By David Hennessy
Limerick- Zambian rapper and singer Denise Chaila was at the Irish Embassy in London last week to launch the embassy’s St Brigid’s Festival.
The embassy celebration, which kicked off celebrations around London and indeed the country, was presented by actress Niamh Branigan.
After Denise performed some of her music, she joined Angela Dorgan (First Music Contact, Music From Ireland) in conversation.
There were then three separate panel discussions on women in music, women in politics and women in sports tech.
Denise Chaila, London- Irish musician Yunè Pinku and composer Sarah Glennane joined a panel discussion on women in music moderated by Dorgan.
Finn McRedmond of The Irish Times and New Statesman moderated the politics conversation that included Catherine Dunne, Joanna Cherry MP and Baroness Jenny Chapman.
The BBC’s Sarah Mulkerrins moderated the conversation on sports technology that featured Cora Staunton who has been an All- Ireland winner with Mayo and also played AFLW in Australia as well as Emma Meehan (Precision Sports Technology) and Cathy Craig (CEO INCISIV and Ulster University).
Denise Chaila told The Irish World: “It’s incredible. It adds a level of significance to a day that otherwise I might have spent journaling alone in my bedroom.
“There’s something really palpable about feeling so many people come together to celebrate magic and myth and history at the same time.”
Denise revealed she debated whether to perform a certain song in an embassy. Having decided to go for it, she got a great reaction from the crowd.
“I think a lot of people think that being in spaces like an embassy means that you have to have this sort of austere performance of yourself, but the embassy I believe is here for us.
“It’s here to represent who we are and to help us direct our passions, not to mold us into conformity.
“It’s full of people who are so serious about trying to platform and not to steer conversations.
“They’re looking for what’s happening, not to take control of something that they want to be happening.
“And I think that’s rare.
“I think to find an embassy space that isn’t concerned with authoritarianism is a really beautiful thing so I’m really grateful. I’m kind of lucky to have landed here.
“I am deeply grateful to have established space and to have people who are establishing space around me, to allow me to be myself.
“To not wear a suit, to not stuff myself into boxes and to dwell in the intersectionality of my identity and my experience and to come here as every version of myself all at the same time.
“You know, everything everywhere all at once.
“And live and breathe and be witnessed.
“I think that there’s a lot of dignity in witnessing one another.
“So this was this was important. This was very important and the version of me who lives in 2016 in a politics and political theory class not knowing what I’m going to do with it or my desire to do music is super satisfied in this moment.”
Denise led the London celebrations having earlier in the week taken part in a special concert in Kildare that featured many more Irish female creatives such as Gemma Hayes, Una Healey, Roisin O, Tolu Makay and more.
“It was a really amazing display of independence.
“That’s something I really appreciate about Brigid.
“A lot of people around the world talk about Irish womanhood in ways that I find kind of like trite and pedantic because they’re not going deep enough sometimes.
“There is a general appreciation for how strong Irish women are but I keep meditating on the fact that the word vulnerability comes from the word ‘wound’ in Latin and it’s about how strength has to come from somewhere.
“When you see somebody on a stage baring their soul, being strong, and standing in whatever broken shoes that they have, there is something liberating for everybody in the room.
“Because we all have seen aunties and mothers who have been bruised, who have been beaten.
“We come from a country that is super rife with difficulties when it comes to the Magdalene Laundries, when it comes to the Repeal the Eighth movement when it comes to the church and its stance on prophylactics even, and the way we consider womanhood and sex and purity and innocence and respectability.
“Now we live in a space where I think we’re watching people rewrite these ancient curses by just being honest and allowing themselves the freedom to sing.
“And that’s what Brigid is right now for me too, the sacred flame.
“You’ve got to burn away the shame to be something new, and I think that’s what we are doing.”
Asked if Ireland and Irish women are stepping away from the shames of the past into a brighter era, Denise said: “I think so, without forgetting about it (the past).
“We’re using it to inform what we don’t want. We know what we don’t want and we know how to avoid it, to stand against it, to build barricades against it.
“But we also are learning how to dream about features that we do want.
“And that’s the goal of actualization that I’m constantly trying to drive myself towards.
“I think that we’re used to genuflecting and abandoning ourselves.
“And when we stop, everyone’s lives get better.
“We can only love people fully when we ourselves feel loved by ourselves, when we can give from full cups instead of half empty ones.
“This is a really beautiful time to be alive. I’m so grateful to be a part of movements and spaces that are generating interest and momentum towards these goals.
“That’s a gift I’ve been given.”
What’s next for you? “I’ve got new music coming in the next two months.
“I have the St. Patrick’s Day Festival in Dublin at Collins Barracks, which I’m extremely excited about.
“And this summer I am doing, believe it or not, my first Irish tour.
“I’m so excited about getting to release myself from a pandemic haze and touch the country that built me and see people’s faces, give them my music and share because I hate the word ‘fan’ or ‘fandom’.
“I feel like I have been blessed with a community of people who have deemed to pay attention to the little noise that I’m making in my corner of West Ireland, and give me such love.
“I can’t believe that this is my life. Perhaps that sounds cliché but I really mean it.”
Sport was also being discussed on the night and asked if Limerick are going to keep winning All- Irelands, Denise said: “Luimneach abu.
“Yes they are.
“I’ve watched every match since I think 2017 after a lifetime of not knowing whether or not I’m permitted to now I finally feel like I’m part of a parish.”
On her journey of feeling like she is now ‘part of a parish’ Denise added: “It’s kind of like entering somebody’s house and not knowing to what extent you can be free.
“Do you feel comfortable enough to take your shoes off? To sit cross legged on the on the couch? Do you feel comfortable enough to go wash the dishes yourself?
“After year five or six, I realised that I’m probably never going to feel as at home anywhere as I do in Ireland.
“When I realized that I said, ‘You know what? I have a responsibility to let people know that I feel like this is my home. Let people know that I’m willing to invest deeply and allow them to invest in me because I’m not going anywhere’.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Sarah Mulkerrins of The BBC told The Irish World: “It was a huge honour to be asked.
“I think it’s wonderful now in Ireland that we have St Brigid’s Day as a proper public celebration, and that we’re celebrating women in all different capacities- in sports technology, arts, music, culture, the whole lot.
“I think it’s lovely to have something as a standalone day to recognise and celebrate.
“We kicked off with Denise Chaila singing and rapping so brilliantly and magnificently, and setting the tone.
“And then having, whatever your interest is, you could go into a room and just sit for an hour and hear these trailblazers, whether it’s in politics, whether it’s in music, or in sports tech, and listen to them and just be really inspired.
“It was a huge honour to be asked to host that conversation with them and it inspires you, I think, to be better as well in your own life.
“You see other people doing it, and you’re like, ‘Why can’t I?’
“And that’s the most important thing about female representation. The more you see other people doing it, the more you’re like, ‘Well, why can’t I?’ And so it grows.
“And I do really believe representation matters.
“And I think an hours’ chatting to those three there has just left me totally inspired and wanting to figure out how I can possibly kind of cross paths with them again, just because they’re interesting people and how lucky we are we have them in Ireland.
“I could have talked to them for another three hours.”
Sarah welcomes a greater representation of females in sport now although there is still more work to be done.
“I just think the more you’re seeing, the better it is because it becomes normal.
“I think there’s still a way to go in terms of some of the talk and rhetoric still around it but I just believe we’re here to stay.”
Sarah has been working with the BBC for many years and last year had the honour of presenting their coverage of the All- Ireland finals.
How did you start on that journey?
“It was a love of sport.
“I grew up in Athenry and played camogie, loved playing any sport really that was on offer.
“Was kind of a sporty kid.
“And also our family was quite into GAA.
“I’d spend my weekends going watching Athenry, going watching Galway, up to Croke Park as well.
“And it was men and women.
“We watched the Galway camogie team.
“I just watched a lot of sport, and we were a sporting family.
“It was mam as much as dad so there was no kind of gender bias or anything like that.
“It was just a thing we all did, and I just loved it.
“And then probably maybe from 12 or 13, I realised I wanted to work in TV and radio and saw there was a university course in DCU that would be good.
“Got into that luckily, and then was banging down the doors afterwards.
“I got in doing runner shifts and production assistant shifts.
“Ear to the ground was the first programme and worked at Setanta and worked at an independent production company.
“And then about 12 or 13 years ago, I was sensing that my time at Setanta was coming to an end or I felt like I wanted a new challenge and was applying for lots of different jobs and had applied to the BBC for years and years and never heard back and then randomly heard back about one application.
“Before Christmas I came for an interview.
“A couple of days before Christmas, they asked if I could start in January so just packed the car up and left Dublin for a six month contract.
“It has been a long six months. This has been about 12 or 13 years.”
Was it a pinch me moment to present the All- Ireland finals from Croke Park?
“Growing up the All- Irelands were just the thing you’d build your summer around.
“I got a call a year before anything was announced asking me if I’d work on the GAA stuff and I was like, ‘What? Is it going to be on the BBC?’
“I was like, ‘This is a wind up, right?’
“And then it was just the most special perfect day.
“It was just this lovely day where we kind of knew the significance and we knew how many people would be in the UK either first, second or third generation Irish and would have a connection to the sport.
“That there might be a lot of new people just watching it going, ‘Oh, what’s this? This is exciting’.
“And it was just a really lovely day. I remember everything going really smoothly.
“I remember my friends asking me, ‘Are you not nervous?’
“And usually you get nervous and you have adrenaline, but I just felt the whole team felt really calm because I think we were just like, ‘This is just such an amazing moment, how great that we get to do this, let’s enjoy it and let’s celebrate it’.
“It was amazing.
“And afterwards, seeing the reaction was fantastic because it was something we were all really proud, of.”
Cora Staunton told The Irish World: “Any of these celebrations or occasions that you can have to celebrate women- in sport, politics, music, whatever it is- I think it’s really important because it’s like anything else, if you don’t have women on television, you don’t have role models.
“I think to have these events and to make sure women are to the forefront, it shows other women that they can be empowered to go on and be whatever they want to be.”
A theme of the chat about sports technology was the uneven playing field between men’s and women’s sports.
Cora Staunton said: “You think it’s just on the playing field females are probably behind the eight ball, but when you hear it then in sports tech and other areas, I suppose you see it in sports media as well: There’s a long way to go.
“It’s not just a battle that our players are fighting.
“It’s in many different spaces really.”
Cora now coaches a men’s team but did not need to start work there to see the imbalance that exists.
“I was seeing it yourself when I was playing.
“You were on the worst pitch, you mightn’t have lights, showers, so you always knew it was there.
“Men’s GAA players are getting travel expenses, the women are still fighting for them.
“I was talking about this 15 years ago, and to see that it hasn’t really changed and it’s changed only a small way, I suppose that’s the biggest concern.
“You don’t want to wait another 15 years to see all these changes.”
On returning home to coach GAA after playing AFLW professionally in Australia, Cora said: “The professional and amateur really are, in terms of certain things, miles apart.
“It was a shock going over and to see all the things that you get as a professional sports person compared to when you’re back home playing for your county. You’re fighting for everything.
“Things have improved in my time since I’ve left but at the same time, it’s too slow.
“The GAA is huge back home and the whole integration thing- The GAA and LGFA and camogie, and all them integrating. I think that’s the way to go and the sooner that’s done, I think the playing field will certainly level more.”