From TG4 soap star to human rights activist

Lisa O’Leary went from Ros na Rún to campaigning against female genital mutilation

Working Abroad Q&A: Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, Lisa O'Leary, from Cork city, tells us how she went from playing Molly Stapleton on Tg4's Ros na Rún to working in human rights communications in Brussels.

When did you leave Ireland, and what were your reasons for leaving?

I left Ireland for Brussels in August 2012. I had just wrapped my fourth year working as an actor for Tg4's Ros na Rún and had an itch for adventure prompted by my growing interest in human rights communications.

Why Brussels?

Brussels is very international and I like that. You get a small insight into what it is like when people from all over the world learn to co-exist with one another. There are ups and downs, but we overall we manage.

What do you do there?

I run communications for End FGM-EU, a human rights network NGO that works towards sustainable European action to end female genital mutilation. We operate as an umbrella network for 19 other members across Europe.


Is FGM an issue you feel passionate about? 

I see FGM and gender-based violence as a root cause for a lot of today's global issues. When a girl undergoes FGM she becomes part of system that discriminates against women and girls simply because of their gender by controlling their bodies. This restricts women and girls from accessing the most basic human rights and as a result, there are over 200 million women and girls worldwide living with the life long consequences of FGM, and over 130 million girls from around the world missing from our classrooms. We can't possibly believe that equality exists anywhere when so many girls are denied an education! I think by getting girls back into the classroom and giving them a chance at having their own independance we can revolutionise global society for the better.

What does the organisation you work for do to campaign on the issue? 

End FGM EU creates an enabling environment for action by European decision-makers to end FGM and other forms of violence against women and girls. The network facilitates the synergy of diverse organisations and the active participation of rights holders and affected communities and provides a space where member organisations can share their experience and diverse skills. A good example is the work we do with grassroots organisations whereby survivors and community representatives can present their issues, challengers and developments to EU decision makers in parliament and call for change and further support and action to be taken in ending FGM.

Art and creativity are an integral form of communication to the conversations that are difficult to have, especially for a subject like  FGM. Last year we ran a photo exhibition calling on artists and photographers to submit their work that they believe centres around themes relating to FGM and our campaign on "building bridges to end FGM". The exhibition was launched in a few different European countries inviting communities to attend the openings and share in the dialogues. This year we will launch our first multimedia campaign on February 6th - the UN International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. The campaign addresses how: "FGM is #MyIssueToo" and is inviting the public to participate.

What study/career path did you follow?

I studied Irish language communications at NUI Galway for four years and after that followed a creative career as an actor in television and theatre. When I moved to Brussels, I did an online post-graduate course in international human rights law, with the University of London, and I am currently finishing a short online course in EU law with HEC Paris .

What does your working day look like?

The moment I get into the office I’m looking at the projects on the go that require the support of communications, from creating, designing, writing, producing, editing and filming content. It’s always urgent, so I’m always doing at least three things at once. In the afternoon there are meetings, with MEPs, ambassadors, network members, plenaries ... it’s fairly hectic. I usually stay late as I like to get out at lunch time and spend some time outside, switching off for an hour.

What are the challenges you face in your work?

Language interpretation can be a daily challenge although as a communications professional, it is also a point of fascination. It is as though the entire EU is doing an ongoing module in linguistic-anthropology, and just when we think we’ve figured it out someone throws a spanner in the works and we start all over again.

It has taught me to rethink how I speak English to those who are not first language speakers. I could never say “Sure look, it’ll be grand” to anyone, for example, it makes no sense. I have to say “Do not worry. This is not a big issue, we can handle it.” It has really made me see how much Irish-English is just a direct translation of Gaeilge.

Do you think working abroad has offered you greater opportunities?

Absolutely. There is a lot of opportunity in Brussels for those who are up for it. I wouldn’t have had these opportunities in Ireland. The demand for communication mediation is so much higher here, given the international culture of the EU.

Moving away also forced me out of my comfort zone in Ireland, which I think is integral for life-learning. It’s hard to gain perspective if you’re always looking at life through the same lens.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career abroad?

To do it. There is no such thing as a bad experience – just new life-lessons.

It’s always good to join an interest group when you move abroad too, at the risk of mixing business with pleasure. Take a class, learn a new language, take up a new sport. Get out there and meet people from other cultures.

Where do your interests lie outside of work?

I write and direct for the Irish Theatre Group of Brussels. There is a very active, multi-cultural theatre scene in Belgium, overflowing with talent. The ITG, which has been running for more than 20 years now, has been a home away from home for me – giving me, and many other artists, the space and opportunity to develop creatively.

I've showcased three original productions with them and have just finished writing a comedy for the Festival of European Anglophone Theatrical Societies competition called Airheads, which is based on Airbnb hosting. The production will open in Antwerp in May this year.

Are there any other Irish people in your business/social circles in Brussels?

The Irish have a notable presence in Brussels and I do run into them everywhere. What's fun to see is the Irish who have settled here and are now married to people from other countries, who they met during their stagiaire year in Brussels. My partner is a South African, who settled in Brussels many years ago.

What is it like living in Brussels in terms of accommodation, transport, social life and so on?

Accommodation and transport are really good. There is no shortage of accommodation and the prices are quite reasonable – I’m definitely comfortable. I go everywhere by public transport, so I’m very dependent on it.

Socially, Brussels is a great place to explore. There is always something new to do and see, if you have the energy for it. They do love their beers, food and fashion here, so a lot of activities are built around those. I spend a lot of time at vintage markets on weekends. It’s a great place to recycle old treasures and grab a beer with friends in the process.

Where do you see your future?

I will go wherever the path leads in using the arts to promote human rights. Art and creativity give us platforms for dialogues that are often hard to have, and human rights really benefits from this.

It’s important to explore these areas of communication to test what works best when resolving human rights issues. With FGM for example, writing and visual art has proved highly effective in bringing communities together to exchange experiences and take action against FGM. There are always alternatives to using force.