Eileen Flynn had only spoken in the Seanad about half a dozen times when she stood up to make a brief speech about direct provision. It was July 30, a little over a month since 30-year-old Flynn became the first Traveller ever elected to the Irish parliament after she was appointed to the Seanad by Micheál Martin.
Standing between the polished wooden benches and plush green leather seats of the chamber, Flynn stood in a grey hoodie and black jeans. She was talking about asylum seekers in a hotel in Kerry who had gone on hunger strike in protest at conditions they had been forced to live in. Standing in front of the justice minister and rocking slightly from one foot to another, Flynn was reading from a sheet of paper which shook in her hands.
"I'm sorry, minister, I'm a little bit nervous reading," she said. Flynn suffers from dyslexia and has mentioned a number of times that she struggles with reading aloud. She continued: "We have a long history in Ireland of treating unwanted people a certain way. As an unwanted person, I know what that feels like."
Speaking to Weekend weeks later, Flynn reveals that she seemed nervous because she had been near tears throughout the whole speech.
"I'm a very soft-hearted person. But I don't see it as a weakness, I actually see it as a strength," she says.
"I can get very emotional. If only more politicians were like that, I think that Ireland would be a better place."
There is almost nothing about Flynn that fits the stereotype of a generic, empty suit style politician. Since being elected to the Seanad, she's been reading up on the list of words that are forbidden in the upper house. "I say most of them every day," she says, dryly.
I told him: I got this seat on my own merit. I am not just a 'token'.
A popular human rights activist who fought to defy almost every barrier put in her way as a Traveller woman, Flynn "never thought" she would end up in Leinster House. There was effusive support across the political spectrum for the Taoiseach's decision to appoint her to the Seanad. Usually, party leaders use the 11 spots to look after unsuccessful general election candidates from their own parties. Flynn was the only non-political party person picked. Yet hers was the seat some people decided to focus on. She describes how, after starting her new job, a male independent politician walked up to her in Leinster House and told her she was a "token seat".
"I told him: I got this seat on my own merit. I am not just a 'token'. I am going to work hard while I'm in here," Flynn recalls.
"I want to work well with everyone in there. But I will not put up with any bullsh*t from any man that tells me I was a 'token seat'."
Being the first Traveller ever to serve in the Oireachtas is a big deal that comes with big headlines. It also comes with big problems.
"People just see me as 'the Traveller senator'. I'm Eileen Flynn, a person who is a Traveller and a senator. Pigeonholing me in one specific area undermines my own talents as a woman who grew up in a working class area of Dublin," she says.
She now gets treated like the sole spokesperson and authority on the Traveller community. Flynn is nervous about the media, having watched the way it has written about and depicted her community for years. She is regularly contacted on social media, and asked to account for or explain the actions of apparently every Traveller in Ireland.
"I think it's an awful lot of responsibility to hold the weight of 40,000 people on your shoulders," she says.
"Being a Traveller and suffering inequality, it's at the heart of me. It is my main focus, people who are marginalised in Ireland. But that includes Roma people, refugees, migrants, homeless people."
Because she's seen how the Traveller community has been excluded from politics, she tries to make sure her political campaigns include other excluded groups. For example, she believes political feminist campaigns should not just be "for rich, white, middle-class women".
"We need to look around and see who isn't in the room. Where are the migrant women? Where are the disabled women?" she says. Flynn isn't too celebratory about her inclusion in national politics, because she believes there is still so much work left to do to make the system diverse.
"I have never seen a black person in Leinster House, we need much more diversity," she says.
"I would genuinely encourage any member of the Travelling community, especially Traveller women, to get involved in politics and get involved in this political system that has more of a say about us than we do ourselves, as a community."
The most challenging aspect of her new role so far is not because she is a Traveller woman but because she is based in rural Ireland. Flynn lives in Donegal with her husband and her 10-month-old daughter. (She had to use a different surname on social media ahead of their wedding, in case the venue realised she was from the Traveller community and cancelled.)
"The hardest part of the job for me is walking out the door on a Monday morning, leaving my child, and coming back to see her on a Friday," Flynn says.
"I would never take on a job I can't handle, but I think that's a very difficult part of politics for women in rural Ireland."
She says that caring for her baby and working as a first-time senator is combined with a ferociously demanding cleaning regime at home. "My house is spotless," she says, and explains that Traveller women are so afraid of being stereotyped as dirty or unclean that the pressure to prove the opposite is immense. Flynn is starting in Leinster House from a point where she has to prove people wrong. Diversity in Irish politics is so paltry at the moment that anyone who is in any way diverse, like Eileen Flynn, risks being defined solely by their identity despite what their other political ambitions or aspirations may be.
Hazel Chu, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, is the ninth woman to hold the role and the first ever person of colour. Chu is Irish and both of her parents are Chinese immigrants. She is an ambitious and successful Green politician, who became the first Irish-born Chinese person called to the Bar of Ireland. But she says she is at risk of being defined only by the racist abuse she has suffered since entering politics.
"It's not trying to be flippant but it's like Mark Hamill saying he'll never play anyone else other than Luke Skywalker... That's my worry, people will say: she never talks about anything other than racism," Chu says.
Chu has endured vicious racial abuse on social media, abusive letters and has even been harassed on the street. But she speaks about all of this in a casual way which suggests she has maybe developed a higher threshold for abuse than white politicians.
"The Twitter stuff and the mail stuff I can handle, even the through the door stuff," she says, referring to people hand delivering abusive messages to her family home.
The first time this happened, she had to call the gardaí. But now the only thing that "gets" to her is when she is abused on the street while she's with her daughter.
"It's when you're with your child, it gets a bit different," she says.
Chu speaks out against this racism, but it is not what she wants to be remembered for. She talks about how Anna Lo, the former Alliance Party MLA in Northern Ireland, did the same when she was racially abused and many people only ever associated her with racist abuse after that.
"I would like, if anything happened to me, to be remembered for something other than that," she says.
"There are many days I wish I kept my mouth shut. But there are plenty of days when I realise that changing it will involve not keeping my mouth shut, as much as people want me to. So there are days when I wish I never spoke about racism. But it's like the days when I used to look in the mirror as a teenager and wish I didn't look Chinese. I can't change it, so I'd rather challenge it."
Catherine Martin, the deputy leader of Chu's party, has spoken to Chu about how having children made her see climate justice as a more urgent issue. In a similar way, Chu says having a child made her hyperconscious of the need to eliminate racism. She explains how she doesn't want her daughter to end up in A&E, like Chu's brother did, or with an ashtray smashed across her head, as Chu's mother did, because of the colour of her skin. In the midst of the abuse, her own mother has asked Chu: "Is this worth it?" By way of response, Chu says she could, "in good conscience", recommend politics to a young girl who looked like her but with a clear warning.
You will get hounded," she says. "There have been times when I've been scared.
She explains that it hasn't escaped her notice that she's one of the few people of colour in her own party, and that there are still no elected people of colour in Leinster House. She singles out the appointment of Eileen Flynn as a positive development, but says there's more to be done.
"Would it have been really hard for the three guys to put someone of colour into the Seanad? Please?!" she says, criticising Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and her own party leader Eamon Ryan.
Chu is speaking while sitting at a grand dining table in an ornate room in Dublin's Mansion House. Displayed around her are extravagant portraits of former lord mayors - all the male ones. One lonely woman sits in a smaller frame above the door. Chu gestures at it and explains she had "hoped" the woman would be one of the few former female lord mayors. But she turned out to be an attractive friend of a former mayor instead. Chu has now commissioned a portrait of Kathleen Clarke, the first female lord mayor, to redress the balance. Before politics, Chu had a lot of experience in corporate Ireland - which she explains prepared her for some of the sexist tropes that she endures now. A recent radio ad for a current affairs programme featured Chu laughing extremely politely while a male presenter asked her questions. When asked why she's so polite during interviews, Chu says the pressure is always on women to "provide the laugh, provide the politeness".
"I don't think there is any woman who hasn't been called some name or another - like 'bossy'. When you're called that, you take up a different tactic. You decide you're going to laugh at the jokes, or be calmer in your tone or add a notch up to my voice," she says.
"I do it, because you have to."
She notes that women in politics, particularly left-wing politics, face harsher criticism than their colleagues.
"There is a certain strength that you need to have when you're young, and when you're a woman, and when you want to make a change within politics. You will inevitably get bullied, no matter what party you are in," Chu says.
Her own party has recently suffered the loss of a number of young members, many of them women. Chu says there is a "layered" approach to criticism of women in the Greens, and there is plenty of it at the moment now that the party has gone in with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. "People look at the Greens and say, 'I expected better of you', and then they look at women in the Greens and say 'I definitely expected better of you'," Chu says.
At the moment, Chu has a bit more autonomy than her colleagues in Leinster House - which includes her other half Patrick Costello, the Green Party TD. Chu was against the new coalition Government, and believes the Greens should have been aspiring to be in power but "not at any cost". Despite having to watch her colleagues being whipped to vote for deeply unpopular policies that she doesn't agree with, it hasn't stopped her amibitions for a seat in the Dáil.
"I think if you want to instigate change, you need to be there," she says.
Chu started out in local politics, which is where Yemi Adenuga is at the moment. Adenuga became the first black woman elected to a county council in Ireland when she won a seat on Meath County Council in 2019. The Fine Gael councillor says she wasn't thinking about race at all when she first ran. She hadn't even been thinking about politics for that long, either.
Adenuga was born in Nigeria to a father who had seven wives and 27 children. She was number 16.
"I grew up in circumstances where, as a girl, I wasn't given a chance," she says.
Her mother was told that Adenuga and all her sisters would end up working as sex workers, on the street. At the age of 13, Adenuga remembers consoling her crying mother.
"We are going to work so hard that our uncles and aunties will wish that we were their daughters," she told her mother. "We'll make you so proud that their sons will wish they were girls."
All Adenuga knew was that she wanted to "be somebody". She moved to Ireland in 2000. She became a star of the Irish version of Gogglebox, and was eventually approached by Fine Gael and asked to run. "I didn't want to say yes just because I was asked," she says.
"I'll be very honest with you: when I ran, race wasn't an issue.
"I felt in myself that if as a person I can deliver something to the community, and the opportunity is there to do that, I will be very happy and proud to do it."
But during the campaign, racism quickly surfaced. On the doorsteps, someone asked her if she thought as a black woman she would be "intelligent enough" for the job.
Another remarked with surprise that she had "good English" for a "black lady". She was accused of stealing Irish jobs by running for the council, and she has had people challenge her pronunciation.
"That in itself was the very reason why I was even more determined to win," she says.
When she was elected, she read headlines about herself making history as the first black woman to win a council seat. She hadn't thought about that title at all, and only realised what a big deal it was when young black people told her she was "an inspiration".
"If people see this as an inspiration, then it is an inspiration. It is what it is, even if I didn't see it originally," Adenuga says.
Initially, she didn't really want to talk about racism but she describes it now as "a monster".
The last Government, led by her own party, set up a committee that was tasked with designing an action plan against racism over the course of a year. But it seemed to Adenuga to start from the point of investigating if racism was even a problem.
"I was just livid. What are they going to be doing for a year? We have heard people's lived experiences, seen situations on social media and yet we want to take a year to put together an action plan?" she says.
Adenuga says racism is "nearly worse" than Covid-19 - because at least with Covid-19, people agreed there was a problem and a need to deal with it. The existence of racism is still, apparently, up for debate.
The mother of four, who describes herself as a Christian, took matters into her own hands and designed a motion to make Meath County Council more proactive against racism.
Her plan includes a public information campaign. Her 11-year-old son came home from school one day and told her how his white friends had asked him for "an N pass" - permission from a black person to use the N-word.
"Where did they pick that up?" Adenuga asks.
"We need to educate people and engage with them if we are going to change anything."
Local politics is many things, but it's not often portrayed as exciting. But the grandmother, who is turning 50 next year, is absolutely effusive about the power of local councils.
"Being a councillor is a big deal," she says.
"The essence of politics is people centred. We're the ones who understand directly where people are coming from, they engage directly with us."
The pay, she says, "leaves a lot to be desired." It is supposed to be a part-time position, but that doesn't happen in reality. "If you don't answer someone when they need you, they won't be there when you need them at the ballot box," she says.
A constituent once called Adenuga late on a Sunday night, expecting an immediate response. The constituent complained that Adenuga was being paid "a lot of money" on her €70,000 salary. "I told her, I think you're mistaken," she says. "It's €17,000."
It's a modest income but Adenuga isn't motivated by money. Her main motivation, she explains, is passion. "Good representation is so important," she notes. "We are the catalysts for change in Ireland's society."
Hazel Chu and Yemi Adenuga photographd by Kyle Tunney, assisted by Liadh Connolly.
Eileen Flynn photographed by Lorcan Doherty