Bread & Roses gives gift of floristry to women seeking refuge from torture and violence

Women taking part in therapeutic wreath-making programme offered by Róisín Godfrey and Spirasi express gratitude for support since their arrival in Ireland

As an experienced and respected professional florist, Róisín Godfrey has spent the last eight years working alongside some of the biggest names in the industry in the UK and Ireland, a career that has taken her to some of the most beautiful private houses, hotels and art galleries in the world.

It was while jobbing for the well-known London floristry business Scarlet & Violet in 2017 that she first met fellow florist Liv Wilson, one of the founders of the award-winning UK group Bread & Roses, which has “a mission to help women from refugee backgrounds flourish”.

The two very quickly became firm friends. “Liv,” says Godfrey, “is just one of those people who is always pushing to make things better. ‘Inspirational’ is an overused word but she’s genuinely that – a person who makes you believe that we can all make a difference. That there’s far more good in the world than bad. When she first told me about this programme that she and her friends Olivia Head and Sneh Jani-Patel set up in 2016 to provide floristry training programmes for female refugees in London, I was just so impressed by what they were trying to achieve.

“And they have achieved it. Bread & Roses has quickly become this really positive agent of change that provides a safe and friendly forum where women from around the world can harness the many therapeutic benefits that come from working with flowers. It empowers them in so many ways, helping them to regain their sense of confidence, to reconnect with their body, repair their often-damaged sense of self-belief, to once again find joy in the world.


“There’s also that great sense of independence that comes from learning a valuable new skill that’s potentially so useful as a way of becoming financially independent. And then there are the many friendships that grow from that shared experience, and the many bonds it forges. So many of the organisation’s clients are refugees who’ve suffered serious trauma in their country of birth, and as a result have had to leave it in search of a place of safety. It’s this powerful common ground that they share.”

The term Bread & Roses has deep historical and cultural resonance when it comes to the issue of women’s rights. It featured, for example, on the banners of the pioneering American suffragettes who in the fledgling years of the 20th century marched in support of women’s right to vote. Some say it was the American activist Helen Todd who first coined it in 1911.

Others credit the Polish-born immigrant and American union leader Rose Schneiderman, who used it in a speech she gave in 1912 arguing for the equal rights of all women: “What the woman who labours wants is the right to live, not simply exist… The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege – give her the ballot to fight with.”

The noted American poet James Oppenheim subsequently used the expression in his poem of the same name, written in support of the suffragette movement. More than a century later it also featured prominently on placards held by people taking part in the Time’s Up Women’s March in London in 2018. Despite the passing of time, the message it conveys is every bit as powerful and relevant today.

Godfrey’s work as a London-based florist made her increasingly and painfully aware of the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The Grenfell Tower fire, which broke out in a high-rise tower block in west London in 2017, killing 72 people, marked a personal turning point. “The daughter of the housekeeper of one of our clients died in the fire, and we provided the flowers for her funeral. I found myself becoming disillusioned as floristry started to lose its meaning and purpose for me.”

In 2019, she made the decision to return to Ireland and to a new job that she enjoys as a busy event florist at The Garden in Dublin’s Powerscourt Townhouse Centre. But the remarkable work being done by the Bread & Roses programme in the UK continued to play on her mind, along with the possibility that she too could make a similarly positive difference to the experiences of refugees arriving in Ireland. “I knew that with a little help, I could replicate its success over here.”

In the spring of this year Godfrey did exactly that, working in close partnership with both the London branch of Bread & Roses and Spirasi, the national centre for the rehabilitation of survivors of torture in Ireland whose headquarters is based in a leafy suburb of northside Dublin. Its work focuses particularly on offering a range of therapeutic programmes and resources to refugees and those seeking political asylum, particularly those who are clinically assessed by a series of experts as being survivors of torture as defined by the UN Istanbul Protocol of 1999.

The centre’s clients come from all over the world, many of them from countries where extreme political and economic unrest or rigidly conservative cultural mores have resulted in either the use or real threat of violence or death, creating impossible living conditions for those who are lucky enough to escape them.

They include members of the LGBTQ community and women in violently abusive relationships. According to the centre’s medical doctor Christine Campbell and its psycho-social officer Abigail Flynn, who help to assess their needs, many arrive in Ireland deeply traumatised, suffering from PTSD, exhibiting signs of disassociation, often painfully culturally, socially and emotionally isolated, sometimes even suicidal.

Some are single parents with young children, many dealing with the added challenges of living in direct provision. The physical, emotional and psychological wounds they’ve suffered are complex. “And yet I never stop being in awe of their amazing resilience in the face of the suffering they’ve endured,” says Campbell. The women taking part in Godfrey’s programme who this writer talked to all individually expressed their gratitude for the support and warm welcome they’ve received since they arrived in this country, as well as their huge relief. Asked what she liked best about Ireland, one replied simply, “I feel safe here.”

For Godfrey and the team of people who work at Spirasi, the Bread & Roses programme offers their clients a powerful way to temporarily set aside the weight of that vast and complex mix of grief and trauma. “I’m acutely aware of not bringing up anything in our floral workshops that could potentially trigger painful memories, but even then, it still sometimes happens,” she says.

“For example, as part of the 10-week course that I gave this year, participants learned a range of essential floristry skills, from selecting and conditioning flowers to wiring stems, making a buttonhole and creating a wedding bouquet. For some, that brought back memories of their own weddings. One lady showed me photographs on her phone, but then looking at them upset her. It was very sad.”

Overall, the workshops are noisy, joyous, creative events, as seen in the Christmas wreath workshop that Godfrey gave the women last week. Walking them through the process from start to finish, she encouraged them to have fun with the range of materials provided. Their finished wreaths were seasonal and beautiful, bedecked with Irish-grown perfumed pine, eucalyptus and pittosporum foliage, bright berries, fruit, pretty dried flowers and colourful ribbons. Applauding them for their lovely work, Godfrey explained how wreath-making skills are always in high demand at this time of year, with a Christmas wreath from most of Ireland’s top florists often costing upwards of €100.

As the programme’s provider, the workshops have been an insightful experience for Godfrey, affording her revealing glimpses of what it’s like to be a woman refugee arriving in this country without the familial, cultural and financial supports that can help make life easier. “I would have thought of myself as someone who was sensitive to how challenging it can be, but spending time with people who are living those challenges on a day-to-day basis is eye-opening,” she says.

It has also made her more politically aware. “It soon hit me how very little I really knew about their countries of birth – for example, about the situation in Sierra Leone or Afghanistan or Turkey. I realised I needed to properly inform myself.”

Many of those taking part in the programme at Spirasi have professions they’d like to re-establish in Ireland as soon as they’re allowed to legally work again, or who have more long-term plans to go to college, or to formally train in a job other than floristry. Others have already enrolled in educational courses, or found part-time jobs that they juggle with childcare.

“There’s no pressure on them whatsoever to work as a florist. Instead, it’s what I call the gift of flowers, an opportunity for some precious escapism at a time in their life when they badly need to heal, because it’s hard not to love playing with flowers, even if you don’t want to make it your lifelong profession, ”explains Godfrey.

Some have expressed a desire to take it further, something that she’s helping to facilitate with the support of Mark Grehan, the Dublin-based florist and founder of The Garden where Godfrey works, who has offered opportunities for formal work experience alongside his busy team. The Meath-based flower farmer Susan Lynch of the Vintage Rose Company, a friend and mentor of Godfrey, has also supported the programme with many of her beautiful flowers and foliage used as raw materials when in season.

St Stephen’s Green Trust, the independent social justice grant-maker which works across the island of Ireland, provided funding for this year’s programme. Funding for a further Bread & Roses programme next year at Spirasi has been secured with the financial support of Rethink Ireland, the philanthropic body providing cash grants and business support to social innovations that help us “rise to the challenges of our most pressing social and environmental issues”.

Godfrey has plans to run other courses outside the umbrella of Spirasi, working alongside other charities and community groups, as she did earlier this year for the Intercultural Drop-In Centre in Tallaght. If she could wave a magic wand, she’d also love some additional funding for a graphic designer to help to grow awareness. But most of all, she’d love to see the women taking part in Bread & Roses go on to enjoy happy and fulfilling lives, safe from the threat of violence. “They tell me that they feel safe living here in Ireland, which I’m very glad to hear. But I worry about them.”

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon is an Irish Times contributor specialising in gardening