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Visible Women 2020: Introduction

A Chairde, Dear Friends,

Christmas is almost here and with it a renewed sense of hope; as I write, the evenings are drawing in, the Christmas trees are all lit up and the Winter Solstice is upon us, after which the year turns and the days will begin to lengthen. We are all looking forward to the light of the new year. This year’s ancient and mystical ceremony at Newgrange is being broadcast to the world. One of the few benefits of these strange times is that technology has opened up access to so many events and experiences which perhaps only a few were privileged to participate in for so long, either due to accessibility or cost or distance. This is one of the lessons that I hope will be remembered, as we move forward into a new year, which again thanks to innovation, this time in medicine, we hope that it will be safe to once again gather together for that human, social contact which is so precious to us all and so important for our work.

This has been a year of sadness, loss and loneliness for many of us, and yet, as we look back now, it has also been a year of learning, of great personal resilience and of adaptation. We have learned a lot about ourselves and about the importance of things that maybe were not fully valued or appreciated before – empathy, kindness, being in nature, simple pleasures like the benefit of working with our hands, baking, painting, planting seeds, taking exercise and taking good care of our health and well-being, and the solace that we can find in music, the arts and culture and creativity of all kinds; books especially have, as they always do, brought people together and we have really enjoyed continuing our Embassy Book Club on Zoom, including meeting author Orla McAlinden.

As we always do at this time of year, we have been working on our business plan, and we expect that 2021 will be a year of two halves, with our hybrid ways of working continuing until at least the summer, so the book club will continue on Zoom until then and we are looking forward to a great reading list, with many of the books we selected already winning prizes and getting great reviews.
Visible Women 2020
This year, we have been reading talented Irish women writers, as part of our #VisibleWomen2020 initiative, celebrating the role and achievements of women across a whole range of activities from the arts and culture to entrepreneurship and design, to diplomacy, peace and security. It’s been an incredibly rewarding and positive experience and something very special to reinforce and inspire our work, throughout this challenging year.

We began the year with our Meet the Author event with Catherine Dunne, followed soon after by the visit of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, as well as David Park, to meet with Els Depuydt at Bruges Library, which coincided with International Women’s’ Day. We brought you our third St Brigid’s Day event, this time focused on female entrepreneurship and design and showcasing a range of organisations here in Belgium which highlight and support the essential and significant contribution of women to all aspects of work and society. It wasn’t all seriousness and my warm memories of that evening include tears of laughter as well as a real sense of empathy and connection, as our brilliant speakers and audience members shared their stories and their inspirations, many of whom were family members.  The Embassy was also thrilled to support the second Belgian Irish Film Festival Scéal Eile organised by Declan Lynch, showcasing the best of Irish film across Belgium. We also had the opportunity to recognise Ireland’s creative female film-makers at an awards ceremony at De Krook in Ghent.

In March, we pivoted and took our work online, with a range of virtual events including a Bloomsday collaboration with the Irish Theatre Group (fresh from their Seachtain na Gaeilge collaboration for Boicíní Bhóthar Kilburn), bringing to life the female voice in Ulysses and, as part of To Be Irish (more below), we are ending the year with an An Irish Garland, of poetry and song, which includes poet Jane Clarke and the beautiful young singer songwriter, Katie Maye, who was with us for Brigid’s Day in 2019.

We also organised a workshop on women, peace and security with Debbie Donnelly and Bronagh Hines, supported the launch of a new guide on Gender Inclusivity and we partnered with the IIEA to deliver a milestone event on Irish Women in Leadership – Peace, Diplomacy and Security. Both of these events are still available to watch online and I warmly encourage you to join the many hundreds who have done so.
We hope that you have all enjoyed this programme with us and so we wanted to bring you this special commemorative newsletter to reflect on the year and to share the stories of some of Irish Visible Women here in Belgium, including our first woman Ambassador, Mary Tinney, whose photos we have on the walls of our conference room renamed in her honour, but also some of the women leaders in our diaspora. Extracts from their stories are included here, with more available to read on our embassy website.

We want to share more of these stories, so, if you or someone you know, is a visible woman in our diaspora here, for whatever reason – contribution to; sports, the arts, business, charitable work, community work, education etc then please do get in touch with a 300 word article and a photo for us to consider adding to the web page, for everyone to read and celebrate these achievements. You can also nominate a friend or colleague, with their permission.
Before wrapping up, I would like to say a few words about our teams here in Belgium, at the embassy and in our Partnership for Peace delegation, our Honorary Consul and our local market team representing the state agencies – all of these colleagues have continued to work and serve through an incredibly challenging year with great professionalism, dedication, creativity and above all, kindness. I know I am biased, but I do believe that Ireland is blessed to have such people working with and for us, including our locally recruited team members without whom it would be impossible to deliver the quality services which our citizens deserve. I am honoured to be their Head of Mission and I am very proud of their service and very grateful for their support. My wish for them, as it is for all of you, is for a peaceful and relaxing Christmas and for a New Year filled with light, health and hugs!
Finally, to conclude on a high note, this year our experience of #VisibleWomen2020 has been so positive and uplifting that we have decided to inaugurate the very first Irish Embassy Belgium Visible Woman Award. There were many contenders, some of whom are represented in this special Newsletter, but there can only be one winner and this year, that visible woman truly stood out and shone. We have chosen her both for her leadership in the community and for her personal example of courage, kindness and generosity in a difficult year for many. Her spirit shines in the article she submitted for this newsletter. Our Visible Woman of the Year 2020 is Sarah Ironside, champion of Darkness into Light Brussels and an inspiration to us all. Congratulations Sarah and I look forward to presenting Sarah with this Award, as soon as circumstances safely allow.

Happy Christmas everybody, thank you for all your support and understanding this year, and hoping to see lots, lots more of you all in a bright 2021!

Le gach dea ghui i gcoir na Nollaig agus na hAth bhliana!

Don’t forget to listen in to Christmas FM and listen out for special greetings to all our friends in Belgium and Ireland from our Deputy Head of Mission, Aisling O’Leary!

Helena and the visible women and visible men in the teams #Working4Irl

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