A woman’s life: ‘I got married at 16. I’ve nine kids. I don’t worry’

Women of Ireland: Ailbhe Gerrard, Laura Reid and Pritha Namjoshi (top row); MJ O’Brien, Sam Olabiyi and Rita Woods

It’s International Women’s Day. Women and girls of all ages talk to Jennifer O’Connell, Róisín Ingle and Gemma Tipton about equality, happiness, politics, social media and what it’s like to live in Ireland today

Sam Olabiyi

Fifth-class student, Ennis, Co Clare. 11 years old
The best thing about living as a girl in Ireland is you get to have friends. And it feels like a safe place. Some people don’t feel safe where they live. In some countries, girls have to get married at young ages and have children at young ages and marry people who are much older than them.

I was born in Ireland, so I’m Irish, and then I’m half-Zimbabwean and half-Nigerian. Tap to listen to Sam Olabiyi ► Irish people treat me very normally, but that depends on who you’re asking and who you’re talking to, because it’s different for many other people. I have some family that have experienced Irish people not treating them the same. But it’s never happened to me...

Sam Olabiyi. Photograph: Eamon Ward
Sam Olabiyi. Photograph: Eamon Ward

I do worry about climate change. Because, right now, it’s a bad thing that’s happening and it could become worse in the future. But it’s not something that keeps me up at night.

I have a phone and a tablet. I spend maybe three to four hours on them every day. I don’t have any social media, because my mom said I have to be 13.

I’m happy with my life. Because I have family and friends around me. The pandemic has changed me in a way because I try to be more cautious of things around me and more grateful for what I have.

Axelle Ievers

Transition-year student, Co Waterford. 15 years old
I think lots of us become more insecure as we get older. The media makes us think we should be one way, and a few of my friends have become really insecure about the way they look and how they should act. When I was growing up, I didn’t have a phone until I was 12. My friend’s little sister, she’s nine, she was up until 3am on her phone. I’m glad I didn’t have my phone when I was nine.

Axelle Ievers

My parents are quite understanding, so I’m lucky. But I think lots of adults don’t understand the pressure coming from social media. We should be teaching everyone, but generally boys, at a younger age that you should respect everyone.

The social aspect of technology is definitely positive. During Covid, I’ve contacted my friends a lot more and checked up on them. We’re calling nearly every day for a few hours at a time. Before the pandemic, we mostly just texted. But it distracts me a lot. I end up procrastinating.

I do Taekwondo. I’ve gone on about six tournaments and won a few gold medals. It can be relaxing, but it also feels empowering. I would like to get a degree in physics in a college somewhere abroad.

[After the pandemic], I hope people will become more aware of others. I hope everyone will care more for each other and see they also have needs, just as I have needs.

Emma McMahon

Fifth-year student and activist, Co Kilkenny. 17 years old
Older generations are saying, “oh the future’s in great hands”. But that’s not much good to us because it will be 20 years before we’re in a position to have the power to do something. It’s frustrating to be told, “wait your turn”.

Emma McMahon

There’s a constant sense of lingering misogyny in Ireland. A huge thing would be the lack of representation of women in positions of power. There are 36 sitting female TDs in the Dáil, compared to 124 men. In sport, you see the Six Nations matches all over the papers, but the women’s Six Nations is categorised differently. It has a domino effect. It sends out a very strong, kind of subconscious message of “there’s not really a place where you’re welcome here”.

I was 12 at the time of the Repeal the 8th campaign and seeing how many people came together was very inspiring. I’m really interested in politics and activism and that’s where it started. I’d love to travel in the future and work in politics and human rights.

There have definitely been strides made over the last few years, but then there’s times where it’s one step forward, two steps back. It’s something girls my age are very conscious of. At the end of last year, when photos of young women were leaked on to the internet [explicit photographs of Irish women and girls were published online without their consent], we weren’t personally affected, but we all felt very powerless. I think, like a lot of different situations affecting women in Ireland, it affects one small group directly, but all of us feel the vibrations.

Tap to listen to Emma McMahon ► As young people growing up in Ireland today, we’re watching our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers quite simply be disrespected by the State. They’re not getting the explanations, apologies or reparations they deserve…

Isobel Tiernan

Student and activist, Co Waterford. 18 years old
I was in sixth class when the marriage equality referendum came in. I remember vividly the posters for the No campaign inside the school. And I was sitting there questioning my sexuality at the time, because I’m a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community and I identify as queer. I didn’t really realise until a few years later how momentous it was.

I had the privilege of being part of the Repeal referendum a few years later and standing at a roundabout by the railway station while the 9am traffic was passing and everybody was going to school. Those special moments will stay with me forever. It was the young people who drove it, and the women who had put up with that discrimination for so long.

Isobel Tiernan

The biggest issue facing women and girls today is subtle sexism: women being expected to stay at home and to raise the children; young girls not being encouraged to keep up sports when they go into adolescence; period poverty; dress codes we have in secondary schools. Segregating boys and girls in secondary school is a feminist issue because once you have boys and girls in the same room, the disparity between the genders becomes very obvious.

The climate is the biggest issue we face as a generation, but I don’t think change is going to come until the politicians start taxing the big corporations. I think once my generation gets into a certain level of power, there will be a large-scale movement.

Emily Keane

Runs KoKo Chocolates, Kinsale, Co Cork. 25 years old
I went to university in the UK, where you can walk into a clinic and in half an hour you’ve been given fantastic advice and you can walk out with contraception if you want it – all completely free. I have to get my [contraceptive] implant changed in Ireland and they’re talking about it costing €400. That’s completely insane. It means you’re always going to think of the cost before you think of your health.

Emily Keane

It’s the same thing in the way tampons are seen as a luxury product. I remember last year, people coming on the radio to complain about a Tampax ad. And I was thinking about how awful is that for a young woman to hear? Someone coming on the radio to tell them how shameful and disgusting periods are. It’s so wrong.

Tap to listen to Emily Keane ► The biggest change for women and girls in my lifetime has definitely been social media...

Still, Ireland was a fantastic place to grow up and to live in today. I’m in a multi-racial relationship and we haven’t experienced racism, but I know we’re privileged where we’re living. We also have incredible opportunities and we have a great education system. I competed on Irish teams in the modern pentathlon. Maybe in another country, with a larger population, I mightn’t have had the chance to be noticed, to be supported and go to amazing places to compete.

If I’m comparing Ireland to other countries, I think Ireland is more equal for women. And yet, sometimes in the shop, if I have to sign paperwork or we’re getting big deliveries, I instantly see if a man isn’t listening or doesn’t want to talk to me. He might even go to a male customer, assuming they’re in charge.

Rose Gartland

Immigration and human rights case worker, Co Dublin. 26 years old
I live and work in Dublin city centre. Six of us are sharing a five-bedroom house. With four working from home it’s busy, but we’re lucky. So many people are on their own at the moment. About 40 per cent of my income goes on rent. It’s more expensive than I’ve ever paid, but we were fortunate to find this place. It’s obviously a very anxious time, but we’re open, communication wise. We decide what everyone is comfortable with – no one is having loads of people over, we’re all on the same page.

Rose Gartland

My last flat was a bit of a dump. It was good craic sharing with friends, but with the pandemic, I decided that I need to like where I live, so I’m willing to cut back on other things. Now I’m getting used to living somewhere really nice, but I know I’m never going to afford a mortgage in Dublin.

I’m single at the moment and it’s odd. Some people are using dating apps, but I’m not. All you can really do is go for walks. It’s so old school, like a Jane Austen novel. I don’t know if I’d have the patience for it! The more major issue is the outrageous growth in domestic violence and women reaching out for help. People need to have respect for all genders. The best thing that could be done, for every gender, is to have proper and realistic sex and consent education. Linked to that is the sharing of intimate images. This attempt to put down female sexuality – it’s not going to work.

Kathleen Lawrence

Education support worker and student teacher, Co Dublin. 35 years old
No one ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. I went to college for the first time when I was 28. It was scary. I did an undergraduate degree in law and sociology at Maynooth, and a Master’s degree in University College Dublin in human rights. There were times when I was discriminated against by students and teachers. And now I want to become a teacher in primary school. Could you imagine being a teacher at the front of the classroom, and the kids in your class just take it for granted their teacher is a Traveller? To me, that’s amazing.

Kathleen Lawrence

Tap to listen to Kathleen Lawrence ► People forget there are real people behind the stereotypes and the negativity. There are young Traveller children growing up in Ireland reading stories and comments about themselves, and believing people hate them without ever getting to know them... I had to block the word “Traveller” on Twitter for a month for my own mental health. It’s hard not to get broken down.

I hope to get married in April – it’s just a matter of whether we’re having six people at the wedding or eight. When I met my fiancé Dave’s family for the first time, my biggest fear was what if they don’t like Travellers? My fears were completely unfounded. They’re amazing. They acknowledge I’m a Traveller but they don’t judge me based on the media. What people don’t get to see are the Traveller truck drivers, nurses, doctors, shop workers and all the normal people who are Travellers. You hear about the worst of us and the best of us but the in between gets lost.

Laura Reid

Hair stylist, Co Dublin. 36 years old
Women have always supported other women. You have your sisters when you’re down on your luck, to have the chats, to build you up. Because we use both sides of our brain, we’re much more emotionally intelligent than men. We can read a room better. I’d know in an instant if you wanted to pour the wine and get into a conversation, or glaze over. Men would pretend they hadn’t even heard you.

Knowledge is power but only if you share it. Women are great for that. For giving each other overtime. I grew up in Coolock – it would be very poor. My dad would have never worked. My ma would have done a few nixers. She said always make sure you have your own money. I’m passionate about work. Doing someone’s hair, there’s magic in it. But even girls who aren’t passionate about their work, there’s still that sense of achievement.

Listen

Tap to listen to Laura Reid ►Oh my God. Women are the best support for one another. Who needs a man for any sort of support when you have your sister girl on hand, whether she’s there in person or on the phone...?

 

Laura Reid. Photograph: Mark O’Keeffe

I used to feel safe, but with all these stabbings going on . . . If I walk, I’m not listening to podcasts, I want to have my wits about me. But I don’t want to change my habits out of fear.

Women have amazing powers for being nurturing and caring, but the best thing we could teach young women growing up is that it’s okay to be by yourself. It’s great to have people, but not to need somebody financially. Your brightness isn’t going to cast a shadow on anyone else. I’m more optimistic than pessimistic for sure. I’m good at tending to my own garden. I’m having a good day today.

Rosemary Kunene

Community activist and social entrepreneur, The Dignity Project, Co Laois. 37 years old
Ireland is a fairly safe country but as a woman you still have to be alert. I stay in a rural area, life is quiet which is okay for me as I like space for my private life. I don’t like to be up in my neighbour’s business and I expect the same from them.

I did a virtual graduation for my BA degree in applied addiction studies and community development last year. Currently, I am doing a Master’s in co-operatives and social enterprise with University College Cork. I hope to do a PhD in social enterprise in the future.

Rosemary Kunene

In my opinion, Ireland is fairly equal for women and girls. A lot has changed through the years, we have a number of community initiatives that aim at empowering women. But more can be done, for example, childcare is a huge barrier to empowering women.

I love dancing to any kind of music across the globe, including Irish set dancing. I also play chess. Friendship is very important to me. I love having friends who are non-judgmental and enjoy fun. One thing this pandemic has taught me is to love me and spend some quality time with me rather than be “on the go” at all times.

I am happy with my life. I have beautiful children, my life achievement. I am grateful for that. Women are beautiful creatures that make a lot of sacrifice, we care a lot for others so we sometimes forget to care for ourselves. We need support and understanding to voice our fears.

Eilís Walklett

Youth worker, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. 40 years old
Women have more choice and options now. My mum encouraged us to travel, work and always live with someone before you marry them! We were the first generation to be able to do that. I’d hope the kids would just follow their own path, that they don’t have to think about the stuff we had to think about, that gender and sexuality would be more fluid. We were all about labels in the 1990s.

Eilís Walklett

Ireland is en route to equality, but for a developed country, there’s still a lot of inequality. Women are finding their voice more, but at a higher and political level where changes can be made, it’s not there yet. Women have voices, but we need to actually be listened to. I really felt that at one or two of my [maternity] appointments. I was arguing with them – I had to – and I was thinking: “You’re looking at me like I’m an emotional woman, you would not be looking at my husband like that.”

My husband is a paramedic, so his role has intensified immensely. It has made family life a juggle. Luckily my job was very flexible, supportive and part time. I worked in homelessness before. People are resilient. I know I won’t be able to give my kids what my parents gave me, but I wouldn’t be pessimistic about their future. For one, they’ve been born in Ireland – they’ve every opportunity going.

Tap to listen to Eilís Walklett ► Once you step into the maternity system, it’s slightly like going back into good old 80s Catholic Ireland. You’re not often listened to, coercive language is used…

We’re lucky Covid-wise. We’re out in the woods, doing our own thing. The kids have a good base for the future no matter what.

Politicians have been really inconsistent throughout Covid. Leaking things to the media rather than making decisions. It should be so much better run. We need someone like Jacinda Ardern. Would she get elected here? She would, but it would take time.

Pritha Namjoshi

Yoga teacher, Co Waterford. 44 years old
I grew up in India, where being a woman can be quite hard. It’s a male-dominated society, women don’t have very much respect. I feel very safe here. You hear about so many atrocities committed against women in India. My daughter is still very little, and right now we all have things we worry about, especially with the pandemic. Will there be another recession? Will kids ever be able to interact with each other like we did?

I grew up in a city of about 4 million, studied in mass communication and worked in an advertisement agency in Manhattan. I came to Ireland on holidays and met my husband here.

We live in Dunmore East. It’s really beautiful. The sea is a three-minute walk from home, and there’s a group of girls that I go swimming with every morning. There’s a lovely sense of community.

Pritha Namjoshi. Photograph: Neville Sukhia

Ireland is more equal than India, people here are more chivalrous and polite, but balancing work, home and raising children is hard for women.

Childcare is expensive and it’s not always an option for an older relative to look after a child, like it is in India. I miss my mum and I worry about her. There’s no lockdown in India. We talk on WhatsApp every day. She’s going to come and live with us when it’s safe.

I’m very happy and content at the moment, despite the pandemic. We struggled to have a child, so I feel fortunate and blessed.

But I really hope we take lessons and don’t go back to how things were. We need to live more sustainably and in a more caring and compassionate way. We’ve realised how much human interaction matters, so we have to be kind.

Ailbhe Gerrard

Farmer and agricultural researcher, Co Tipperary. 50 years old
The biggest change I’ve seen is to do with societal expectations around partnering and child rearing – now there’s a diversity of choice in how to live your life. I was very perturbed by the Belfast rape trial, even though it was out of the State, the reactions of so many people, men and women, showed me they had no idea about concepts of consent and the power interactions that can happen. That was a real eye-opener.

I’m self-employed, so money is always a stress. Even if it’s flowing quite nicely, you don’t have any security over the coming months. In order to have a farm, you have to have access to money to purchase the land, or be given the land. It wasn’t until my 30s that I was able to buy mine. Now, having done that, I feel I have enough behind me to feel secure. There’s a lot of kindness and support in my rural community.

Ailbhe Gerrard. Photograph: Nathalie Marquez Courtney

Having lived through several upheavals – the major recessions, Covid and, through my research, being aware of the impact of climate change and biodiversity collapse – I wish I could feel more secure. But by working together we can do something. I want to welcome more people to Brookfield Farm to have a much greater understanding of the biodiversity on which we all depend. You don’t always get it unless you stand there in a field.

Politicians are people too. Some are more dedicated, compassionate and more competent than others – across all the parties. By and large they’re doing their best because we’re in unprecedented times. But we have to change this accumulist way of governing, in which everyone harbours assets, and it’s “me against them”. That attitude is so damaging. We aren’t in competition. Co-ordination is so much better than divisiveness.

Vanessa Lacey

Health and education manager at Transgender Equality Network Ireland. 56 years old
I didn’t gender transition until I was 43, so I have a different gratitude for being a woman in Ireland; that I can be a women in Ireland. I’m 6ft 3in and my voice is deeper, so whether I’m treated as a woman or a transgender person is up for debate. I haven’t had much negativity as a woman but as a transgender person, I have experienced a great deal. Words. Stares, as if to say: what are you even doing in this world?

I don’t think Ireland is safe or equal. We’re more aware of domestic abuse, and the restrictions are putting on intense pressure. I’m not in a relationship. I was married to a woman and have two wonderful children. We’re very close. I was very grateful to my children for still loving me, even though I gender transitioned – it was everything – so I decided I wouldn’t be in a relationship again.

Vanessa Lacey

My father died in a nursing home in March, that was awful. A year before he died, he was in hospital. One of the nurses came in and he had a big smile on his face and said: “This is my daughter, Vanessa.” It was the first time in 12 years he’d said that. How I didn’t cry – I’ll never know.

I love walking in nature. This summer I walked from Waterford to Dingle. I was supposed to do the Camino, so I said I’d do my own. It took about 10 days and it rained a lot of the time. I had so much fun. If everything in this life went according to plan, we’d have no stories to tell.

Frances Kerr-Feeney

Civil servant, Co Dublin. 61 years old
At 61, health is the most important thing. I’ve had Covid and survived, so most of all I feel grateful at this stage in my life. Ireland has disappointed me generally when it comes to women. The mother and baby home saga is terrible, it horrified me the lengths women have to go to in order to get information. The religious orders need to write a big cheque. I have a daughter in her 30s, she’s had a better experience as a woman in Ireland than I have had.

Frances Kerr-Feeney

I live in north inner city Dublin and I love it here, especially the mix of demographics and being able to walk into the city. I was unemployed for a number of years and I found it hard to get a job as a highly qualified 61-year-old woman but I am now a clerical officer in the Civil Service and delighted I got the job. I walk for fun. I read. I used to love the theatre and music but we can’t do that at the moment. I took up sailing later in life but of course that’s all gone.

I am very taken with our current politicians. I think Ireland has matured, but in terms of women’s lives we still have a way to go, especially regarding women in more senior leadership roles. I’m pretty happy with my life at the moment, the job has been a great boost and I am looking forward to seeing the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

Frances White

Costume maker, Co Wexford. 65 years old
I feel optimistic myself for the future but I worry about the future for my five grandchildren. On the whole, Ireland is a fairly safe place, but there are times when I read stories about violence against women or reports about rape and domestic violence and I feel less sure about that.

Frances White

I am not very good at technology. Down in Wexford our internet is very poor. I’ve a rough time doing Zoom. I do one Zoom pilates class once a week and sometimes the connection is so bad I can’t see where I am supposed to be putting my legs. I am in a rural area on the way to Kilmore Quay, about five miles out of Wexford. I go for walks by the beach and have a garden where I grow vegetables. I’ve a good network of people close to me. We share seeds.

It costs a lot to be a woman and I am glad to see people campaigning about things like period poverty. Hearing stories about mother and baby homes shows how much those issues are still affecting people. It makes you think.

I’ve been married to Terry for 40 years. Diversity and change has been good for our marriage. We both worked in theatre and moved around quite a bit. We make life up as we go along. One thing I think would benefit women in Ireland – and not just women but men too – is more co-ed schools. It helps boys and girls understand each other better.

Dorothy Fisher

Retired owner of a secretarial business, Bellewstown, Co Meath. 68 years old
My hopes for the future are that we come to our senses. I feel that living in greater harmony with the natural world will contribute to an improvement in all aspects of health, reduce waste and lead to a more authentic evolution of our lives as human beings.

Generally, I feel secure in my future. I am an upbeat person. I’ve had the rug pulled from under my feet a number of times and now, in my late 60s, I am healthy and optimistic. I have been living in a rural area for the last six years in an old stone cottage with a timber-frame extension, on half an acre and dating back to 1906. I grow vegetables and fruit along organic principles.

Dorothy Fisher. Photograph: Alan Betson

I use technology selectively. I am aware it could become addictive. Anyway, I get more pleasure from hearing the birds singing, putting my hands in the soil to plant seeds, listening to the sea, being invigorated by the salty air and enjoying the sand on my bare feet. This lived experience of being human is my preferred way to engage with what is around me.

I wish everyone understood that women just need to be loved. The song, How to Handle a Woman from Camelot by Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, ends with: “The way to handle a woman is to love her, simply love her, merely love her, love her, love her.” That goes for all humans. Women and men can express love differently, how to love yourself has to come first.

MJ O’Brien

Retired property asset manager, Co Dublin. 72 years old
There are days when I wonder if the isolation will ever end and if I’ll remember what life used to be like.

I worry about climate change. I feel so much of the beauty of our world is being stolen from future generations, from my grandchildren. It makes me very sad. I am optimistic for myself but the younger generations might well be in for a more difficult time. I couldn’t live without technology. I engage on WhatsApp and email. I also check in now and again on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. It is a positive in my life. I do think I waste more of my precious time on it than is good for me.

MJ O’Brien

I am a city rat and I love it. Dublin, to my mind, is the most beautiful city, especially when the sun shines after rain. It just twinkles and is full of hope. Being able to walk to the gorgeous Dublin Zoo and several lovely parks is such a gift. I can’t wait to hear voices and music in the streets again. I’m not in a relationship at the moment, unfortunately.

I started out nursing in Ireland and went to the United States, where I spent 43 years. The biggest issues for women today are the gender pay gap, gender-based violence and underrepresentation in positions of power. I think as women we must speak up about issues no matter how difficult. I would like it if everyone understood that being successful, striving to break the glass ceiling or being an independent woman doesn’t equate to a desire to dominate or intimidate men.

Rita Woods

Mother of nine children, 21 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren, Ballinteer, Co Dublin. 81 years old
Tap to listen to Rita Woods ► I wish they’d talk about people recovering on the news sometimes instead of people dying. It’s a downer. When they are talking about my age group, I wonder, Am I next…?

You hear so much on the news about the way women are being treated in this pandemic. The abuse from partners, that knocks me a bit.

I got married at 16 and for 63 years I was married to a very good man who never once criticised me. He died four years ago. I’ve nine kids. I don’t worry. I leave it all in God’s hands. I wasn’t always a woman of faith but I’ve been through a lot in my life. I joined a 12-step programme so now I live in hope and trust.

Rita Woods

I do have a special someone in my life. We used to meet up when there was no Covid. Now we talk on the phone. We do more laughing than anything else, laughing about the past and all we got up to.

Life is very different for women now. When I was young, if you saw a man hanging washing out on the line, he’d be laughed at. It’s terrible when you look back. Now it makes me beam with happiness to see the way men do housework and care for their kids. It’s beautiful.

I am very happy with my life. I have no regrets. Being a woman means doing the best you can.