Saturday 20 July 2019

Ireland's 10 most influential women

It includes eight heads of state, 25 CEOs and 11 billionaires. The list of the 100 most powerful women in the world — as selected by Forbes magazine — has become a hardy perennial and an intriguing barometer of wealth and influence.

This year's roll call, announced on Wednesday, features key figures from both sides of the Atlantic — Hillary Clinton and Queen Elizabeth — social-network queens Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Susan Wojcicki of Google and the comparatively less well known (on this side of the world) technology mavens Cher Wang of HTC and SingTel's Chua Sock Koong.

Once again, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been identified as the world's most powerful woman, but there's also room for such diverse figures as pop provocateur Lady Gaga and supermodel Gisele Bundchen.

Taking the Forbes 100 as our inspiration, 10 of our writers are celebrating Ireland's most influential women from right across the spectrum.

We acknowledge entrepreneurial acumen and those who impress most in politics but we also highlight women whose stars have burned brightly in sport, culture and philanthropy.

We want to recognise those women who may not be household names but have enriched the country with their talents and/or convictions.

Here are our experts’ considered choices in several key areas of Irish life.



Powerful women are pretty thin on the ground when it comes to finance. Only one of the 50 plus companies on the stock exchange are headed by a woman; CPL's Anne Heraty, who also happens to be the recruitment company's founder.

Among the country's big listed companies, just one woman holds an important position: building materials giant CRH’s finance director, Maeve Carton, who oversees sales of around €16bn a year. No Irish woman has ever come close to this level of responsibility in corporate Ireland, although she still plays number two to the chief executive.

The Department of Finance appears to be as reluctant as the corporate sector to promote women to positions of real power, which makes the appointment of Ann Nolan as a second secretary a rare appointment.

Ms Nolan's title may sound modest but she runs the department's financial management services division which is responsible for regulation of the bombed-out financial services sector. She is also in charge of the National Asset Management Agency which has a big say over what happens to commercial property prices.

Curiously, Ann Nolan is not the only one in her family to smash through the glass ceiling; her elder sister Helen Nolan is company secretary at Bank of Ireland, which means that she acts as the bank's representative in the outside world, rather like a foreign minister represents a country overseas. What did the Nolan parents teach the Nolan sisters?

Another company which has recently appointed a woman to a senior position is television cable company UPC which named American Dana Strong as chief executive of its Irish operations.

The 41-year-old who moved to Ireland from Australia last December looks after the company's 858,000 customers and helps determine everything from what we watch to how fast our broadband moves.

Honourable Mentions

Irish Stock Exchange boss

Deirdre Somers, Josephine Feehily, who is head of the Revenue Commissioners, Amanda Pratt of Avoca Handweavers, and designer Louise Kennedy, who has recently expanded into China.

The Winner

Ann Nolan, for her role in re-shaping the banking industry that destroyed the country.

By Thomas Molloy


A small number of women are highly influential at the top of the world of books in Ireland. It's impossible to overlook Maria Dickenson, head of book purchasing at Eason.

Eason has branches all over the country and also pre-selects books for many independent bookshops. It is responsible for more than half of all the books sold in Ireland.

This means that to have a real chance of success, a book has to make the Eason’s stock list. Although Ms Dickenson works with a small team of buyers, the final decision on all books handled by the chain rests with her.

A noted book enthusiast and highly respected in the trade, Ms Dickenson studied English at Leeds University before moving to Ireland, where she worked in the library in Trinity College and did a masters in UCD before joining Eason 14 years ago.

Of course, the books business would be nothing without writers — and the top-selling Irish writer of all time was a woman. Maeve Binchy, who sadly died last month, sold over 40 million books to date. Her place as the top-selling Irish writer has now been taken by another woman, Marian Keyes, whose total sales are now around 25 million copies and who has influenced a host of young women writers.

Paula Campbell is the head of Poolbeg, which over the years has published more new (mainly women) writers than anyone else and is the imprint where big names like Marian Keyes and Cathy Kelly had their first books published.

Honourable Mentions

Publisher Breda Purdue of Hodder Hachette Ireland, whose authors have included Deirdre Purcell and Patricia Scanlan; Penguin Ireland's Patricia Deevy who has edited Sinead Moriarty and Ross O'Carroll-Kelly; and Cecelia Ahern's agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor.

The Winner

Maria Dickenson, because if a book is bought in Ireland, it's probably been selected by her.

By John Spain


If publicity means power, then no one has become a more potent media presence in the past 12 months than model Georgia Salpa.

The 27-year-old Kim Kardashian lookalike went from being largely unknown outside Ireland to being hailed as one of the world's sexiest women. Appearing on international covers of FHM and ranking fifth in the magazine's sexy 100 list — their highest new entry — as well as starring in the UK's Celebrity Big Brother has seen interest in Salpa soar.

Google Trends reports a huge leap in the model's online interest while increased media exposure has helped her secure her place on the books at leading UK agency FM models.

With a US reality show on the cards and a reported €300,000 fee to star in I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, Salpa looks set to extend her sphere of influence.

Of course, it's not always the most prominent showbiz players who exert the most pull.

Hylda Queally is one of Hollywood's most

in-demand agents but leaves the limelight largely to those on her impressive client roster.

The Co Clare woman is a key figure at leading talent agency CAA, and this year saw her stock soar even higher after her latest protégées – The Artist star Bérénice Bejo and The Help actress Jessica Chastain – secured Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress.

Queally has also proved herself adept at spotting new trends, helping guide clients such as Kate Winslet into the lucrative territory of TV acting.

On the home-front, few women carry more A-list clout than Caroline Downey-Desmond.

The MCD director is consistently behind the scenes of Ireland's most star-studded events, including the Cheerios Childline Concert and last year's US presidential concert in College Green.

She recently added theatre production to her bulging portfolio after John Costigan stepped down as managing director of the Gaiety in May.

Downey-Desmond's ability to secure big names for fundraisers has enabled her to raise millions for the ISPCC, a feat that was recognised in

May with a Variety Humanitarian Award.

Honourable Mentions

Honourable mention to IFTA-nominated director Linda McQuaid, ‘queen of reality TV', who introduced audiences to The Voice of Ireland. Saoirse Ronan also gets a nod after making it on to this year's Young Irish Rich List with a fortune of €2m.

The winner

Caroline Downey-Desmond, for her bulging contacts book and influence over Ireland's entertainment scene.

By Chrissie Russell


With most of the top legal positions — Chief Justice, Director of Public Prosecutions, Attorney General and Chief State Solicitor — being held for the first time by women, Mná na hÉireann are trailblazing in the once male-dominated legal arena.

But other female Irish lawyers also wield significant influence in Ireland and further afield.

Patricia O’Brien, Under-Secretary General for Legal Affairs and Legal Counsel to the United Nations, is a major player in international law.

Solicitor Noeline Blackwell, director general of the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC), is one of the country's most progressive lawyers.

FLAC has been to the forefront of the campaign to reform Ireland's archaic debtor laws, as well as seeking changes to housing and social welfare laws that affect the country's poorest.

The achievements of Ireland's first female Chief Justice, Mrs Justice Susan Denham, cannot be overlooked.

The soft-spoken Supreme Court judge is quietly leading a law-reform campaign to reduce court delays with her support for a constitutional referendum to allow the creation of a new Civil Court of Appeal.

Honourable Mentions

Retired Supreme Court Judge Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness for her tireless and lifelong commitment to children's rights.

High Court Judge Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne for her compassionate treatment of mortgage defaulters and her skilful handling of the Sean Quinn contempt case.

Ivana Bacik, the lawyer, Trinity College lecturer and Labour senator, has been an outspoken advocate for women's rights since her early days as a student-rights activist.

The Winner

Noeline Blackwell, for her relentless defence of those with no legal resources or nous.

By Dearbhail McDonald


Siobhán Ní Ghadhra is chief operating officer for Telegael, one of Europe's leading animation and live-action TV production companies. Based in Co Galway, since 1998 they've won IFTAs and Emmys, with their work being seen in 140 countries.

She's previously worked with the legendary moviemaker Roger Corman and now oversees all in-house and co-productions for Telegael, liaising with the likes of Disney, Discovery Kids, BBC and Nickelodeon. A former board member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Ní Ghadhra holds degrees in Law, Economics and Communications.

Miriam O’Callaghan epitomises the “have it all” wonder-woman. Having cut her teeth on BBC's flagship ‘Newsnight’, she's since become the doyenne of Irish current affairs television, with Prime Time, Budget and election specials, and the Queen's visit.

She's also carved out a niche in light entertainment in the summer-only ‘Saturday Night with Miriam’, and made a successful move to magazine-style radio with ‘Miriam Meets’. But O'Callaghan hasn't lost her bite, as proven by that famous presidential debate with Martin McGuinness.

Clare Duignan is managing director of RTÉ Radio, one of the most important jobs in Irish broadcasting for one simple reason: per capita, we listen to the radio more than any other country.

And RTÉ is still the market leader, ratings-wise, and the driving force in shaping the so-called “national conversation”. Previously the Director of Television Programmes, Duignan (left) was a trailblazing figure as one of the first women in RTÉ TV's current affairs department.

She now has the massive responsibility of balancing the demands of public service broadcasting with the need for commercial success in straitened times.

Honourable Mentions

Helen Shaw, head of Athena Media; Marian Finucane, top-rating radio host; Lisa Pereira, Morning Ireland producer; Terry Prone, spin-doctor, frequent contributor and married to head of RTÉ Board; Claire Byrne, rising TV and radio star.

The Winner

Miriam O’Callaghan, because when she speaks, the nation really does listen.

By Darragh McManus


They may not be household names, but this list would not be complete without mention of several women who made a hugely positive contribution to Irish life this year.

First, Mari Steed and Claire McGettrick — co-founders of the Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) group — were tireless in their work to prove that treatment of women and girls in church-run Magdalene laundries “constituted slavery”.

The group has delivered more than 500 pages of newly gathered survivor testimony to the Senator Martin McAleese-led inter-departmental committee examining state involvement in the Magdalene Laundries.

Second, Prof Aoife McLysaght — considered one of the country's foremost scientists — is conducting significant research at the school of genetics and micro-biology at Trinity College Dublin.

Last week, in recognition of her work, McLysaght was awarded a €1.3m research grant from the European

Research Council.

Third, Theresa McGuinness, the house buyer who has been dogged in her determination to see disgraced developer Thomas McFeely brought to justice.

McGuinness had been awarded damages of €100,000 in court after sueing McFeely's Coalport firm for shoddy workmanship on her house. McFeely didn’t pay so McGuinness launched bankruptcy proceedings. A UK court ruling declaring him bankrupt was overturned.

Now, thanks to her push for just-ice, the builder faces the prospect of being declared bankrupt in Ireland — with its 12-year penalty — rather than Britain, where bankruptcy lasts only one year.

Honourable Mentions

Orla Tinsley, who has devoted much of her life towards improving rights for fellow cystic fibrosis sufferers, and 16-year-old Joanne O’Riordan — born without arms or legs — but whose “no limbs no limits” motto has been an inspira-tion for those suffering disability.

The Winner

Theresa McGuinnness, for her willingness to stand up to a notorious bully.

By John Meagher


Internationally feted theatre director Garry Hynes was the first woman to receive a Tony Award for Direction for The Beauty Queen of Leenane. She co-founded Druid Theatre Company with Mick Lally and Máire Mullen in 1975, after meeting through the drama society of NUI Galway.

The company has since become the most successful Irish theatrical export ever.

Pat Moylan was appointed Chair of the Irish Arts Council in December 2008, a post with a tenure of five years.

She was artistic director of Andrews Lane Theatre and founded Lane Productions, which produced such hit shows as ‘I Keano’, ‘Twelve Angry Men’ and ‘Stones In His Pockets’.

Moya Doherty created our ‘cultural watershed’, when she came up with the idea for Riverdance as an interval act for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. She and her husband, John McColgan, mortgaged their home to finance the expanded stage show and it has since been seen live by more than 25 million people in 32 countries.

She is the director of Tyrone Productions, a founding director of Today FM and a member of the Dublin Theatre Festival Board.

Honourable Mentions

Maureen Kennelly, curator of Mountains to Sea, Dun Laoghaire Book Festival; Rosemary Collier, director and CEO of Kilkenny Arts Festival; Roise Goan, director of the Absolut Fringe Festival.

The Winner

Pat Moylan, the decisions she and her team make shape our artistic landscape, making her the most influential figure in the arts – of any gender.

By Sophie Gorman


It's not so long since designer Paul Costelloe controversially claimed that Irish women, “only a couple of generations out of the bog”, don't have a clue when it comes to fashion.

With such global style ambassadors as Saoirse Ronan and Amy Huberman, though, his words have never been more redundant.

From Costelloe himself to Lainey Keogh, Ireland has a long history of cutting-edge design — with the baton now being passed firmly down to a new generation of couturiers such as Eilis Boyle.

As the daughter of John Rocha, it was perhaps inevitable that our first contender, Simone Rocha, should follow in her father's footsteps with her own label.

But this year, and more specifically this season, the 25-year-old has stepped out of her famous father's shadow for good.

NCAD alumna Simone had her first official outing at London Fashion Week earlier this year. And with lashings of lace, leather and crochet, her AW12 collection earned rave reviews from fashion bible Vogue, among others.

Anyone who thinks that looking good is strictly for Ireland's red-carpet regulars, though, is clearly Off the Rails. Presenter Sonya Lennon is making philanthropy fashionable too after bringing the worldwide ‘Dress for Success’ programme to Dublin.

The non-profit organisation helps disadvantaged women get suited and booted for job interviews.

Between Una Healy, Daithi O Sé, and the upcoming nuptials of Brian McFadden and Vogue Williams, it's been a bumper year for Irish celebrity weddings.

But the frock we can't forget was that worn by model Aoife Cogan — who wed rugby player Gordon D’Arcy last month.

Hats off to Aoife for staying true to her boho-chic style on her big day in a backless Amanda Wakeley number.

Honourable Mentions

Model agent Celia Holman-Lee, who at 61 still regularly wipes the floor with socialites a third her age, Yvonne Keating for her flawless paparazzi fashion parade in the wake of her split from husband Ronan, and designer Orla Kiely, whose Birdie Wool Jacquard Shirt Dress sold out within minutes of being worn by Kate Middleton.

The winner

Sonya Lennon, for proving that fashion is not just about pretty frocks and high heels.

By Deirdre Reynolds


Social Protection Minister Joan Burton is in charge of a €20bn budget, which pays out money to two million people every week. She has the unenviable task of bringing in more cutbacks in the forthcoming Budget — while reforming our outdated social welfare system.

She is the deputy leader of the Labour Party — and is capable of creating coalition tensions with the frequent comments she makes on budgetary matters.

But she is an iconic figure for Irish women due to her rise to the top in the male-dominated world of Irish politics.

Attorney General Máire Whelan is the first woman in the history of the State to hold the position. Born in Kinvara in Galway, she was the person who made the call on the fiscal treaty, deciding that it was necessary to hold a referendum. She also has to vet every significant piece of new legislation and sits in on every cabinet meeting. And she will be playing a key role in getting the wording right for the Children’s Rights referendum later this year.

Catherine Day is the highest-ranking civil servant in Europe. Born in Mount Merrion, Dublin, the UCD graduate joined the European Commission in 1975. She rose all the way to the top, becoming secretary general of the European Commission in 2005. She can be relied on to give an honest assessment of the situation — having declared that Ireland was seen as becoming “arrogant” towards the EU during the boom. She will have a crucial role to play in January when the Government hosts the six-month EU Presidency here.

Honourable Mentions

Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald, Junior Minister for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton, Director of Public Prosecutions Claire Loftus, and Supreme Court chief justice Susan Denham.

The winner

Catherine Day, even though her job is apolitical, she has always kept her Irish identity in Brussels and is a valuable ally at a time when the Government is lobbying at EU level to reduce the cost of our €64bn banking bailout.

By Michael Brennan


The gender gap is a virtual Berlin Wall in the psyche of Irish sport, but Monday, August 6 took a lump-hammer to our time-worn chauvinism.

Katie Taylor and Annalise Murphy had the eyes of the country upon them as, within an hour of one another, they both bid for Olympic medals.

Murphy, sadly, came up just short on the Dorset coast but, in the East End of London, Taylor would out-box Natasha Jonas to guarantee herself a minimum of bronze.

Women’s sport, largely, gets paid mere lip service on our back pages and, for all their prior achievements, only the glow of Olympia really transported Taylor and Murphy into the national consciousness.

Katie's subsequent gold would be the first Olympic medal won by an Irish woman since Sonia O'Sullivan's 5,000 metres silver at the Sydney Games in 2000. And not since Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry came charging up the Cheltenham hill, first and second in the 2010 National Hunt Chase, has the gender of a sportsperson seemed less relevant.

The sheer breadth of Taylor's ringcraft was a revelation to those who imagined women’s boxing as some kind of moderately aggressive game of charades.

And Walsh's historic third place finish in this year's Aintree Grand National on Seabass, a horse trained by Ted, her father, delivered a pretty jarring rebuke of the late Ginger McCain's old-world view that “horses ridden by

women do not win Grand Nationals”.

We would propose Taylor, Walsh, her sister-in-law, Nina Carberry, and the ever-combative and fearless Derval O'Rourke as competitors who simply ennoble their sports by the purity of their will to win. That they are women is incidental.

Honourable Mentions

This year, special mention should also go to show jumper Jessica Kurten, winner of the

Amsterdam Grand Prix, having lost her best horses and fallen out of the world's top 100.

Likewise Fionnuala Britton, who won the European Cross-Country crown, as well as Ursula Jacob, Grainne Murphy, Joanne Cuddihy and the Maguire twins, Lisa and Leona.

The winner

Katie Taylor, for reminding us that somewhere in the personality of modern Ireland, grace and dignity can prevail.

By Vincent Hogan

Poll: Who is Ireland’s most influential woman? You choose.

The results will be revealed in next Saturday’s Weekend Review in the Irish Independent

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