Ireland’s unlikely Instagram stars
From a 79-year-old style queen to an alopecia sufferer, whether on everyday chic or hair loss, their posts have tens of thousands of followers
When you think of popular Instagram accounts in Ireland, you probably think of carefully curated pages run by young women swatching beauty products, documenting their CrossFit workouts and doing #sponsored posts like there’s no tomorrow. Look beyond the usual suspects, however, and you’ll find that some of the country’s most popular Instagram accounts are run not by top influencers or public figures but by ordinary people who have successfully, and perhaps improbably, amassed followings in the tens of thousands.
Take Eileen Smith. On the surface she might seem like your average 79-year-old woman. A mother of four, she lives in Ballsbridge in Dublin with her husband, a retired pilot. Thanks to his career she spent many years living between Dublin and Dubai. These days, however, she spends her spare time gardening, golfing, playing bridge and socialising with friends. Oh, and she runs one of Ireland’s most popular Instagram accounts.
As Eileen Style Queen she regularly posts photos of her chic everyday outfits. She has more than 50,000 followers and counts Instagram heavyweights like Pippa O’Connor and Rosanna Davison among her fans. Just last month she was crowned best fashion influencer at the Irish Beauty Blog Awards.
A lifelong fashionista, Smith says she started photographing her outfits a few years ago as a means of keeping in touch with two of her daughters. “They were always into the style,” she says. “When we’d buy something, we would take a photograph of it and send it to each other, that sort of a way you would with your family.”
Initially, they just shared the photos in messages to each other. Eventually her daughter Suzanne decided it was time to set her up on social media. “And then Suzanne said, ‘Mum, I’m going to put you on Instagram,’” she recalls. “That’s where I went from there.”
Her daughter gave her the name Eileen Style Queen, which never fails to make Smith cringe. “Oh my God, that makes me shiver,” she says, laughing. “To this day, I ask them is there no way you can take that down.”
For a while she toiled away in obscurity, just sharing photos with friends and family. One day she got noticed by the actor Aoibhín Garrihy, who gave her a shoutout on Instagram. “Obviously she has a lot of followers, and she said, ‘Give this girl some likes,’” says Smith. “It sort of snowballed from there.”
The chic outfits she wore on @eileenstylequeen became the toast of Instagram, and she was soon hailed as “Dublin’s most stylish granny”. She even made an appearance on The Late Late Show in May and says she is regularly stopped by followers while out and about.
The attention came as a surprise to Smith, partly because she didn’t think her style would be of interest to anyone outside her immediate circle. “I like classic clothes. I think they’re quite plain. I don’t go overboard with anything. I thought, in actual fact, to other people that it would be very boring.”
But Smith’s authenticity and effortless chic stand out on Instagram. You won’t find any staged photo shoots on her feed or anything that could be considered remotely try-hard. “I don’t ever go upstairs to dress myself to take a photograph. I just do it as I’m going along in the day. I’m sure everyone is bored to tears of me saying I’m going out to play golf or I’m going out to play bridge.”
Most striking to Smith is how she has been so warmly embraced by young women on Instagram. “The people who follow me the most are young, and that’s the most surprising thing to me,” she says. “The girls who come up to me in the shops or out in Dundrum Town Centre, they’re all young girls. Maybe a lot of them think this could be their mother or something. I don’t know.”
With more than 67,000 followers, Jane Carkill has a following to rival that of many public figures. But you won’t find selfies on her @lamblittle page. Instead you’ll find delicate, ornate nature illustrations inspired by Carkill’s upbringing in the Burren.
The 24-year-old started sharing her illustrations on the platform when she was a teenager. “I had always been very shy about showing anyone my art and drawings, usually hiding them away in piles of sketchbooks, so the thought of posting anything initially was very frightening,” she says.
She needn’t have worried. The response to her work was instant, and her following began to grow rapidly. Soon the Co Clare woman was fielding inquiries from fans looking to buy her work. A few years on and she sells everything from prints to cushion covers to stickers from her online store.
“It still feels dreamlike, surreal to me,” the illustrator says. “To sell my work worldwide was always more of a fantasy than intention. To imagine that my art is adorning the walls in someone’s home in Ireland, Asia, America, Australia. I think it is wonderful.”
She praises Instagram not only as a platform for developing her career but also for making her art available and accessible to a global audience. “To display art to an audience which is not exclusive or elite is such a rare and powerful thing,” she says. “I think Instagram breaks down the alienating barrier often accompanying art and has allowed every generation to explore and celebrate creativity, which is so important.”
Another young woman making waves on Instagram is Claire Fullam. The Dubliner first came to prominence 2½ years ago when she wrote a Facebook post about her struggle with alopecia areata, which saw her lose 70 per cent of her hair within three weeks. The post went viral and media appearances on the likes of Ireland AM soon followed.
Sensing that there were others going through the same thing and suffering in silence, she decided to start a Snapchat account under the name of Claire Balding. “Everyone was, like, it’s so unfortunate that your hair fell out and your name is Balding,” she says, laughing.
Very quickly, she developed a loyal audience who were on hand to provide advice and support as she adjusted to her new reality. “It was kind of car-crash TV,” she says. “You’re just watching this girl desperately crying down the phone but then hysterically laughing and her hair coming out in clumps in front of your eyes. I was a social-media fan, and I had never seen this kind of behaviour and openness and willingness to share the sh*t bits.”
Two years on, Fullam has left Snapchat and migrated to Instagram. Her hair has grown back, but her audience has stuck around. The self-proclaimed oversharer now regales her more than 47,000 @claire_balding followers with observations, hilarious rants, and miscellaneous insights into her everyday life.
In many ways she is the antithesis of your average influencer. She says that losing her hair so publicly has enabled her to be extra vulnerable with her audience. “Once you do that, it’s very easy to tell people other sh*t that goes on,” she says. “Like your period pains or trimming your nose hairs, because you’re on hair supplements, or vaginismus or whatever it is. It’s very easy to become a person who is okay with telling people you struggle.”
Her relationship with social media has been hugely symbiotic, she says. While she has garnered kudos for shedding light on taboo subjects, she says she has drawn huge strength from the online community and been given a newfound sense of purpose.
“It’s allowed me to be myself and unapologetically so,” she says. “My whole self.”