After Paris stood up for Saint Brigid 2020 - this Kildare goddess is the most en vogue saint in the City of Light!

St. Brigid (451-523) is celebrated as a trailblazing female figure, an early defender of peace and human rights, and contributor to the arts. We don’t know if there were two Brigids, one a pagan fire goddess and the other a pioneer nun and Christian saint of the same name.

Alternatively, Brigid, may have worn both pagan crown and veil; the pagan goddess and one of the Tuatha Dé Danann may have thrown in her fire goddess position to become the first women to have founded and live in a community of women with the aim of helping others.

Other historians maintain that a mythical pagan Brigid was simply incorporated into Irish Christianity, to provide the newly converted with a familiar entity.

However, what we do know is that Saint Brigid and Saint Brigid’s Day is alive and kicking with the Department of Foreign affairs backed revival in recent years, in Ireland and around the world.

Saint Brigid is the matron of the arts and of so many diverse branches of life that Melanie Lynch, a social entrepreneur and writer, and one of Ireland’s biggest admirers of Saint Brigid maintains “it’s impossible to put Brigid into a box.” Lynch is also lobbying to make Saint Brigid’s day, 1 February, a national holiday in Ireland.

This year the Saint Brigid fever and celebrating women hit Paris with a bang. On 31 January, the Embassy of Ireland in France held its first-ever Brigid's Day celebrations, with events throughout the day featuring remarkable women who are leading lights in business, peace and human rights, and the arts.

The day started at 8h15 with an Irish Embassy / NetworkIrlande business networking breakfast with a panel of three inspirational Irish trailblazing women; Orla Noonan, (Chairman of the Board of Advisors, Adevinta and daughter of Michael Noonan TD, former Minister for Finance,); Margot Slattery, (Global Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Sodexo); and Sheelagh Daly, (Entrepreneur Manager, Enterprise Ireland based in Dublin). They were accompanied by Fleur Pellerin, Founder of Korelya and former French Minister for Small and Medium Enterprises, Innovation and the Digital Economy.

Before the four guest speakers took to the floor, H E Patricia O'Brien, Ambassador of Ireland in France introduced the event. She reminisced on Charles Aznavour’s 1964 hit ‘For Me Formidable’, where he sings about how “formidable” women are; “formidable” in the French sense of the word means lovely and wonderful. H E Patricia O'Brien pointed out that however in English “formidable” actually means someone powerful; a person to be reckoned with! Looking at HE Patricia O'Brien, it seemed she incorporates both the French and English sense of the word.

She also remembered our two wonderful former Irish women presidents; Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. She reminded us of Mary Robinson references to Mná na hÉireann “rocking the system”, as members of “Mná na hÉireann Paris” listened on attentively.

The panel was inspirational, the four women shared perspectives on fostering female entrepreneurship, securing funding for women-led start-ups, ensuring parity at the top and discussed how multinational companies can play a key role in improving women's rights globally. All four were captivating but we know every panel discussion hangs on the moderator and Laura Dagg from the Irish Embassy ensured the momentum never faltered.

What I loved about the morning, although the four-panel members were high flyers their humanity and empathy for fellow women workers was palpable. They discussed how women need to be ready to embrace risk and to have more confidence. They advised instead of self-questioning to just get on with the job, to learn as we go, to enjoy it and to never be afraid to ask questions.

Orla Noonan advised there was no need to be self-critical, to leave the criticizing up to others if they felt the need. She also felt that although there was room for improvement, quota and parity laws that had been introduced in France around 2009 had already impacted the male/female balance in companies proving that there were indeed highly skilled and capable women on the market. However, being part of a “quota” and being perceived as such brought certain priories. She added that though a lot still remained to be done things were continually moving forward.

Fleur Pellerin pointed out how today’s adolescent girls have the self-confidence other generations lacked. It seems there is an army of powerful Brigid like women who will be launched in the workforce during the next decade! Pellerin also emphasized the need for women to have mentors.

Margot Slattery spoke of her work as a mentor and how difficult it could be for brilliant young women to secure funding for their start-ups when faced with panels of investment bankers where parity diversity was still almost non-existent. She also spoke of how at ‘Sodexo’ women were helped to settle back into work after pregnancy leave, and were sometimes awarded a welcome back to work bonus.

So, change is definitely happening. Previously when women in France came back from pregnancy leave some felt they were being punished for their absence and for procreating.

Sheelagh Daly spoke of how back in Ireland companies who don’t respect women parity are being rapped on the knuckles; less than 20% of Ireland’s CEO’s are currently women, falling to 9% in larger companies.

Paradoxically, there is solid proof that when there are more women at decision and board level, the productivity of companies increase greatly and Enterprise Ireland firmly believes “unleashing the creativity and skills of more women represents an unparalleled opportunity for fuelling economic growth in Ireland.”

 After the panel, during a delicious Irish breakfast, I spoke with a friend who lives not far from Orla Noonan. She told me how Orla had been so supportive when she had launched a business a few years ago. I was happy to see the opinion I had formed of the women speakers was founded. Truly inspirational, passionate woman who enjoyed empowering other women. “Mnàtitude!!”

In the afternoon the Embassy also hosted a high-level discussion on the UN and gender, with contributions from retired Captain Deirdre Carbery, former Platoon Commander with UNIFIL in Lebanon, and Ambassador Delphine O, Secretary-General of the UN Generation Equality Forum who discussed their experiences of blazing a trail for gender equality in the UN system, from both an Irish and a French perspective. 

In the evening HE Patricia O'Brien was on her third event of the day at the renowned Centre Culturel Irlandais to close #StBrigidsDay in Paris through celebrating the creativity and talent of Irish women artists.

The inimitable Olwen Fouéré, actress and performance artist and filmmaker Pat Murphy gave their perspectives on gender representation, empowerment, identity and breaking down boundaries. Olwen and Pat seem to be hewn from the same stuff as Brigid the Fire Goddess. They discussed their careers in the backdrop of Ireland and its amazing social changes over the past two decades.

When Olwen, with her lithe balletic body, and long flowing white hair framing her sculptured face, read an excerpt from character #3’s monologue in Enda Walsh’s “Ballyturk”, time literally stood still.

Pat Murphy’s film “Anne Devlin” was screened in the Centre Culturel Irlandais on 30 January. The film presents an alternative perspective to Irish history; the rebellion of 1803 led by Robert Emmet is told through the eyes of Anne Devlin, Emmet’s young housekeeper.

After the event on 31 January, as we had refreshments, Pat Murphy, in flowing Buddhist nun robes, recounted how Anne Devlin’s journals (written when she had been imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol) were transmitted to her by Nora Hickey M'Sichili’s father. Nora Hickey M'Sichili is the formidable, creative director of the Centre Culturel Irlandais. The circle of creativity, highlighted during the Saint Brigid’s day celebrations, once again demonstrated the strong cultural connection between Irish artists and Paris.

The last words of the highly enjoyable event were when Olwen advised participants not to let anyone “tell you who you are.” Pat Murphy’s parting words where she felt that the creative process can in itself be ‘home’ for some. A friend of hers had once said, we are people, not trees, we are not rooted to any ground. Both these warrior women’s’ perspectives fortified Irish in the audience living in France, where the question of identity and a diasporic longing for our roots is often on our minds, even as we live in Paris, one of the most wonderful cities in the world.

In Paris projects, running from St Brigid’s Day, to International Women’s Day on March 8th, will continue to honour compelling Irish women whose work changed the lives of others, and sometimes history. In conjunction with this the “Cercle Littéraire Irlandais” in Paris #CelebratingWomenWithWords has launched a project to “celebrate women you admire” through words. 

I think Brigid, both pagan Goddess and saint would be absolutely delighted with the celebrations in Paris. Like herself, none of the ladies we heard in the course of the day could ever be “put in a box”. The formidable, empowering, system rocking St. Brigid’s Day women left their mark. I left the Centre Culturel Irlandais with a new, feistier spring in my step.

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