Time for a New Year's Revolution - meet Cork's female activists

From climate strikes to housing protests, 2019 was a year of activism in Cork, but what about the year ahead? Five female activists from the Rebel County tell ELLIE O’BYRNE about their 2020 vision for Ireland
Time for a New Year's Revolution - meet Cork's female activists
Actor Siobhán McSweeney. Picture: Denis Minihane.

From climate strikes to housing protests, 2019 was a year of activism in Cork, but what about the year ahead? Five female activists from the Rebel County tell ELLIE O’BYRNE about their 2020 vision for Ireland

Catriona Twomey, Cork Penny Dinners.Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Catriona Twomey, Cork Penny Dinners.Picture: Jim Coughlan.


As the powerhouse Volunteer Co-ordinator with Cork’s Penny Dinners, Caitríona Twomey needs no introduction for her work in advocating for the homeless in Cork.

A full-time volunteer, Caitríona was Cork Person of the Month last April for her role in the charity, which has ballooned from providing just 150 meals per week before the recession to the 2,000 fed by the charity each week at present.

Caitríona has consistently highlighted that those using Penny Dinners’ services used to comprise of a few familiar faces, mostly of known rough-sleepers with alcohol addiction, but now include families struggling in the worsening housing crisis.

“We want to see an end to homelessness. I would urge the government to make 2020 the year to do that; our numbers are growing drastically here and instead of it getting fixed, it’s getting worse so we’re very nervous about 2020 because of the amount of people that are homeless,” she said.

“I would urge the government to go out and buy up the ready-made houses that are lying vacant around the place.

“We’re only human too, and we’re looking at this pain. I want to let the government know that it’s not only those using the service that are struggling, it’s us too.

“It’s hard to run a service when you have children and parents coming in upset and hungry and sick, who can’t pay bills and who are at the risk of losing their homes. The government don’t see what we see, because if they did, they wouldn’t allow it to happen. No-one with any sense of right and wrong would be allowing this to happen.

“I’d also like to see the A&E staff, and all frontline services being looked after. We need more gardaí, our mental health services need support, our defence forces and navy need proper pay.

The government needs to have some regard for our frontline workers, because they’re the ones that the population of the country depend on when things go wrong.”

West Cork teenager Alicia O'Sullivan.
West Cork teenager Alicia O'Sullivan.

Alicia Joy O’Sullivan

18-year-old Alicia, from Skibbereen, has been involved with various causes since she joined Comhairle na nÓg in her mid-teens.

Environmental activism took precedence for Alicia throughout 2019, and she’s spoken at and attended events including the Our Ocean Wealth summit in UCC, the UN Climate Change summit in New York, and Dáil na nÓg’s climate summit at Leinster House in November.

“With the work I’ve done for the last nine months now primarily being on climate change, I’d like to see a grasp of the reality of climate change in every sector and in every person’s life,” she said.

“I’d like to see Ireland realising why this is such a big phenomenon, not only for people living in Ireland but for a lot of my friends who live in different countries.

“Greta Thunberg has spoken a lot about people being just ignorant to science, and I don’t know why that is. Is it because of the media, or because people are scared of change and the reality of what’s coming?

“There are people on the fence that you can always talk to; I think you just have to plough through the work of getting legislation changed and getting the drastic climate policy we need implemented.

“Catherine Zappone announced at Dáil na nÓg that there was a €2 million budget going towards a new climate youth council that her department is going to establish, which I spoke very strongly for when I was in New York with Mary Robinson at the UN Youth Climate summit.

“We’re going to be working with the Minister on this.”

Roos Demol.Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Roos Demol.Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Roos Demol

Kinsale-based blogger, podcaster and immigration activist Roos is originally from Flanders in Belgium but has lived in Ireland for nearly two decades. She’s one of the founders of Citadel, a world music group of inhabitants of the Kinsale Road Direct Provision Centre, and various other projects to promote the support and integration of asylum seekers, including a group called International Community Dynamics and the Cork City of Sanctuary movement.

“I would love to see legislation against discrimination and racism because that doesn’t exist yet in Ireland,” said Roos. “That would be my big wish; that people could feel safe and that people can’t keep bringing these extremely racist and hateful messages out without being reprimanded for it. I think it’s a serious thing that’s needed in Ireland.

“The seven-week public consultation on a potential new Hate Speech law has just closed. I’m a member of the City of Sanctuary movement and we put together a submission to the Ministry of Justice.

“In a campaign against racism, I’ll always be involved. A lot of my friends from Direct Provision are of African or Asian origin and when you walk around with them you notice what’s going on.

“Racism goes a lot deeper than just calling someone names. The way you look at black people or Asian people is not founded on truth, it’s based on fears, so there’s the legislation, but also, privately, people could look at their own biases.”

Siobhan McSweeney.
Siobhan McSweeney.

Siobhán McSweeney

She might be most familiar as the redoubtable Sister Michael from hit show Derry Girls, but Cork stage and screen actress Siobhán McSweeney has been a vocal campaigner on various women’s rights issues since joining her voice to those of her fellow Derry Girls co-stars to deliver a petition calling for access to abortion in Northern Ireland.

She was a recent guest speaker at FemFest, the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s annual conference for young women between 16-25, she’s spoken out about the impacts of Brexit on Irish expats, and she also made a December appearance in Dublin’s Big Sleep Out to highlight the issue of homelessness.

“Now that we have achieved a certain degree of bodily autonomy on the island of Ireland, even though the three-day waiting period is a paternal, patronising and hostile addendum to current healthcare access, I’d like to see a unified attempt to tackle gender-based violence in Ireland in 2020.

“Like so many issues, there are intersections with other systems of oppression: homelessness, suicide, how we have abandoned our men-folks’ mental health, and poverty. I believe a multi- pronged and energised approach to all these problems will lead to a better Ireland, a place we can be proud of. And happy in.”

Mary Crilly of the Sexual Violence Centre.Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Mary Crilly of the Sexual Violence Centre.Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Mary Crilly

Mary was presented with UCC’s inaugural Equality Award this year for the 36 years she’s spent advocating for the victims of rape and sexual assault in Cork.

In the 1980s, she founded the phone line service that would become Cork Rape Crisis Centre, today known as Cork Sexual Violence Centre (CSVC).

CSVC has joined forces with other organisations to further their work against the growing problem of human trafficking, with a new network called Cork Against Human Trafficking.

“I want to see an end to victim-blaming,” said Mary. “In any situation where a girl or woman is raped or sexually assaulted, we see they are held accountable for what has happened.

“I’m sick and tired of young girls getting raped and being looked at as if it’s their fault. It makes it hard to tell their best friend or their partner or their boyfriend or their girlfriend, because they feel they’re going to be blamed.

“We’ve had some instances in the courts in the last year, but the change has to happen in broader society, because it’s juries that are finding these guys not guilty. A judge can only pass sentence. But we do need some kind of guidelines to ensure that people are only allowed to question in certain ways in court cases; they need to be able to give their client a fair trial, which he’s entitled to, but it needs to be done without destroying somebody else.

“We have an adversarial system, an awful, archaic system. Even if there were guidelines in place, that would make a difference. But even outside the court system, amongst family and friends, victim-blaming needs to stop.”

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