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‘Toil of Irish women’ celebrated at Birmingham St. Brigid’s celebrations

Caroline Brogan, Prof Fiona de Londras, Rosemary Adaser and Caoilfhionn Gallagher

By Annie Driver

Caroline Brogan, Associate Solicitor at Irwin Mitchell and Trustee of Birmingham Irish Association, opened Birmingham’s St. Brigid’s celebrations which celebrated trailblazing Irish women with an Equality Panel Discussion.

The first speaker at the event was Prof Fiona de Londras who stressed that ‘The language of equality is a universal language’. Though ‘Ireland is cultivating a narrative of equality’ within politics, there is ‘no broader vision or political agenda. There is a myth in the political system promoted by Republican egalitarianism that if you work hard you will be equal. Unless politics does the hard work then interventions will only benefit people short-term’.

Following on from this was Rosemary Adaser, founder and CEO of The Association of Mixed-Race Irish who spoke about racism in Ireland and her own personal experience being a survivor from an industrial school where she was subject to ‘very gendered abuse’: ‘Pain is pain, that is what I have learnt. It’s not about race or poverty. Pain joins us to each other and our humanity’.

Call Me Unique performs.

Human Rights barrister Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC was the third speaker of the evening and described the challenges faced by the ‘restrictive legal system in Ireland’ for achieving women’s rights and the devastating implications of ‘welfare cuts and austerity’ which predominantly affects single mothers. Caolifionn also described the bravery of the anonymous women who have ‘listened to men argue over intimate details of their lives in court’. Caoilfhionn ended her talk stating that ‘forgotten women need to be written back into history’ using Constance Markievicz, known as Countess Markievicz,  the first elected female MP as an example of women who remain in the margins of history. Caoilfhionn also referred to women in Birmingham who have also gone unnoticed in the shadows of predominant male figures.

The panel discussion to follow celebrated the voices of Birmingham Irish women was introduced by Yardley Labour MP Jess Phillips who believes she shared much in common with St. Brigid and reflected on the ‘Toil of Irish Women’ in the city of Birmingham: “Working class immigrant women, community activists and those who carry out charity work for those battered and bruised, exploited and forgotten”.

Jess reminisced on the nuns from Our Lady of Charity who set up a service in 1986 to reach out to sex workers in Balsall Heath and Sister Hellen from St. Mary’s Handsworth who rescued girls as young as 13 from criminal gangs who were selling them for slavery, offering them charity and care: “They were as warm as they were tough”.

Jess Phillips, Labour MP Yardley.

She also outlined the work of Maureen Connelly, Chief Executive of Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid who ‘Poured her soul into helping women flee from abuse’. Jess remembers these women as ‘equally Birmingham and Irish working class and the legacy of their graft, heart and action. I am incredibly proud of their toil’.

Birmingham-born comedian Jo Enright and writer Catherine O’Flynn both spoke about their experiences growing up as the youngest in six families and how their Irish heritage has shaped their identity and careers.

Carol Scanlon described her experiences leading Irish dancers in Birmingham to be World Champions.

The evening ended with the Manchester-born artist Call Me Unique singing for the audience and who told The Irish World: “Growing up in Handsworth there were close links between the Jamaican and Irish communities and I’m happy I could be part of this event.”

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Like St. Brigid, who was a pioneering woman of her time, these women are writing into history the experiences of Irish women in Birmingham, fusing together the arts, law, academia and comedy.

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