Monday 22 January 2018

Building their own worlds

As we celebrate International Women's Day, Deirdre Reynolds finds out what life is like for women in Ireland in 2017

Books and bibles: Jullie O'Brien is studying for her Leaving Cert. Photo: Damien Eagers
Books and bibles: Jullie O'Brien is studying for her Leaving Cert. Photo: Damien Eagers
Sr Elizabeth Gillian is a novice with the Carmelist nuns in Knock
We are family: Lorraine with husband Kevin and their children Alex (17), Jade and Kian (15), Sam and Abbie (14), Max (10), Jasmine and Callan (8). Photo: Susie Kelly
Elizabeth Gallagher. Photo: Sligo Champion

International Women's Day is being marked across the globe today, and if there's one thing 2017 has shown us so far, it's that women aren't afraid to use their voices or pursue what's important to them. Dating back to a protest by women workers in New York in 1908, the annual celebration toasts the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, while calling for greater gender parity.

More than a century on, as the campaign's hashtag #BeBoldForChange trends on Twitter, we find out what life is really like for Irish women in 2017.

Julie O'Brien (18) from Meath is a fifth year student at Scoil Mhuire girls' secondary school in Trim, Co Meath

"When I was born 18 years ago, my parents, sisters and brother were given a diagnosis of Down Syndrome. I think they suffered a bit of emotional trauma, but when they saw me and got to know me, they knew they had a little gem - so their shock went out the window.

"Their aim since has been for me to develop and achieve my full potential. At the moment, I'm in fifth year Leaving Cert Applied, studying subjects such as childcare and computer science. Over the past few months, I have also been studying for my driver theory test, which I hope to take next year.

"My dream when I finish my education is to perform on stage in dance, music or drama. Nowadays, you see more people with Down Syndrome on TV and in movies, and I think that's great.

"If there's one word I would ask people to think about on International Women's Day, it's 'inclusion'. I'm a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, an aunty, a niece, but most of all I'm a friend. Even though I'm the only person with Down Syndrome in my school, the girls don't treat me any differently. In fact, they slag me off just as much as anyone else!"

Sr Elizabeth Gillan (27) from Leitrim is a novice nun at the Carmelite Monastery in Knock

"When I finished my Leaving Cert, I wasn't ready for university so I did a course in Knock on faith formation. Then I read St Thérèse of Lisieux's autobiography, and something just clicked. I told my mother I wanted to become a nun and she said, quite sensibly, 'Finish university first'. I studied Latin and Spanish in Maynooth and even spent two years teaching English in Spain.

"By then, I'd already made up my mind. I couldn't go on desiring one thing, unable to commit myself to anything else. I visited the Redemptoristines and the Dominicans, but the Carmelites way of life and prayer really spoke to me.

"The Carmelite nuns are contemplative - they stay within their order. So entering the monastery two years ago was a really big decision. It's really sort of leaving one way of life - shutting down your email account, your Facebook, your bank, everything. But the hardest thing was saying goodbye to relatives because we have such limited visiting (hours). You really felt you were hurting them. The Carmelites mission in the Church is prayer. We have one hour of silent prayer in the morning at six and another in the evening at five.

"Then we have spiritual readings for about an hour during the day and two hours of solitude in your room. Whenever we work, we work on our own and try not to speak except at recreation periods, which we have twice a day. At 27, I'm the youngest nun here - the next youngest is 37 and the oldest is 90. Occasionally you'd miss things. I'd miss books which I used to read that I can't read here. It's little things, but really nothing much. As a woman, I've never felt like a second class citizen in the church.

"At the moment, I'm a novice. I'll take simple vows, please God, next year. That's definitely why I feel people who get married are so brave because I have at least five years to make up my mind. When I was very young, I suppose like anyone, I had that image of a Disney princess, (that) you have to get married to someone. I thought that that was the only way of life. But I'm so happy here. I feel I am where God wants me to be."

Former beauty therapist Lorraine Horan (42) from Monart, Co Wexford, is a mum-of-eight

Lorraine and her husband Kevin, have their hands full with children Alex (17), twins Jade and Kian (15), twins Sam and Abbie (14), Max (10) and twins Jasmine and Callan (8). "Growing up, I only had a brother, and always wanted to have a big family. But I never thought I'd have three sets of twins because as far as we've gone back, there's no twins on either side.

"When I had the first set, I said to the sonographer, 'I'll see you next year', just messing. Ten months later, I was back with another set. At one stage, I had five under 3. Whenever we're out together as a family, people do a double take. People always ask me did I use IVF. I have some friends that weren't able to have children and that makes me feel so guilty.

"I was so blessed with eight and they have none. When I was pregnant, some people said to me, 'Ah, you've enough now'. But I'll decide when I have enough... I've four doing the Junior Cert this year, one doing the Leaving and two for Communion, so it's kind of bedlam. I'm always on the road and the washing never ends - I have 10 clothes horses.

"The Irish mammy still plays a really important role in society and it would be lovely to see some kind of formal recognition (of that). I know we get paid through love, but it would be great if we could get some money for it as well! Now that the kids are all in school I'm thinking of going back to work. Things are getting more expensive all the time. Our grocery bill would be at least €500 a week. But I couldn't be happier."

Elizabeth's advice for a long life

Elizabeth Gallagher. Photo: Sligo Champion

At 108 years old, Elizabeth Gallagher (above) is Ireland's oldest citizen. She lived alone at her home in Moneygold, Co Sligo, until last year, when she finally relented and moved in with her son Hugh and daughter-in-law Bridget in Ballintrillick.

Born to Francis and Bridget Rooney in 1908, she grew up with four siblings in Rathhugh after her father died in 1911.

"It was very hard but she was a great mother," she says. "She sent us to school... I was reared on the farm and worked on the farm. I was well used to hard work. It wasn't easy."

Her evenings were spent doing her lessons and "any work that was to be done" around the farm. She recalls the tough times of rationing during World War Two. "You hadn't a grain of sugar. There was no grandeur in them days."

Elizabeth had three children and now has nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. She admits she never thought she'd reach 108. Her secret to long life? "Hard work, out in the fields working on the farm, happy as could be," she smiles."People have great times today and don't know it."

- Sorcha Crowley

Irish Independent

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