IN the home of Cork-born A+E consultant Brigid Collins in Belfast hangs a picture from the 1920s of her dad’s aunt – also called Brigid.
Brigid never met her ancestor, but as she was named after her, when a photograph of her was found during a house clear-out, she knew she had to keep it. She sees the photo as an important link to the past.
It’s been a tradition in her family, to name new-borns after relatives – a tradition she herself has kept alive. Her own son is called Patrick – another patron saint of Ireland – he is named after Brigid’s dad, who sadly passed away. Although her son never got to meet his grandad, he knows about him, where his name came from and who his grandad was.
“It’s a nice tradition,” she said.
Brigid gets back to Cork as often as she can, to see mum Mary, and other family living around Clonakilty. The family has connections to Kilworth, Leap, and Corrin.
Brigid left Cork around 2001, having studied in Dublin, before moving to Belfast with her husband, who works as a Civil Engineer and lectures in Queens University.
They live in an old Victorian terraced house in the city – there are hundreds of these throughout Belfast, Brigid says, but she loves the history attached to the old building – again that love for the past.
She said although they are living in the city, there are rushes growing on the side of the road in Belfast, which often remind her of St Brigid. She recalls making crosses as a student in Sacred Heart Church in Clonakilty.
Brigid loves her busy job in A+E – even though the NHS is struggling as much as the HSE. She said: “I never dread going in.”
She has great admiration for her work colleagues, adding: “We just get it done.”
I asked her if her calling to her work was like a vocation?
Modestly, she agrees that it really is.
And how can we not mention that, after all, St Brigid is the patron saint of healing.
As a young girl, Brigid Carmody remembers making St Brigid’s crosses and selling them on Patrick Street with her granny Margaret and her mother. She said Travellers would have come from all over to sell the crosses on Pana. But that’s just another Traveller tradition that has now gone by the wayside.
Brigid is the Co-ordinator of the Cork Traveller Women’s Network, a community development organisation working to give Traveller Women a voice in creating a fairer society – they are working for Traveller rights, leadership, culture and heritage.
She has held that post for 12 years, and prior to that, in a voluntary capacity she served as Chair for around ten years.
Brigid, mum to seven kids, the youngest of whom are 16-year-old triplets, was named after her granny, Brigid, on her dad’s side of the family.
Her father died before Brigid was born, leaving Brigid’s mum to raise two children by herself (Brigid and her sister Margaret). Only she wasn’t by herself – as Brigid pointed out, she would have been supported hugely in raising the children by the Travelling community around her. It’s something that is still prevalent today.
Brigid spoke about her admiration for the strong women in the Traveller community. It is these strong women who inspired her advocacy work today.
She is very passionate about the work that she does.
“I live my work. It is part of my life.”
I suggest to her it’s almost like a vocation or calling, which she agrees.
“I never switch off – we are firefighting the different crisis that pop up. Because my work is my life, I never switch off.”
Mary O’Sullivan, her aunt, was one of the founders of the Network.
Brigid said: “She worked so hard for Travellers’ rights. She played a big part in how I got involved.”
I asked if Brigid had very strong women in her family?
“There are very strong women in the Travelling community. There are loads of Traveller women I look up to.”
She was full of praise and admiration for the work women do regards their family’s accommodation, raising their children – and still also getting involved in the network, which works to improve the lives of the Traveller women and families.
“I am in awe of them,” said Brigid, who said that the Traveller women have strong beliefs in their culture and traditions and are very proud women, who instil this in their children.
Brigid said: “I want my children to be proud – to stand up and be proud to say they are Travellers, in education or in the workplace. It would break my heart for them to deny who they are.
"I worked so hard for them to be proud of their rich heritage and culture.”
Brigid is from the Ballyphehane area and lived in her grandfather’s house on Kent Road. She said she moved into a caravan when she got married. She went to Turners Cross school and her kids went to school in Ballyphehane. Now the family lives in a group housing scheme off Kinsale Road.
“There are seven houses, all are family. We share the rearing of the children – I could have three children for dinner, or I might have ten.”
She recalls when her own triplets were just babies, her aunt Mary, who she spoke about earlier, used to get up during the night and do the night feeds with her.
“There is shared rearing even now, we still help each other out. It is a brilliant way to live.
“We work in the worst conditions on sites – like Spring Lane – it is overcrowded and it has its problems, and it has its disadvantages - but what they do have is close knit community. It is a great way to raise your children.”