IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Michelle Deignan, director of ‘Breaking Ground: the Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre’


Breaking Ground: the Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre is a feature-length documentary that reveals the story of the radical organisation founded in the early ’80s by women in order to represent and support generations of Irish women in London. The story of the Irish in England has always very much been the story of Irish men in England, but Breaking Ground documents a little known history of Irish women’s success story and records the history of Irish feminism in London.

The film’s director Michelle Deignan recalls how the project initially came about when “back in November 2011 I was asked to exhibit a short film of mine, Red Cheeks, in an exhibition at the London Irish Women’s Centre. In this film an actress reports anecdotes about me as an Irish artist and filmmaker in London, within the context of a tour of three Irish spaces there, including the London Irish Women’s Centre. After seeing Red Cheeks in the exhibition Claire Barry, the Centre’s director, asked me if I’d write a proposal to make a documentary on its history. I was really surprised not least because it was the first time I’d been asked to pitch for a documentary project. I thought, what a great opportunity to make a funded film about Irish women in London, a subject that other films of mine had addressed but in completely different ways. So I went ahead and wrote a detailed proposal, which Claire later told me blew her away. She also told me that when she saw Red Cheeks in the exhibition at the Centre she hadn’t a clue what it was about but thought it looked very professional and it was on that basis only she asked me to pitch for the documentary!”

It comes through clearly in the film that the wave of Irish women emigrating during the ’80s was very much on a proactive level as London seemed to offer Irish women an opportunity to break free from certain restraints – economic, political and cultural – in Ireland. According to Michelle, “Irish women are more migratory than Irish men, which indicates that women have more reasons to leave Ireland.” The documentary tells us that in the ’80s Irish women made up 10% of the female population. Michelle continues, “For some of these women 1980s London, though not without its hardships, was a place to escape from the repression of the male dominated Irish state, religion and culture. It was this generation of women who began the London Irish Women’s Centre.”

The documentary provides a real insight into how the Centre functioned as an alternative to the traditional notion, and way of life, of the Irish in London. “The aim of the centre was to meet the needs of a diverse range of Irish women who didn’t necessarily conform to the established order of what either Irish or British institutions perceived were legitimate expressions of Irish womanhood,” Michelle explains. “At the Centre all versions of being an Irish woman were possible. It’s also important to mention that first, second and third generation Irish women used the resource. Originally it was a feminist collective, a practical resource to help Irish women live their daily lives, as well as a space within which to question notions of cultural and gender identity. Brid Boland, one of the original workers at the Centre, points out in the film that is was important to them that Irish women would aim to integrate with all parts of British society reaching beyond the confines of an Irish only community.”

One of the strengths of the film alongside the interviews from leading members is the great array of  archive footage, which brings so much of the history to life. “The archive footage and photographs in the film are from a huge number of sources,” says Michelle. ” The London Irish Women’s Centre supported a group called Video na mBan, who recorded many events and interviewed many guests and users of the centre. Most of that footage has been long dispersed but there was one cupboard left full of U-matic tapes. These turned out to be footage from 1987/88, mostly of the Irish Women’s Conferences that the Centre had organised over a five-year period in London. This was the archive we started with and it gave us some fantastic clips. Many of the women we went on to interview are featured in these.

“The Centre did a lot of self publishing in the form of reports and newsletters and they astutely had a lot of their events documented by professional photographers. Most of the black and white photographs in the film were taken by Joanne O’ Brien and Sass Tuffin, who had both been employed by the Centre to document events at different times. Colour photographs were from the personal collections of some of the interviewees and others we found in the the Centre’s archive. We also used some fabulous archive from Anna Liebschners’ short film A Free Country’(1983), about the Prevention of Terrorism Act and how if effects the Irish community in the UK.”

Ultimately, the Centre functioned as a space for Irish women and as a vital source of support that could provide for their needs and also take up the challenge to agitate for change. “Angie Birtill  – one of the women who worked at the centre – made a great point that women were supported and encouraged to not be victims but to do something about what they wanted to change. In a space where all opinions could be expressed and all grievances could be aired, opinions were shared and support groups for various different causes were formed. This was collective power in action. Women were coming to the centre and galvanising support for many causes from protests about the strip searching of prisoners to reproductive rights campaigns. It’s inspiring stuff.”

Steven Galvin


Breaking Ground: the Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre screens on Sunday, 10th November 2013 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The film will be followed by a Q&A with the London-based director Michelle Deignan.

Tickets for Breaking Ground: the Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie



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