big break into the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in October 2010 as an editorial assistant with CBC News – The National (Canada’s flagship nightly news programme). It’s a big show with a big anchor and a big budget. I worked my way up to become associate producer, which involves anything and everything you could imagine to bring together a one-hour news programme sevendays a week. I’ve never worked as hard as I have in the last two years but it’s worth it, I love my job!”

Rebekah believes that emigrating plays a big part in her success as it has made her less inhibited.

“Living in a big city on the other side of the world there’s a real ‘Sure no one knows me anyway’ attitude and personally I think that’s why things have gone so well for me.

“You take chances you wouldn’t otherwise take and you relax more because you know you probably won’t meet the same person twice. A lot of Irish people over here have told me the same thing. You begin to think that anything is possible because it is really, especially for Irish people. The accent has definitely served me well over here!”