Say No To Hate #SpeakersUnicorner, Barrow Street

On Saturday, 10 August we gathered to protest hate speech, fascism and extremism.  My speech:

Fear eats the soul. Fascism eats the soul of every country where it takes hold, by breeding fear, and hate, division and brutality. 

This country voted overwhelming for LOVE. This country voted overwhelming for COMPASSION. We voted for the rights of people to be different from us, to make their own decisions. The Irish people did not vote for hate. 

Irish voters have rejected fascists – they have no democratic mandate here. Yet they continue to attack those who have a legitimate mandate. Hazel Chu is Irish, and she has a democratic mandate. The fascists pedal the most ridiculous false mythology of what it is to be Irish – (and yet they’ve the gall to talk to us about unicorns!!)

Anyone who knows anything about Irish history recognises that we are a nation of immigrants. It is profoundly hypocritical, and dishonours our history, and the struggles and successes of millions of Irish people around the world, to attack immigrants and refugees living here now.    

Those of us who believe in democracy, we must continue to strive for what is best about us, not be torn apart by fake divisions. We must continue to honour our democracy, honour our common humanity and decency. We must say NO to Hate. 

Words matter. Violent words lead eventually to violent despicable actions.  Freedom of speech is a right, but each and every one of us is responsible and accountable for our words and the actions they may provoke. Those who pour bile on our streets and over social media must be held to account.  

We urgently need to have more robust laws in this country to address hate crimes and online abuse. 

Tormenting the vulnerable in society is not strength. Strength is upholding the rights of the most vulnerable. Courage is not picking on people’s differences to demean them, courage is standing up to intimidation. True freedom of speech is not abusing that freedom to denigrate others, it’s using it to increase our mutual understanding, to bring light not fear.  

Democracy is about choice, equity, and our responsibility to each other. So beware of those who only want to empower themselves to disempower others. Beware of those who dress themselves up as anti-corruption when all they do is corrupt the truth and make empty noise, disrupting residents here on Barrow Street, harassing people going about their daily work, and abusing people online.  

They want to keep us distracted by using far-right tactics of blaming and shaming minorities and vulnerable groups – immigrants, refugees, trans and gay people, travellers, feminists, those with disabilities. We are wise to their tactics, and we reject their fear-mongering. 

They want to keep us distracted from addressing the real causes of inequality in our society, the real challenges we face with housing, homelessness, healthcare, and climate breakdown. 

Science is real. Vaccines work. Facts matter. Diversity is strength. We will dispel their hatred with our rainbows. 

Today and everyday, we reject extremism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism. We will not be distracted from building a better, fairer, more humane, inclusive, and equitable Ireland – for all who live here now and in the future. 

We are a people moving towards Love, we are a people moving towards Compassion, Kindness and Peace now, we will not be dragged back into the division and acrimony of the past.

From this street of the River Barrow, to every street beyond, today we say NO to fascist propaganda. Today we say NO to intimidation and baseless lies. Today we say NO TO HATE.

The ongoing debacle over religious control at the new National Maternity Hospital


  • The Sisters of Charity have not yet completed their full divestment from St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group – they remain as sole owners of SVHG, with religious ethos intact.
  • No religious control in day-to-day running of new National Maternity Hospital – clinical independence has been assured, but legal process to deliver this not yet completed.
  • Archbishop of Dublin still technically remains as ex-officio Chair of the Executive Committee (Board) of the National Maternity Hospital.
  • New National Maternity Hospital at Elm Park will not be in public ownership or control – the land will still be owned by SVHG and leased to State at peppercorn rent.
  • SVHG will own the hospital building, but with a lien on it so it can’t be sold or secure loans, the building will be fully publicly funded and its operation funded by the State. 
  • Despite agreement reached in spring 2017, still no sight of completed governance structure in public domain.  

The debacle over ownership, control and ethos at the new National Maternity Hospital has the key ingredients classic Irish pickle: Land, public money, church, and women’s healthcare. Let’s try and unpick the key governance, control and ethos issues which have hindered the progress of this key healthcare infrastructure. 

Despite assurances from all parties involved, the public still aren’t 100% clear about religious influence and control at the hospital and its layered governance structures.

Will the new National Maternity Hospital be publicly owned and controlled, and will religious control or influence be involved? It’s a complex issue, requiring an indepth look into the governance structures of two long-standing healthcare providers – the National Maternity Hospital, and St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group (both private companies). The third party in this pickle is the Department of Health.

Everyone agrees a new National Maternity Hospital is long overdue – the current facilities at Holles Street are not fit for purpose for 21st century healthcare delivery. Like most hospital building projects in this country, it has a long and complicated history, and the longer it goes on it more it costs the taxpayer.

First announced in 2013 with an indicative budget of €150m, five years later the budget had doubled to €300m of public money and likely to be significantly more before it’s finally operational.

It’s been agreed that the new hospital will be built on the St Vincent’s Hospital campus at Elm Park. That’s on land owned and provided by the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group. SVHG was incorporated in 2001, and currently operates under updated constitution under the 2014 Companies Act as a private company (DAC) limited by shares with charitable status. Its sole shareholder are the Religious Sisters of Charity, who appoint the board, (which currently has 10 directors – 9 men and 1 woman).

In their Constitution (Memorandum and Articles), the Purpose of the company states : ‘the continuance and furtherance of the ethos, aims and purposes of the Congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity.’ Under its Objects, Object 2 states: ‘to conduct and maintain facilities in accordance with the Health Care Philosophy and the Ethical Code of the Religious Sisters of Charity.’

Now the Sisters have stated that this will change and this Purpose and Object will be removed when a new holding company is formed, which I’ll come back to later.

Some historical context of the governance of hospitals and healthcare is useful to understanding how we got here:

St. Vincent’s was originally founded in 1834 by the Sisters of Charity. A century later in 1934 it purchased land at Elm Park for £25,000. It now has two hospitals on that site – the public St. Vincent’s University Hospital, and St. Vincent’s Private.

The National Maternity Hospital was established in 1894, and in 1903 received its Corporation Charter from the Crown. In 1936 the Charter was amended when the National Maternity Hospital was rebuilt with public money. It’s this 1936 Charter that the NMH still operates under for the purpose of its corporate governance, 4 years after the Irish Eucharistic Congress, and just months before the newly minted Constitution came into effect – a time where the Catholic Church was flexing its muscles in the fledgling Irish State, with increasing control and influence on  healthcare, education and social care in general, and specifically the chilling implication for women’s rights.

The New 1936 Charter provided for up to 100 governors of the NMH, who would establish an Executive Committee or Board to manage its affairs. The Governors elect the ordinary members of the Board at each AGM and the Master once every 7 years.

Governance is devolved to the Board  – they effectively run the hospital, with management further devolved to the Master. Unusually for the time, the charter also made specific provision for there to be a minimum quota of women on the board.

There are a number of governors who are ex-officio – by virtue of their position – and there are also a number of places on the Board that are ex-officio. These 4 positions are: The Archbishop of Dublin (who also is automatically appointed Chair); The Lord Mayor of Dublin (Vice Chair); The Master; and the parish priest of Westland Row. Alongside these ex-officio positions, there are 2 nominations of Dublin Corporation (DCC); 2 nominations of the Minister for Health, and 21 ordinary members who bring clinical and medical as well as legal, business and other technical skills to the board. There are currently about 79 governors (members) and 28 on the Board.

In 1930’s Ireland the Catholic church was most definitely seeking to stamp its authority and influence on the governance of the NMH. Nowadays, the Archbishop doesn’t exercise his right to chair, and isn’t involved in the board, but is still kept informed of significant developments. The effective chair of the board is the Deputy Chair who is elected at the first board meeting after each AGM.

So neither the current National Maternity Hospital Holles Street nor St Vincent’s are in public ownership, though both receive the majority of their operational funding from the public purse, and operate under licence from the HSE.

Apart from the usual building delays with projects of this cost and complexity, it’s the wrangling over a new governance structure for the new hospital at Elm Park site, between these two healthcare organisations and the Dept that has hampered its progression.

Negotiations reached an impasse in 2016, as the NMH wanted to retain a separate board and its mastership model; and St Vincent’s wanted all the hospitals on the campus to be run by one board with the NMH having 2 seats on that board.

Kieran Mulvey helped the two parties reach an agreement in April 2017. The new NMH at Elm Park would be run by a new company, which would be a 100% subsidiary of SVHG – so still in private control –  and ultimately owned by the Sisters of Charity as sole shareholders.

The new company – The National Maternity Hospital at Elm Park DAC has yet to be fully constituted. However, under the Mulvey agreement, this will the structure:

  • The company will retain the identity and ethos of the current NMH, with clinical, operational, financial and budgetary independence, without religious, ethnic or other distinction.
  • Its independence is assured under its reserved powers, with a ‘golden share’ held by the Minister of Health.
  • There will be 9 directors: 4 appointees of SVHG; 4 appointees of the NMH including the Master, and one international expert in obstetrics and gynaecology.
  • 2 of the NMH directors will also sit on the SVHG board.

In August 2017, planning permission was granted by An Bord Pleanála.

So at that stage, it could be summed up as  proposed clinical independence for the NMH, with no religious influence day-to-day;  BUT ultimately the company would still be in private ownership of a religious order. Which led to huge protests that the government were essentially handing over €300m of public money and our new National Maternity Hospital into the nuns’ hands – generating understandable unease about access to healthcare which is at odds with Church doctrine including abortion care, sterilisation, and access to IVF.

The Sisters of Charity responded by committing to end their involvement in St Vincent’s Healthcare Group and no longer being involved in the ownership or management of the new National Maternity Hospital. They stepped down from the board of SVHG, and stated they would form a new holding company with charitable status – St Vincent’s Holding CLG –  that would ultimately own SVHG and its assets. Crucially they also stated that their ethos would no longer form a part of the new company’s purpose or objects, and that the clinical independence of the NMH would be enshrined in its Memorandum and Articles:

“Upon completion of this proposed transaction, the requirement set out in the SVHG Constitution, to conduct and maintain the SVHG facilities in accordance with The Religious Sisters of Charity Health Service Philosophy and Ethical Code, will be amended and replaced to reflect compliance with national and international best practice guidelines on medical ethics and the laws of the Republic of Ireland.”

All well and good indicating there will be no religious control or influence in either SVHG or the NMH. Except it hasn’t happened…yet. The public haven’t had sight of the new constitution of the holding group, or the constitution of the new NMH. It took 18 months for the legal document giving effect to the Mulvey deal to be circulated to the parties, and now the Minister of Health is seeking an additional Public Interest Director be appointed to the new NMH board, which would bring the number of board members to 10.

And the land? Well, the site apparently can’t be ceded or sold to the government as SVHG has loans secured with it, so it looks like the Minister is now seeking a 99 year lease on the site at a peppercorn rent. The building itself will have a lien on it so it can’t be sold or used to secure loans by SVHG.

And the urgency now? Well, if contracts allowing the commencement of key building work at the site are not signed by the Department of Health by December 31st, the entire project is in jeopardy, as new EU regulations come into effect on Jan 1st 2019, requiring zero energy standards for publicly-run facilities. If the project is delayed, plans will have to be redrawn, the costs will certainly rise considerably.

If the Sisters of Charity deliver on their commitment, I think it’s highly unlikely that there will be religious control or influence in the day-to-day running of the NMH, or effecting the experience of the people using its services. We need to see a timeline for when these changes will come into effect.

However, the New National Maternity Hospital will still not be in public ownership or control, and without change to its Charter or Constitution, the Archbishop of Dublin and the Parish Priest of Westland Row will remain as Governors whether they choose to be actively involved or not. It’s not only the governance at SVHG that needs to be altered, but also at the NMH.

Church and State are still intimately interwoven in our healthcare system, and this debacle only demonstrates the deep complexities of untangling the two.  

We’re not looking for a Christmas miracle, just for the respective organisations and the department to get the legal details and governance structures finally and fully resolved. They’ve had years to work on this, we can’t lose our new national maternity hospital over it. #OurMoneyOurHospital

Sign the petition here:

Listen to Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shorthall on NMH ownership on Sean O’Rourke

Collective action for gender equality in theatre

Monday marked a major milestone on the road to gender equality in Irish culture with the publication of gender equality policies from ten leading theatre organisations (The Abbey Theatre, Cork Midsummer Festival, The Corn Exchange, Druid, The Everyman Theatre, Dublin Theatre Festival, Fishamble: The New Play Company, The Gate Theatre, The Lir Academy and Rough Magic).

On International Women’s Day 2016 I called on the theatre sector to achieve full gender equality by 2021. At the final public meeting of #WakingTheFeminists in November 2016, a working group of representatives from several theatre companies was established. The collective action of publishing their gender equality policies will go a long way to achieving the three original objectives of the #WakingTheFeminists campaign – policy, action plans and measurable results; equal championing of women, and equitable pay for everyone.

The campaign commissioned ground-breaking research led by Dr Brenda Donohue, Dr Tanya Dean and Dr Ciara O’Dowd, Gender Counts, which forms the baseline for measuring progress, and the organisations have committed to using that methodology. Already, theatre organisations have made significant progress since 2015, and other culture organisations have also taken up the challenge. A key part of their commitment, and ultimate success, will be learning from each other, and holding each other to account on an annual basis.

In 2017, the then Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht requested all National Cultural Institutions to have gender equality policies in place in this for this 100 year anniversary of women’s suffrage. Hopefully the NCI’s will follow the theatre sector in jointly making their policies public by the end of the year.

#WakingTheFeminists wanted not only to be a driver of change in the theatre sector, but also a catalyst for change in other sectors. By jointly publishing their policies it’s also the hope of the working group that other sectors take up this collaborative approach to achieving gender equality. While each company drew up its own policy in response to its own circumstances, there are several common threads including:

Gender equal boards

Gender equality as a board priority, and progress regularly reported at board meetings

Annual reporting of gender statistics of their programmes using common methodology
Introducing and improving dignity at work policies and practices

Commitment to achieving gender balanced programming over a five year period

Embedding principles of equality in mission statements and strategy
Recognition that gender is more than binary

As a parting gift in 2016, #WakingTheFeminists gave the companies a copy of Iris Bohnet’s book: What Works: Gender Equality by Design, an excellent account of an evidence based approach to achieving gender equality. It’s too soon to tell whether the sector will achieve full gender equality by 2021, but with this collective, transparent, and mutually accountable approach, informed by the best research available, the Irish theatre sector is well on its way.

Achieving gender equality requires leadership from the top and committed, consistent action from everyone. It’s not easy task, so there’s no room for complacency. One of the key areas to address is the gender pay gap. Updated research is required as Arts Council research from 2008 indicates that the gender pay gap for artists may be as high as 50%.

It’s also not enough to only have more women creatives, we also need to ensure there is a wider diversity of stories about women. Stories and storytellers shape our view of the world – with greater space for a variety of women’s stories, we will shift the historic imbalance of power in every sector.

The policies and more information is available here.

I’m voting YES to Repeal the 8th

I’m voting YES to repeal the 8th on the 25th May.
Yes because I trust women to make their own personal decisions in difficult circumstances.
Yes to allow doctors care for women without fear of an unjust and badly worded article in our Constitution.
Yes for compassion and care and an end to shame and stigma around sex and reproduction.
Yes to stop women having to travel for healthcare that should be provided at home.
Yes because what a women decides to do with her body is none of my business.
Yes because life is complicated.

The 8th is extreme moral protectionism. It protects an unrealistic notion of Ireland in the minds of a few. It demonstrates we are still collectively ashamed of sex and reproduction and the condition of being female in Ireland. Abortion, if it must happen, only happens ‘over there’ (the 1 in 5 poster of the Save The 8th campaign: In England 1 in 5 babies are aborted. Don’t bring this to Ireland). England is the still unfortunately the ultimate ‘over there’ for some in Ireland, defining ourselves by what England is not, at the expense of the healthcare of our citizens. This dangerous mix of moralism and nationalism brings into sharper view that a woman’s body is not her own, it is territory, it is property. At the moment of conception her womb and what happens with her body is treated as the property of the State.

This moral protectionism has failed. It is bad law. Article 40.3.3 does not protect women, it does not stop abortion, it does not save lives. The 8th is about fear and control. Fear that girls and women would have autonomy over our own bodies and agency in our own personal private decisions. The 8th says we don’t trust women. The 8th is about stigma and shame.

It has cost the health and even lives of women. The price of continued moral certainty for the few has been too high for the rest of us. Abortions happen in Ireland every day. Thousands travel annually to avail of more compassionate services in our wider EU community. We need to face this reality, and serve our girls and women better. We need to ensure they can access safe and legal procedures here, in consultation with their doctors.

The 8th criminalises girls and women who have abortions here, and those who would help in their time of need. Do we really want to see our sisters, friends, mothers, daughters go to jail in their thousands for up to 14 years for taking tablets in secret? That’s what the 8th demands. If people really believe that abortion is a grave crime, then why aren’t they calling for the legal consequences to be upheld? Yet we hear little from the the Save the 8th and Love Both on criminal prosecution. It is gross hypocrisy to campaign for the retention of the amendment, prevent the decriminalisation of abortion, and not advocate for its active prosecution.

I think the reality is that no-one here really wants to see girls and women and doctors going to jail for abortion. They’d rather pretend that abortion is wrong in all instances and should be prosecuted, but don’t want to contend with the reality of women being trialled by juries and being sent to jail, shut away from family and friends. They would rather punished us through the indignity of traveling for healthcare. They’d rather we’d just keep it all a secret.  

And that’s what we’ve been doing for generations. Shame wrapped up in fear, silence, and denial. Secrecy and denial cause trauma. Girls and women have carried this traumatic burden too long. We fail every girl and women in valuing secrecy over privacy, moral judgment over necessary healthcare, and in upholding a constitutional amendment that the UN has stated violates a woman’s human rights.  

At the time of 1983 referendum, the ‘mother and baby’ homes were still in existence. That was the anti-abortion lobby’s idea of ‘care and compassion’. We now know through the testimonies of so many women and children, that these homes were anything but caring and compassionate.

Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are rights. Religious doctrine should not dictate medical care. This was brought home to me in the starkest terms on a trip to Melbourne a few years back. I was visiting the site of the former Royal Women’s Hospital, now in offices while the precinct is being redeveloped. Just inside the entrance was an exhibition case displaying old medical instruments from the 19th century. There were two distinct sets of instruments used in difficult childbirths. The case label explained the distinction – the religion of the woman determined the set to be used. For catholic women, the instruments were to save the baby, and for protestant women they were designed to save the woman.

The design of those instruments was inherently influenced by religious bias in medical procedure. While those particular instruments are a relic of a distant past and another country, the 8th remains a blunt instrument of religious bias here and now.

I hear echoes of these attitudes from those calling for a NO vote.  As if determining the exact point that a woman’s life is in danger is always simple and clear-cut. When we have heard from so many of our leading obstetricians that the 8th hinders their ability to adequately care for all the women and girls in their care, and they abhor the continued medical exile of women.

Life and death are messy complicated processes. Twice in my life I have come close to death without knowing it. Twice I have had to be carried to hospital by loved ones, once as a baby with meningitis by my parents, once as an adult by my partner, when I was bleeding out. I needed urgent medical attention. I was saved not only by doctors, but also by the care and compassion of those who love me. The thought that our constitution denies other women medical care in their most vulnerable moments and prevents their loved ones from comforting them horrifies me. Everyone of us is vulnerable, and everyone of us needs care and support at times.

We have only just begun to listen to the testimonies, the real lived experiences of women, under the 8th. Every one of them is heartbreaking. Every one of the challenges us to listen with empathy and humility. Humility to acknowledge there are no absolutes here, and we don’t have the right to force women to continue pregnancies they don’t want or can’t have. Difficult, long-overdue conversations are happening daily now. Tender hot-spots of pain, trauma, denial and anger gently excavated, layers and centuries of misogynistic damage exposed to the air. Those conversations will continue regardless of the outcome on Friday.

The women of Ireland are strong, kind, resilient – we have endured too much for too long. It’s time we open our hearts and listen without judgement to the thousands of our sisters, mothers, daughters, who have needed care and have been failed here. It’s time doctors can fully care for women who are in the most difficult of situations at home. It’s time to support women in making our own personal decisions. It’s time to put compassion before dogma.

It’s time to stop punishing the tragedies of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality. No girl or woman should have to prove that she has been raped or abused in order to receive this care.

The proposed legislation has been carefully and thoroughly considered, taking into account the recommendations of both the Citizens’ Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee. Those who oppose abortion already had their input and didn’t come up with anything better. That’s the democratic process. That democratic process has led to the conclusion that the 8th must be repealed so the Oireachtas can legislate. That is why we are voting on Friday – not on our own personal views on abortion, but on letting our elected representatives legislate for its control. Your vote is your democratic right. Please be fully informed with facts when you use it. Please Repeal the 8th. YES.



Breaking the second silence of #WakingTheFeminists

Power, harassment, silence and theatre

I am tired and angry about continuously seeing the ‘women as victim’ trope performed on our stages and screens.  In the few instances where women are portrayed as seeking power, they are often ultimately punished for doing so.

Are we staging the truth of women’s existence to expose it to the light, or are we denying access to alternative narratives that would help women express their strength and power in a positive way? I think both are simultaneously true.

I was deeply uncomfortable recently watching the Suppliant Women on the stage of the Gaiety – precisely they were suppliant, not defiant. I also wonder about the cost for those women who perform these types of roles, and are cast to perform them again and again over the lifetime of their careers – what does this do to them?  

I recall Joanna Crawley’s excellent analysis of Polish theatre in this regard, which she spoke about at a #WakingTheFeminists public meeting. What does it do to us as audiences when we witness artwork about past traumas?  Are we at some level, traumatised or re-traumatised by that experience, in our bodies, or does art help us reframe and transform the traumas of the past? Theatre, as much as it has the power to positively transform our culture and be inclusive and healing, also has the power to replicate and perpetuate its inequalities.

According to psychoanalyst Darian Leader, we literally stage our traumas to achieve both closeness and distance from them. We connect with fictional stories to reconnect what is broken in us. In his book The New Black, Mourning Death and Melancholia he argues that “the place of the arts in a culture [is as] a set of instruments to help us to mourn. The arts exist to allow us to access grief… In our unconscious use of the arts, we have to go outside ourselves to get back inside.”

We need to pull our focus right back and see and hear clearly what the theatre is showing us about women’s experiences. Until we acknowledge and address the violence against women in real life, the theatre we unconsciously programme will continue to scream this violence at us. Will we finally listen? Will we finally speak the unspoken in the real world? Will we make space for more powerful and strengthening narratives about women to allow us to shape a different destiny for half of humanity? This isn’t just about one person, or one incident, or only the theatre sector. It’s everywhere. But in the theatre, we have the power to start to tell different stories from different perspectives, to begin to reshape the culture.

This has begun with Grace Dyas, Lisa Tierney Keogh and others and their great bravery in speaking up. Their truths begin to displace the deceit and abuse of power that has gone unchallenged too long.

It also challenges those of us who may not have been directly affected by bullying or abuse, but knew it went on. We had all heard stories. I believe there’s not a single senior person working in Irish theatre today who hasn’t heard the stories, or has been aware of bullying, abusive behaviour.

Both the abuse, and the culture of silence around it, place each person who has been abused by these men into an invidious situation. On the one hand they are told to be brave and speak out, sometimes at great personal cost, and on the other hand they are told to be cautious, careful and keep quiet, also often at great personal cost.

It maybe difficult to do, but I believe that for our culture to change it means that many more women and men will need to come forward to share their stories about their experiences, and what they have witnessed. I just hope that if and when they do come forward that they have support and are fully informed of their rights and legal options, and if they do speak out they don’t have to do so in fear of potentially negative consequences. There are some risks in speaking out, but there’s great power there too, especially when many voices join together. I also believe there has never been a better time to speak out than now, and I hope the conditions for truth-telling continue to improve.

Everybody knows
Not all bullies are sexual predators, but all sexual predators are bullies. Harassment and bullying have been an ‘Open Secret’ for years. The trouble with open secrets is that that while they may appear to give people some comfort that they are not alone, because they sometimes share their experiences in private, open secrets also shut the conversation down. They go only so far, and the perpetrators are not publicly held to account. If ‘everybody knows’ and nobody does anything about it, I can only imagine how much more isolating that is for people at the receiving end of abuse. It is  protective it is of perpetrators. Where there is not explicit condemnation of abusive behaviour is it perceived as implicitly condoning it, and that needs to change. Open secrets are like severely gerrymandered districts, the truth flows silently along certain planes, but rarely crosses boundaries into the open. ‘Everybody knows’ doesn’t really mean everybody knows until an open secret becomes a public truth. And it’s only when things become public that we can really deal with them in the open, and change them.

It seems crazy to me that one set of laws (defamation) are actively set against another set of laws that are there to protect us from harassment and abuse. We have work to do on the legal structures too.

I’ve been thinking about complicity, and what we can do right now when faced with others in powerful situations which they abuse. As a producer and company manager I once warned a young intern about taking up a job at a certain theatre because of the stories I had heard over the years, and I was concerned for her. It seemed like all I could do at the time. But it’s not enough. We need to figure out ways to speak up when we see or hear something, and not leave those who have been abused to tell their story alone – a clear step by step process. I’ve had to do a lot of questioning myself. And often I don’t know what to do, but I’m working on it.

Those of us who have some power and roles of leadership, whether as executives or board members have a responsibility to create, promote and enforce structures and cultures of openness where people can speak freely and report abuse, bullying and misconduct without fear of retribution, without fear of a damaged career, without fear of being discredited and disbelieved. We can no longer be bystanders, and just shake our heads and roll our eyes. We need to actively open paths to truth, and be proactively supportive. And there’s a lot more to be done to ensure the conditions for abuse never arise again in our workplaces.

We cannot achieve gender equality in Irish Theatre without facing up to cultures of abuse on and off stage. It is not enough just to say we are open to women and expect them to come forward without doing the work to make our spaces, procedures and structures safe, welcoming and supportive, and communicating exactly what can be done to seek redress when people abuse their power. We all need to do a better job of communication, to really listen to each other, without dominance.

In order to support those who wish to speak out and to change the culture of abuse and silence, we all need to be more knowledgeable about:

  • clear definitions of harassment and abuse
  • How to report an incident, whether it has just happened for from years back
  • Who to report an incident to
  • Who is responsible for investigating an incident, and the process involved
  • What to do if someone reports an incident to you, and the steps to take
  • What your legal rights are
  • What supports are out there and how to access them (incl. counselling, legal, HR)
  • How to talk about this in public if you wish to do so

Powerful men and abuse of power
Power is a very useful thing. It can do great good in the right hands. In the wrong hands it does great damage when it is abused. All abuse is an abuse of power. Some very powerful men have a finely honed calibration of the balance of power, not just in general, but in every particular situation and social setting. They understand who has power and who doesn’t and to what precise extent. They gauge minutely who they can and can’t abuse, and how and when they can indulge in all sorts of bad and criminal behaviour with impunity. They know when and where and with who to be utterly charming, gregarious, entertaining, generous. They understand how to hold on to their power at all costs, to implicate others in their power structure, and to maintain silence and complicity. They know to associate themselves with other powerful people to increase the feeling of hopelessness in speaking out in those who may wish to challenge them. They hide in plain sight. They relentlessly go after anyone who may critique or call them out even in the mildest way. They destroy or attempt to destroy the careers of those who would challenge them. And when the are held to account for anything they immediately become a wounded pathetic animal, lashing out in fury, acting the victim, seeking sympathy for their supposedly ‘unjust vilification’ (as if their predicament, entirely of their own making, is worth vastly more sympathy, than those they have wronged). They are given the most ironic of platforms of power, on boards, on air, on television, at the top of companies and institutions, are funded/paid vast sums of money, are highly successful in many fields, can look forward to a comfortable retirement on a decent pension, and this exercise of toxic power and abusive leadership is allowed to go unchallenged because of this success, and their ability to extend and leverage their own power and dismiss others. And eventually, if they have to face up to public outrage over their misdeeds, they are more sorry about their own diminished power than feeling genuine remorse and empathy with those they have abused. We have seen this with recent cases in the US, but it is a common pattern.

They depend on silence. But then sometimes the day arrives when their power fades. Each person they have abused holds a jigsaw piece, that if all those various pieces were put together, we would all see a very different picture from that carefully cultivated public persona. When the silence begins to crack, we all begin to see a little more clearly the long-term damage that silence about abuse does to all of us caught in this malign web of power.

Silence as Trauma
It’s the silence that keeps us in the web of trauma. Our culture records, stores and reshapes our collective memories, including our collective traumas. Trauma, personal or collective, remains invisible and deadly until silence is broken. Breaking silence is necessary for healing to occur.

Two years ago, as #WakingTheFeminists started to break silence about gender inequality, TRAUMA the exhibition was running at Science Gallery Dublin. One of the curators, neuroscientist and Director of Science Gallery London Daniel Glaser, wrote in his introduction:

“It’s the burying of traumatic memory for the individual, the family, the culture that preserves its power. And this imperfect encoding and uncontrollable recall lies behind post-traumatic stress disorder. When memories break through in unrelated everyday life situations it is the chaotic, fragmented echo of the original traumatic moment that shatters the conscious present.”

To me, storytelling, whatever its format is one of the most powerful ways we shape our world. The stories we tell ourselves, our cultural narratives, define who we are, and who we are not; what we talk about; and what we don’t talk about; what and who we include and what and who we exclude.

It’s time to reshape our stories, to repurpose their power. It’s time to break again the hold of silence about sexual harassment in all our power structures.

There is no democracy without meritocracy; there is no meritocracy without equality of opportunity; equality of opportunity cannot effectively exist when one group is silenced.

Equal voice
Equal opportunity
Equal pay
Equal representation
Equal bodily autonomy
Equal power

This second silence is breaking. We are taking back our stories; We are taking back our stages; We are taking back our bodies; We are telling our truths. What has been whispered will become a roar until it shatters every pane of illusion and truth is finally acknowledged, and our culture tilts towards honesty and equity. Beyond the breaking of silence there are new horizons of healing, resilience and growth, and ultimately a shift in the balance of power. I have huge admiration for those who are already speaking out – I believe and support them. I hope more will follow in their own time with their own truths.

This is not a chorus of Supplication. This is a chorus of Defiance. This is a chorus of Strength & Support. This is a chorus of Change. Come Sing.

National Cultural Institution’s gender equality policy workshop

Creative Ireland Gender Policy Workshop hosted by Minister Humphreys
National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks  

Lian Bell & Sarah Durcan  

Thanks to Minister Humphreys, to all board members and executives & staff of our National Cultural Institutions, and to Creative Ireland for organising this day on gender equality policy.

Every one of us in this room is privileged to be both custodians of our culture and shapers of its future. The challenge is that gender inequality in many forms is still an unfortunate reality across our culture and in all our institutions. From our stages to our screens to our museums, wherever we look the absence and underrepresentation of women confronts us. The choice is simple: We can choose to continue to uphold inequality because that’s the way it always has been, or promote equality, because it’s the only way it should be. 100 years ago we didn’t have a Republic with National Cultural Institutions, and women didn’t have the right to vote. Visionary, determined and persistent people changed that. The conversations and work that you begin today will be a watershed moment in our cultural timeline – the great opportunity to finally fully include and recognise over half our population in all our cultural endeavours. A year and a half ago #WakingTheFeminists called on our National Theatre to lead the way in gender equality, and they began significant research and planning that now puts them at the forefront of this work in the theatre community. Today we are immensely grateful to you all for widening out the scope and ambition of this equality movement, so that all our institutions can become world leaders in achieving gender equality together.

Gender is the primary way we sort the world – it’s the first category we automatically sort people into – before race, age etc. Our culture is inherently biased against women and our history erases or diminishes women’s roles. We know that there are many challenges facing you in your work and organisations. And when we’re rushed, under pressure, and short on resources, we’re more likely to make stereotypical or biased decisions. Lucy Kerbel of Tonic Theatre (a company doing great and effective work in the UK in training in this area) proposes starting the equality process with a simple question that can help clarify your thoughts and motivations here: Ask yourself: “Why is gender equality important to me?” Take a few moments to think about that.


#WakingTheFeminists was a year long public campaign to raise awareness around gender inequality and to encourage publicly funded theatre organisations to embed systemic change in their governance, policy and activities.

We believe that action and change only work when individuals throughout the organisation are educated, empowered, and encouraged – everyone can then be part of the solution. But for long term change to be fully embedded and cherished by any organisation – leadership and direction start with the Board. Gender equality policies need to be championed, formulated, adopted and monitored at Board level so they become part of the organisation’s DNA. They set a focus and framework for action by the individuals who make up the executive and staff.


We called on all theatre organisations in receipt of public funding to establish and maintain equality for women artists by implementing:

  1. A sustained policy for inclusion with action plan and measurable results
  2. Equal championing and advancement of women
  3. Economic parity for all working in the theatre

This is just a start, but in the past year we have seen shifts in attitudes and actions across the theatre sector. It is now 4 years away from the deadline that we set of 2021 for our sector to achieve full gender equality.  While we are still far from seeing full equality, all the top theatre companies are grappling with how it affects their organisation, planning policies and considering the practical steps they can take. Representatives of key theatre organisations, from the national theatre to independent artists, are now working together to find practical solutions in a dedicated Gender Policy Working Group. We realised early on that by encouraging key organisations to work together, the positive impact on our community would be further reaching, which is why it is so great that we are all here today to talk to each other about our aspirations, challenges and solutions.

None of us can afford to ignore the issue – the price of exclusion is too high for women, but also for our organisations – in terms of reputation, talent acquisition and retention, and even finances, and not least to the continuing damage to our cultural future. Our audiences, stakeholders and the media increasingly notice and call out gender inequality – see the recent backlash to announcements of programmes by Druid Theatre and by Irish music festivals and literary festivals that featured few or no women artists. Taking proactive measures and communicating them well is essential.


We understand that it can feel daunting to address gender inequality – it is a complex issue with many roots – and knowing where to begin can be challenging. However, it’s not necessarily a costly endeavour to address – it just requires attention, commitment, collaboration and smart solutions. The important part is to decide to begin somewhere, make a plan, try something, monitor its success, modify it, embed it, and repeat the process. There are examples of success, training programmes, and quality resources available to assist in this. We are not experts in gender equality nor in the methods for achieving it. But we can share some of the things we’ve learned along the way in the hope that they may be useful to you in today’s deliberations. As organisations we may do things in unique ways, but we face many common issues in regard to gender inequality, and therefore there are more common solutions that unique ones, meaning we can support and learn and improve together. We’ve handed out a short list for you today of some of those resources.

#WakingTheFeminists encapsulate this as: SEE IT, SAY IT, MEASURE IT, CHANGE IT.

Take Stock

  • ‘What does not get measured does not get fixed’
  • #WakingTheFeminists commissioned groundbreaking quantitative research into the ten of the top funded theatre organisations for 10 years. This crucial baseline data gives a picture of the current situation AND a yardstick for measuring change. Following the money is one of the most enlightening ways of understanding gender inequality at work. In theatre, as the money goes up, the number of women tends to go down.
  • Measure to detect what’s broken and refine interventions.
  • Also measure what IS working in your organisation – where are the areas you’re doing well, find out why, replicate and share.
  • Identify three key areas you can start to tackle now. Think about how you’ll measure and track change over time in these areas.
  • Numbers matter, but it’s not just a numbers game – understanding how these numbers came to be and how they work with each other is just as important.
  • It’s more about creating the conditions for success in our organisations, than solely focussing on the numbers.
  • #WakingTheFeminists is currently investigating an online platform where orgs can easily track and compare their gender equality numbers – there is the potential for this to be adapted beyond performing arts.

Unconscious Bias

  • We all have unconscious bias and implicit associations that negatively affect women (1% bias in performance evaluations can lead to only 35% women being represented at highest levels of organisations)
  • You can get a sense of your own biases by taking the Harvard Implicit Bias Test online – the link is on the list we gave you. (gender, race, sexuality, age etc.)
  • Unlearning bias at an individual level is basically impossible. 80-90% of our minds work unconsciously (Eric Kandel, Nobel laureate), and bias is set between ages of 5-7.
  • Training programmes that only make people aware of their biases are unlikely to change attitudes and behaviours, and may backfire or worsen the situation for women. (Moral licensing)
  • The pathway to behaviour change is not a change in individual beliefs, but instead a change in socially shared definitions of appropriate behaviours. We can also make changes to our systems that help to cancel out inherent bias – one of the books we have listed called What Works, by Harvard professor Iris Bohnet, is a practical guide to creating systems that counter bias.
  • Don’t just focus on raising awareness – take action, and offer specific tools that help people make better decisions e.g. combining unconscious bias training with mentoring and sponsorship programmes.

Devising Policy and Action Plans

  • Plan, but move fast. Momentum is key.
  • Declare goals publicly and be accountable for them, know what you want to achieve and make a plan for how to get there. [Accountability works better at increasing equality and diversity than diversity training alone.]
  • Set both long term targets and specific, short term goals. Keep it simple – don’t try to do everything all at once.
  • Share what you’re doing with others. Working together will yield big and lasting results.
  • Test what works and what doesn’t. Adjust and repeat as you go along.
  • Checklists can help – surgeons and pilots use then – why not let them be a tool in changing our systems?

 Final thoughts:

Importance of role models
Behavioural economics can offer many tools to create environments to help better achieve gender equality goals, and avoid many pitfalls.
Difference between equality and diversity – both are necessary.
For more thoughts and actions see Lian’s List


Athena Swan Charter gender equality in STEMM at third level education

Nina Simon on making museums and cultural institutions accessible:


One Thing More #WakingTheFeminists closing speech, Abbey Theatre

One Year Later, 1800 homeless women live here in Ireland.

One Year Later, over 1000 women live in direct provision here.

Over 3,000 women here have had to travel abroad for an abortion.

And the time to close the gender pay gap globally has widened to 170 years.

One Year Later, I had wanted to talk of Hope, but the outrage remains.

Making theatre is a privilege – it’s not life or death. Behind each of these numbers is a woman in a life or death situation. If we can’t make room for the marginalised to share their own voice from our stages, then what the hell are we here for?

If any of you doubted the real-world consequences of permitting male characters such wide ranging scope to do whatever they want and still be credible figures of power, while vastly restricting female characters’ access to powerful identities:  LOOK AT WHAT JUST HAPPENED [US election result].  That came from our CULTURE.  WE shape our culture, and how we shape it has consequences.

Women are central to the great events and issues of our time.   Our place is not at the cultural periphery, because inequality of voice compounds the inequality of our power.  Exclusion festers until it explodes. Listening to predominantly male narratives, is not only delusional, it’s dangerous. In failing half our talent, we fail our art, we fail our culture, and we fail our society.

Attentive listening and inclusion of other voices is a powerful restorative. Equality is not a luxury we can afford to defer. Equality is a muscle that improves with Feminism and exercising Feminism daily strengthens everyone of us.

Getting in touch with my own dormant feminist muscle through #WakingTheFeminists has been an immense privilege and a transformative experience.  Each of us working on the campaign will carry this learning into every area of our future endeavours. It will not be lost.

To female artists, this year you have heard loud and clear – your gender does not make you less capable of creating extraordinary theatre.  Your voice is vital, and we need it. The flaw is not in YOUR talent or ability, it is in our perception of it.  LOOK AT THIS, THIS IS WHAT COLLABORATIVE, FEMINIST POWER LOOKS LIKE, and it is a JOYOUS, playful, inclusive thing.

To male artists, thank you for listening and thank you for your support, for recognising value of #WakingTheFeminists in all our creative lives. I hope you understand that this movement is about expanding all our opportunities and talents, not diminishing anyone’s. We welcome hearing more from you in this conversation, because all want the same thing really – to live creative lives to our fullest potential.   

Now, the point of any public campaign of protest is to get a seat at the table – to rebalance the power.  All year, week after week, those of us organising #WakingTheFeminists have been pulling up chairs at all sorts of tables. We have found ourselves at tables we never imagined we’d be sitting at!  So that when you sit down to do your artistic work, you can do so in greater confidence that you will have a fair and equal chance that it will meet the audience it deserves.

And with that opportunity comes responsibility. Women of the theatre –  make your work with an urgency like never before. Take on this research as a creative challenge, not a fait accompli.  Be more ambitious than ever – equality can only be achieved with your full participation and your creative curiosity.  Be brave, be big, be rigorous, but as writer Danai Gurira says: Get It Done.

The research shows us where we can improve. It’s not about blame. It shows none of us are immune to bias.  Numbers are important, but they are not the whole story.  Awareness and action need to work hand in hand. No one organisation can do this alone.   Implementing widely initiatives like the Abbey’s visionary Guiding Principles on Gender Equality will help.

We all have an individual responsibility, AND there is additional onus on our leaders to ensure the appropriate practices to support this change are activated. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the law.

Section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 places a positive duty on public sector bodies to have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, promote equality, and protect human rights, in their daily work.

This applies to all bodies financed, even partially, with public money.

To all of you, and especially to you leaders of companies, I know, through all our conversations this year, that each of you believe passionately in equality in your hearts. Together we can to figure out with our heads, how to put what’s in our hearts on our stages. We are not defined by these statistics we have seen here today – use them as a springboard not a weight.

This public phase of #WakingTheFeminists is drawing to a close, it has done its job as rocket fuel for this movement. But, we all know there is more to be done. What comes next is slower and more deliberative, because true change takes time and collective, careful attention to be deeply rooted.

In order to manage the legacy project, we have set up a temporary non-profit company. It’s two aims are to publish the research, and to establish a learning programme in gender equality. Later today, we are coming together with our colleagues in the theatre to continue that work.

Last year we asked you t’ Stand with Us. This year we’re inviting you to make equality a reality within 5 years. Today is our momentous opportunity for leadership. Each one of you decides how this story, this history, plays out – WE have it in our collective power to be the first theatre community in the world to attain and sustain full gender equality. Imagine what that would be like.

All inequality is an outrage. Rage out against it in determination without despair until there is nothing to be outraged about. In this chaotic global moment, let’s open up – ignite ALL our stages with big complex messy conversations, using ALL our talent, ALL our genders, ALL our diversity. Make our theatre a beacon for equity, not a bystander to a burning world. International Women’s Day 2021 beckons us. LET’S GET IT DONE.

Achieving a Feminist Republic, Mansion House

Talk given to Labour Women

What more needs to be done in order for us to really live in a Feminist Republic?

I’ve recently had conversations with with three female top executives in major leading corporate companies – companies dedicated to achieving gender equality. One explained that over one month, she had been the only female in every single meeting she had attended. Another outlined that while they are making progress in this area, it’s incremental, and not seeing it happen fast enough is demoralising. They say they’ve been inspired by the #WakingTheFeminists movement.

Yet, their stories, and stories about countless women like them, changing their world day by day, are not reaching our main stages or screens or airwaves. I’m fed up sitting politely in theatres regularly having to translate the protagonist’s experience to my gender. It’s not that there aren’t any great lead roles for women in theatre. It’s more that those roles tend to be women who kill their children, shoot themselves or throw themselves under a train. ‘Strong woman as cautionary tale.’ What if we expanded the narrative? What if we had a theatrical reference for Hillary Clinton other than Lady Macbeth?

The republic has to be imagined before it can be created. We create ourselves through stories. To achieve a feminist republic within the next 20 years we need to create imaginative spaces that allow us to explore that possibility, exactly the kind of space that the arts can and should provide. #WakingTheFeminists, Women In Film and Television, Women on Air, Composing The Feminists, Women in Advertising, all know in our bones and our everyday working lives – as women, we’re continually culturally famished.

Boys and men are spoon-fed their cultural icons and heroes, breakfast, dinner and tea. If we want a feminist future, then we have to start a more balanced cultural diet across all artforms. Girls have precious few external structures from which to build positive complex versions of ourselves as women.

It matters who is in charge of our stories, and who is doing the telling. Women’s cultural space matters as much as our political space, our economic space, and our physical space. These all work together to either diminish or affirm our humanity and equality. As a society we cannot be economically rich while we remain culturally impoverished.

A snapshot of our deficient cultural diet: 11% of history is written about women; less than 15% of plays on our main stages are written or directed by women; less than 28% women’s voices are heard on air; less than 16% of our films are written or directed by women.  In some cases the statistics for women’s work have diminished, not increased over time.  We can go backwards as easily as we go forwards – there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ progression towards equality over time. Just ‘waiting our turn’ is not going to work.

Yet women are the majority of ticket buyers and audience members in our theatres, but a minority as far as what happens on our stages. This damages our collective ability to advance – inequality of voice, inequality of visibility, perpetuates an inequality of power. Equality legislation and policies, as fundamentally important as they are, only give us the possibility of equality, not the actuality. They are a starting point, the danger is the destination is on a eternally receding horizon. Equality in principle must be back up by equality in practice.

#WakingTheFeminists aim is simple: Equality for women in Irish theatre. Equal opportunity, equal advancement, equal pay, safe workplaces, childcare – you’ve heard it all before. The theatre community is small, but its reach is wide – and we hope that what we achieve will impact beyond the theatre world.

So, we need more stories by and about women, told from a woman’s perspective throughout our culture, reaching wider audiences, performed in prominent places, more often. Otherwise there is no strong counter-narrative to the dominant patriarchy and its constant feedback loop affirming male dominance. We need to make it normal, not exceptional to listen to female voices.

And what women have to say through our artistic work is not just for a female audience, it’s for everyone, in as much as male work is assumed to be for everyone. And, yes, there is quality in equality! Meritocracy remains a fallacy until there is full equality of access and opportunity  – it’s only effective on even playing field. It’s one of those tricky ways language is used to exclude women from advancement.
On the morning of the 12th Nov last, as I waited to go on Morning Ireland, discussing the matter with a government minister in the green room, he commented,   ‘but surely it’s about picking the best plays.’   It should be, but it’s not. You can’t rise on merit if someone else’s unacknowledged privilege is prioritised. The flaw is not in the talent and ability of our female artists, (scientists, politicians, economists, etc.) It is in our perception of them, steeped in a culture that does not value women.

There are many deep and subtle causes, structural and systemic, that contribute towards gender inequality, and the solutions are complex. Unconscious bias is everywhere. Inequality is a socially transmitted disease. Without the tools and training in the practicalities of addressing gender inequality, and the focused participation of leaders, nothing will actually change. Awareness is not enough. Only by taking rapid, extensive, and sustained measures to adjust our perception will we achieve herd immunity to this disease.  

As well as commissioning groundbreaking quantitative research, #WakingTheFeminists are working with leading theatre organisations in order to set up policies, assessment plans, and training programmes that will address several aspects of the issue. From these actions we have to see results – soon.  We co-exist in a globally connected community, and we will achieve our aims faster by working together.  

While the Abbey found itself at the centre of a maelstrom last November, since then its reaction has been astonishing. The Board have developed and adopted several key principles to address inequality, that are visionary, far-reaching and practical. Combined, they place gender equality at the centre of the organisation. They understand it has to be addressed first at highest level – it’s a board responsibility, and then to be implemented at every level. I am fortunate as I join the Board, not to have to be the lone voice for gender equality, because they have all gone on that journey and fully embraced it. Because Lian Bell started a conversation we’d all been waiting for.

Ultimately, though, at its very heart it’s simple. Danai Gurira actor, and playwright of the Tony award-winning play Eclipsed speaking at the Lilly Awards in NY, gave this wonderful advice to women writers: ‘Go where you are loved.’  Hearing this, to me, it correlates that we must have structures, institutions, companies and champions that love women and want them to succeed. Love, in the respect, listening, encouragement, trust way, not in the ‘oh, you’re so hot’ way.

Finding ourselves as accidental activists with #WakingTheFeminists, here’s what we’ve learned so far:

  • Be publicly vocal on every platform and at every opportunity
  • Demonstrate the real impact on women’s lives
  • Place accountability at the top of governance and with leadership
  • Make specific and achievable asks that address structural inequality
  • Empower others to speak out, tell their story, get organised, and take personal and collective action
  • Include men in the conversation
  • No blame, focus on solutions we can all be responsible for
  • Meet weekly, use Slack (it’s a brilliant app)
  • Be clear about the issues and back them up with statistics
  • Count the numbers to change them
  • Listen for what’s going on under the surface as power dynamics begin to shift
  • Move fast, but understand that lasting change takes patient negotiation to achieve
  • Create space, time and training for people to learn about the issues and co-create the solutions
  • Create mutual amplification with sister causes
  • Have Meryl Streep in your corner, [Meryl makes everything better!]


While it feels like there’s been a huge shift in our cultural consciousness, it’s easy to forget that nothing has objectively changed yet: male artists are still in the vast majority on our main stages. As a former producer, there’s nothing like setting a date for Opening Night. #WakingTheFeminists have set a deadline of five years to achieve full gender equality in Irish Theatre.

It’s quite probable that another 100 years could pass without achieving a fully feminist republic. We need to rapidly accelerate the pace of change across all our institutions. Set a deadline. Make achieving gender equality a stated priority at every opportunity.

Finally, women of the theatre will no longer fade into the wings. We will not wait.  The stakes too high for us, we’ve lost so much already. They are too high for you, and for every other woman out there trying to make her way in the world, to allow the status quo to continue.  No woman should wait for her voice to be heard, for her body to be fully her own, for her wages to be equal, for her full potential to be recognised.  We must disrupt the culture. The time for action, the time for equality is NOW. To change the future, change the story.

How is it for women now? Linenhall Arts Centre

Growing up in Mayo, I had never heard of Dr. Kathleen Lynn. I was surrounded by strong women in my family, but for female public role models, between Grainne Mhaol and Mary Robinson… tumbleweed. That’s the crux of the problem that gave rise to #WakingTheFeminists – the continued denial and erasure of women from our collective stories.

Now being a pirate queen or president are pretty rarified career paths for most people, but a medical leader with a social conscience and radical politics, a campaigning feminist, a suffragette and a public representative, in a lesbian relationship? Kathleen Lynn was someone I could have done with knowing about growing up! However, she didn’t fit -in with the cosy national narrative of the times.

I had also never heard of Helena Moloney before she came to my attention through the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 programme launch last October. Helena was an Abbey actress, and had introduced Kathleen to the Cuman na mBan movement. The Abbey used a quote of hers in its advertising “We saw a vision of Ireland – Free. Pure. Happy. We did not realise this vision, but we saw it”.  Yet there was only one female writer and three female directors mentioned in its programme. I was annoyed that I had been ignorant of Helena, Kathleen and many of the other women involved in 1916. Why had I never heard of them? And who else had I not heard about? What other stories and histories had been muted, sidelined, buried?


The Abbey was right that 1916 and the intervening century require interrogation. Those at the forefront of the Celtic Revival understood that the nation had to be imagined before it could be created – that we create ourselves through stories.


It’s important to interrogate our dominant narratives from time to time. Being overwhelmingly male-focussed, The Abbey’s programme missed the true opportunities for interrogation. It matters who is in charge of our stories, and it matters who is doing the telling. So, it was with complete delight that I heard about the plans for the Kathleen Lynn exhibition – where the Abbey missed out, visionaries such as Marie Farrell and her colleagues here in Mayo have taken up a torch to reconnect us with our lost, invisible women. It’s even more gratifying that they have chosen to do so through a county wide tour featuring contemporary artists responding to the social and cultural issues of today.


It was like those of us who worked in theatre were sleepwalking until last October – in denial of the deep inequities that were staring us in the face. Or, more likely, just focussed on keeping the show on the road in a recession. Then we woke with a start to realise – hold on a minute here – there’s something not right in this supposedly liberal, equal, meritocratic arts community. The cultural diet that has informed my own sense of self has been seriously deficient, and the statistics bear this out: 11% of history is written about women; less than 15% of plays on our main stages are written or directed by women; less than 28% women’s voices are heard on air; less than 16% of our films are written or directed by women.  In some cases the statistics for women’s work have diminished, not increased over time. We can go backwards as easily as we go forwards – there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ progression towards equality over time. Just ‘waiting our turn’ is not going to work.


For women, it’s been a century of disconnection and stunted growth. We’ve all been culturally famished. Boys and men are spoon-fed their cultural icons and heroes, breakfast, dinner and tea. Our present is malformed from a past where male creativity has been feted and feasted, and female creativity starved.


Yet women are the majority of the population, the majority of ticket buyers and audience members in our theatres, but a minority as far as what happens on our stages. Girls have precious few external structures from which to build positive complex versions of ourselves as women. We have to really dig deep to uncover what is reburied in every generation – women’s creative and public achievements, our contributions to culture, to society, to science, to history, to the economy. This cultural archeology is ceaseless and exhausting for those of us who go looking for a past that will connect us to a different future – an escape route from the patriarchy.


Women’s cultural space matters as much as our political space, our economic space, and our physical space. These all work together to either diminish or affirm our humanity and equality. And what women have to say through our artistic work is not just for a female audience, it’s for everyone, in as much as male work is assumed to be for everyone. And, yes, in case you are all wondering, there is quality in equality! A meritocracy only works effectively when there is an even playing field. The issues affecting women in theatre are the same as those that affect most working women: opportunity, advancement, access to childcare, bullying and harassment, lower pay.


Following the unprecedented social media outcry started by Lian Bell, over the Abbey’s Waking The Nation programme,  #WakingTheFeminists was born – and quickly become a globally recognised grassroots movement.  At 1pm on 12th November 2015 – in an event that sold out in under 7 minutes – over 600 people bore witness at the Abbey Theatre to a moment of great change in the performing arts in Ireland. 30 women working in all areas of theatre took to the main stage to document their experience of gender inequality in theatre. A massive outpouring of personal testimonies and support came from all over the world including Oscar award winning actors Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, Irish actors Saoirse Ronan, Gabriel Byrne and Brian F O’Byrne, and writer Emma Donoghue, among many others.


Our aim in #WakingTheFeminists is simple: Equality for women in Irish theatre. We call on all theatre organisations in receipt of state funding to establish equality for women by implementing:

    • Policies and actions for inclusion with measurable results
    • Equal advancement of women artists
    • Economic parity for all working in the theatre

#WakingTheFeminists has passed into the global lexicon as a reference to gender equality. With the constant media references, and even an Irish Times Theatre Award, the issue of gender equality in the arts has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds. While it feels like there’s been a huge shift in our cultural consciousness, it’s easy to forget that nothing has objectively changed yet: male artists are still in the vast majority on our main stages. Real change takes time. However, we know how to fix this problem and are actively going about addressing it. We understand the causes are structural and systemic. The solutions have to work at board level, at executive level, and throughout each organisation, supported in turn by Arts Council policy.

We have met with the boards and executives of key theatres including The Abbey, The Gate, Druid, Rough Magic, Dublin Theatre Festival, Dublin Fringe Festival, and Project Arts Centre. At a second public meeting in Liberty Hall on International Women’s Day in March, these organisations outlined their response to the issues and restated their commitment to making gender equality a reality.  


As well as commissioning groundbreaking quantitative research, #WakingTheFeminists is in talks with Tonic Theatre about tailoring their highly successful ADVANCE programme specifically to address gender inequality in theatre in Ireland, and ensure female talent rises to the top. There are once-off costs associated with this research and training for which we are fundraising. The issue of gender equality is not however an issue of funding per se – it is an issue of programming choice. We all support greater public funding for the arts, but women’s work should not be an optional add-on, funding dependent.

We have set a deadline – five years to achieve full gender equality in Irish Theatre. We know how theatre works and we believe this is achievable.


While we are working directly within the sector, here are some ways everyone can get involved and help support the movement:

  • Start counting #WTFCount is a simple way you can raise awareness and help change the numbers: every time you go to the theatre, take a picture of the programme, and count the number of women and men in each role. Share your results on facebook or twitter.
  • Get in touch @WTFeminists
  • Buy some merchandise and spread the message – available from Project Arts Centre


Looking out from the stage of the Abbey on the 12th November I was shocked by the depth of feeling, by the anger expressed with dignity, by the sheer number of women of all ages and backgrounds affected by inequality. I was furious at the full realisation of what we all had lost and continue to lose, artists and audiences alike. For the women and men organising the event, it was clear that the most effective solution would be in the best tradition of theatre – a sector-wide collaborative commitment.  Anger burns short, but determination burns long, and the core group of #WakingTheFeminists working week-on-week to drive the campaign are fuelled by that determination. The public campaign will continue throughout this year. The legacy will last generations. Women of the theatre will no longer fade into the wings, no longer be told, ‘wait, wait, not yet, not good enough, not ready’. We will not wait. Our audiences will not wait. The time for action, the time for equality is NOW.

Closing speech #WakingTheFeminists, Abbey Theatre

On behalf of #WakingTheFeminists, a sincere thank you to all the Abbey Board, the Director and CEO Senator Mac Conghail, and to all the staff who accommodated us here today.

Thanks to my co-chair, Senator Ivana Bacik. To our amazing colleagues who have pulled off an incredible amount of work to get us here, Rough Magic for the use of the space all this week, and the student volunteers from the Lir Academy. To all our colleagues in the theatre and the arts, we thank you for engaging so forthrightly and passionately over the past two weeks.  Thanks to Lucy Kerbel for sharing her experiences with Tonic theatre.  She shows us there are many ways forward.

How can we in the arts interrogate and reflect society with integrity, if we do not hold our own leaders to account and interrogate our own practices?  

It has been a difficult, humbling and yet tremendous time. Frankly, let’s face it, it’s been a difficult 100 years. I feel deep sadness and fury for what we have lost, for talent cut short, snuffed out or exiled, for the important conversations muted. We have been famished without fully realising it. Today we have heard something about the true cost of that for us all.

But it will be tragic if our daughters and granddaughters have to stand here again in 50, or a 100 years time to demand the recognition of their equality.

Equality for women matters on this stage, on every stage, and in every sphere.  We do not stand here and politely request it.  We stand here, in our full strength and brilliance, and demand what is our right as 50% of the population – equality and economic parity.  

This is also just the start of discussion on the solutions.  Ultimately it’s simple –  commit fully to supporting and programming more women artists, putting their work centre stage.  We all have more work to do to achieve full equality, inclusion and diversity in theatre.  We will continue that work, together, with respect and honesty.  But, alongside those conversations, there must be action, and from that action there must be results.

In our national theatre, funded by a woman, co-founded by a woman, and with a mighty Queen charging forth on its logo, this call goes out from this stage, to every stage, to the leadership of all theatres and arts organisations. We must look at our programming practices, and beyond that look at our commissioning and our marketing and our pay and contracting and employment structures – look at everything we do and root out this blight of inequality.

Those three women are not spinning in their graves – their wake is over – today they are rising with us. Listen up: We are all ready for you. Get ready for us. NOW. It’s just time for some RESPECT.