Advocate for equal treatment in the workplace

Born: January 27th, 1963; Died: August 6th, 2014

Fiona Tiernan  founded the Plurabelle Paddlers, Ireland’s first dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors.

Fiona Tiernan founded the Plurabelle Paddlers, Ireland’s first dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors.

 

Fiona Tiernan, who has died aged 51, was a quietly influential and inspiring advocate for those experiencing discrimination and marginalisation, and the founder of the Plurabelle Paddlers, Ireland’s first dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors.

A keen sense of human dignity and justice, combined with an infectious sense of humour, permeated her approach to life, and she has been described as an “energy force” who had that rare ability to make the “extraordinary look ordinary” in everything she did.

The middle daughter in a family of nine children, she was reared in Clonskeagh, Dublin, and attended St Louis Secondary School in Rathmines. She took a BA in history at University College Dublin, and an MLitt in women’s studies from Trinity College Dublin.

She associated a visit to the bank with her mother after the early death of her father, Eunan, with her first insight into the extent of gender- based discrimination in Irish society. She was struck by the dismissive attitude of two bank officials to her mother, who was then a widow seeking a mortgage for a family home.

Discrimination

She emigrated to the US in the mid 1980s, where she worked in marketing roles for a number of companies. She returned to Ireland in 1990 to set up her own company, Direct Marketing Ireland, and also became involved, initially as a volunteer, with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. It was through this work that she came to realise that workplace discrimination often manifested itself as sexual harassment, and it motivated her to create a highly successful training programme for both employers and employees.

In 1995, she attended the fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.

She established Resolve- Progressive Employment Services, advising companies on implementing the 1998 Employment Equality Act, and she spoke regularly on harassment, bullying and conflict resolution. She cited Prof Anita Hill, the Oklahoma law professor who testified to the US Senate judiciary committee in late 1991 that her former boss, Judge Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her, as a particular inspiration.

She married Eamonn Doyle in 1995, and she took time out of her consultancy to rear their son, Oscar, born in 2001. Shortly after returning to the workplace in 2005, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and initial treatment was successful. Close friends remember her as a “dauntless mother”, witty at school meetings, determined to nourish and support her son, and the parent who “instigated all the life is short’ outings with the kids”.

In 2009 she had a recurrence of breast cancer, and it was then that she heard about the dragon boat paddling movement initiated by Dr Don McKenzie, a sports medicine physician at the University of British Columbia, Canada. He had found that paddling helps to control or prevent lymphoedema – a swelling condition arising from removal of lymph nodes as part of breast cancer treatment.

Paddlers

Within a year, she had founded Plurabelle Paddlers in Dublin’s Grand Canal Basin. After an intensive fund-raising drive with friends and neighbours, two craft were acquired and she tracked down expert British coach Julie Doyle, recently resident in Carlow.

Tiernan was struck by the fact that no boat could launch without a full complement. Therefore, the Plurabelles created a community of women, now numbering more than 60 members, with a shared commitment to overcoming fear about illness and maintaining health and wellness with each and every paddle stroke.

In 2011, the Irish women won silver and bronze at the International Dragon Boat Federation Cancer Survivors’ Championship in Malaysia. That same year, Tiernan was offered a disused premise on Hanover Quay which was converted to a clubhouse. With its distinctive exterior painted by graffiti artist “Eoin”, and ceramic mural by Orla Kaminska, it has become a landmark. As one of her early recruits said in an award-winning RTÉ Radio One documentary by Nicoline Greer, she was “one of those people you can’t say no to”.

She maintained her quick wit throughout her illness, along with her attention to detail; latterly, midnight blue was the favoured shade for her immaculately kept nails.

Shortly before her passing, she was out on the dockside with her family and a close friend. After Oscar alerted them, the two crews training in Anna and Livia pulled alongside the quay to greet her. As they set off again to the beat of their helmswoman’s drum, she lifted her walking stick to salute them. They, in turn, lifted their paddles together to give her a “paddlebang” salute.

She is survived by her husband Eamonn Doyle, son Oscar, her mother Lily, sisters Elizabeth, Maryrose, Eleanor, Catherine, Gráinne, Maelíosa and brothers Eunan and Con.