On International Women's Day, Herstory introduces Movement, a new international education project that explores the fact that emigration and immigration are two sides of the same story.

Below, Herstory Founder Melanie Lynch shares her personal story of migration.


My life has been a journey migrating through physical and psychological borders. I crave the liminal - the space between worlds - beyond polarities where reality and the great truths exist. I choose to be an outsider. From this viewpoint, multiple perspectives can be accessed simultaneously and humanity can be experienced in its glorious diversity. Life becomes an adventure, an open book, and I’m all the richer for it.

Countess Markievicz by Jim Fitzpatrick, presented as part of the Herstory Light Festival

Like every person on this planet, migration is in my blood. As a 10-year-old, I would voyage by bicycle across Dublin with my father to buy Jewish bread from Bretzel Bakery on Lennox Street. Our Jewish ancestors immigrated to Ireland from France and this weekly ritual kept their memory and tradition alive. On my mother’s side, our great-grandparents were Northern Irish Catholics who had no choice but to move to the Republic to escape discrimination and find work. Some ancestors migrated across the division of religion to marry Protestants. The heart knows no boundaries. If only we listened to it more.

Ireland has one of the greatest diasporas in the world, with 70 million people cherishing their Irish roots worldwide. However, the Irish migration story is marked by successes and struggles. We know only too well what it feels like to be excluded, stereotyped and discriminated against.

At a family reunion in Fermanagh, we retraced our humble ancestral lineage through seven generations who endured the famine and the Troubles. A few ancestors emigrated to America and sent money home, transforming the trajectory and fortune of future generations. Two centuries later, their bravery and generosity has impacted on my access to education and career opportunities. I’m baffled by the attitude that immigrants are expected to be highly skilled with university education. How quick the Irish are to forget our history of emigration and the opportunities our ancestors received abroad that Ireland couldn’t offer at the time.

As a teenager, I got a glimpse of the potential for a thriving multicultural Ireland. At Wilson’s Hospital School, students descended from six continents (with the exception of Antarctica and the Arctic!) to this progressive school perched on a hilltop in the middle of rural Ireland. Every week the postbox filled with letters and parcels from 29 countries around the world. From China to Mexico, we were all outsiders, even the Irish. As a Catholic I was an outsider in a Protestant school and the Protestants are a minority in the south. Being an outsider was a bizarrely liberating experience. There was no pressure to fit in to a constructed 'normal’ because it didn’t exist. In this melting pot environment the question: "Where are you from?" was never racist. Our curiosity and respect for other faiths and cultures was genuine. We thrived in this Church of Ireland ethos. Difference was celebrated. There was unity in our diversity.

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Watch: Solas 2021 - a Herstory light show for Brigid's Day

After a year dabbling in maths and philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, I migrated to art college in the UK. There I was taken under the wing of African students who regaled our common histories and shared kindred spirits with the Irish. This was big kudos as they hosted the best parties and told extraordinary stories of adventures on the world’s most diverse continent. The outsiders became the insiders.

A theory tutor sparked my interest with his infectious passion for African-American music and its influence on the civil rights movement. During Obama’s historic presidential campaign I penned my degree thesis on deconstructing colonial ideologies and racial stereotyping. It was an insomnia-inducing process, delving into the dark recesses of the Imperial British psyche as it invented toxic propaganda and crude stereotypes to justify colonisation, slavery and world domination. I was so disturbed by what I uncovered that I honestly thought I would fail my thesis, so it was some shock when my paper was awarded the highest grade in the faculty. The experience still haunts me to this day. If the origins of racism were taught in school there would be no racism. Twelve years later, our new Movement project is the creative realisation of this research and we have developed an education programme to foster diversity and inclusion in schools.

After graduation, I emigrated to London and then Paris where I lived the Mad Men dream creating advertising campaigns for NGOs and global brands. I was trained to explore universal insights and our shared humanity. Diverse cultures have been converging in these great cities for centuries and the mélange of influences is inspirational catnip for the creative soul.

If Ireland has the greatest diaspora we should be the most compassionate, inclusive country.

In 2014 I found myself in Kenya, where some soul searching sparked a new career direction that would enable me to apply my creativity and communications skills for the good of humanity. After a safari holiday with college friends, I volunteered at the Gallmann Mukutan Conservancy on the edge of the Great Rift Valley. I have never felt so alive waking up to lions and black mambas in the garden. Serendipitously I got the opportunity to work on the 4 Generations Project, a founding inspiration for Herstory and an ingenious education programme developed to preserve tribal cultures.

I’ll never forget the day when the chef pointed to my white skin and questioned: " Muzungu (white person in Swahili) which colony are you from?" To his surprise I responded; "I’m Irish, my tribe is Celtic and my ancestors survived 800 years of British colonial rule." That day the locals gave me the Swahili nickname ‘Black-maned Lioness’ and adopted me as one of their own.

An image of Somali-Irish social activist Ifrah Ahmed, projected onto The GPO, Dublin,
as part of Herstory's Light Festival in 2020.

The conservancy was surrounded by neighbouring communities of Samburu, Pokot, Kalenji and Kikuyu people. I envied the tribespeople for their rootedness to the earth. They are not slaves to the greed of capitalism or the narcissism pandemic of selfie culture. Instead, they live by the fundamentals of what it means to be human: family, community, nature, creativity, storytelling and spirituality. In their eyes, I saw great depth and presence. Spending time in their company made me question the definition of civilization. How utterly wrong the colonisers were to paint these people as inferior and primitive. In the West, there’s much talk about saving Africa. My question is "How can Africa save the West?"

I have been an immigrant and an emigrant. Herstory wouldn’t exist without these formative and expansive experiences. Since the beginning migration has been a core theme. In the early days, Bard Mythologies introduced me to Cessair, the first mythological woman in Ireland who was an immigrant, as recorded in The Book of Invasions. Sandy Dunlop, co-founder of Bard Mythologies, explains that ‘Cessair’s epic voyage across the known world from Sudan to Ireland makes Homer’s Odyssey look tame.’ In modern history, the heroines of the RTÉ Herstory TV series and Blazing A Trail exhibition had to emigrate to realise their potential. Many were Irish refugees, forced to emigrate and escape poverty in Ireland.

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On Herstory’s first birthday in 2017, I visited AkiDwA to celebrate the launch of Africa Rising and hear the stories of migrant women who have joined our communities from distant shores. This was my first encounter with the phenomenal Salome Mbugua, Founder of AkiDwA, researcher, gender equality activist and human rights advocate. A Kenyan with a huge heart, Salome is one of my greatest heroines. She’s so busy getting on with her job that she never gets the credit or spotlight she deserves. This year Herstory will collaborate with AkiDwA to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Ireland’s first migrant women’s organization.

Salome Mbugua

Migration is one of the few constants of the human experience. We are a migratory species. Homo sapiens have been travelling across the world long before the invention of the wheel. National Geographic maps reveal the extensive migration routes of our prehistoric ancestors. Diversity is not a modern buzzword. This is an ancient truth. The pandemic is a reminder that borders and nationalities are fabrications that conceal our common humanity.

Ireland has one of the greatest diasporas in the world, with 70 million people cherishing their Irish roots worldwide. However, the Irish migration story is marked by successes and struggles. We know only too well what it feels like to be excluded, stereotyped and discriminated against. As Mary McAleese once said; "We are a vibrant first world country but we have a humbling third world memory."

Salome projected, for Herstory's Light Festival 

In these divisive times, it’s easy to forget that immigration and emigration are two sides of the same story. It’s only right that we open our doors and our hearts to the New Irish and give them the opportunities our ancestors received around the world. If Ireland has the greatest diaspora we should be the most compassionate, inclusive country.

The Movement project features an international exhibition, school workshops, student art competition, parallel peace project and events - find out more here.