Just before the Christmas holidays, our Brussels correspondent Rose O’Donovan caught up with four other Cork women on what led them to live and work in the Belgian capital, on things that are uniquely Irish and what us expats miss most when living abroad
From Beara to Brussels
WHEN Catherine O’Conor and I were studying French and German at University College Cork twenty years ago, we did not think we would end up living and working in Brussels. Hailing from Castletownbere, Catherine moved to the Belgian capital in 2001 to conduct an internship at the European Commission and, apart from one year spent in Germany, she has been living here since.
When she first arrived, she loved the ‘vibrancy of the city, hearing so many different languages spoken and the cultural mix.’ Having spent her Erasmus (study year abroad) in Namur (about an hour’s drive from Brussels) in 1997-1998, she remembers visiting the so-called European quarter and having a ‘wow moment … thinking this is where I want to be!’ Daughter of Paddy and Maria O’Conor – formerly vice-principal and part-time teacher at the local secondary Scoil Phobail Bhéara – Catherine worked at the European Parliament between 2005 and 2008 with local Fine Gael MEPs Simon Coveney and Colm Burke. During her time there, Catherine dealt with issues related to foreign affairs and human rights.
She is currently working as a project manager at one of the EU executive agencies – the Innovation and Networks Agency, which manages infrastructure, research and innovation projects in the fields of transport, energy and telecommunications. Growing up on the stunning Beara Peninsula, she misses the ‘beautiful countryside, the sea and fresh air … and the friendliness and banter, which is such a Cork thing!’
Catherine was looking forward to spending time with her family in Castletownbere and seeing her six-month-old son celebrate his first Christmas. As the voyage home has become increasingly challenging with a little one in tow, Catherine makes a strong case for the resumption of the Cork-Brussels flight.
The Letterlickey link
AS the crow flies there are only a few miles between Dunbeacon and Letterlickey, but it was only recently that I met Caroline O’Sullivan, who works for the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development as a legal assistant-committee coordinator. Caroline advises the Head of Unit as regards the work of the Committee, assisting in the drafting of reports on proposals and monitoring key legislation on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), animal health / welfare, plant health and forestry coming from the European Commission.
Caroline first arrived in Brussels in October 2011 when she was in the middle of her apprenticeship as a trainee solicitor with a general practice firm in Cork City. Having completed a five-month internship with the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee, she returned to Ireland to finish her apprenticeship and shortly before qualifying as a solicitor, she was offered a position in the EP’s Special Committee on Organised Crime, Corruption and Money Laundering in 2012.
Having grown up in rural Ireland, Caroline has an ‘inherent interest in politics … which is a sport for some’ and is reminded by her parliamentary colleagues that the ‘best politicians come from Ireland.’ Caroline has called Brussels home now for five years, recently purchasing her first apartment with her Flemish boyfriend.
She appreciates the ‘multicultural aspect’ and describes the ‘culturally-rich’ Belgian capital as ‘very difficult to match with anywhere else in the world.’ She misses her ‘family and friends the most’ and, although communication is much easier nowadays, ‘nothing beats sitting at the kitchen table with family or friends over a cup of tea catching up on the gossip and all the news.’
Similar to many who grew up on the Atlantic coast, the beauty of Bantry Bay is never far from her mind, as Caroline ‘misses the sea terribly.’ With only a few days to go to the holidays, she was looking forward to her mum’s ‘fantastic Christmas dinner with all the trimmings’ and catching up with family and friends, many of whom are returning home from Australia and America.
Dunmanway dairy beginnings
WHEN I first met Alice O’Donovan from Wilton, we spent the first hour or so figuring out if we were long-lost cousins, which was not the case as it turned out.
Alice studied Law and German at University College Cork (2007-2011), followed by a Masters in EU law at the University of Hamburg in Germany (2011-2012). But it must have been the weekends spent at her Uncle John Buttimer’s dairy farm in Ahakeera, east of Dunmanway that sparked Alice’s interest in the milk sector.
Having completed an internship in the European Commission (Health and Consumer Protection) in early 2012, Alice started work as a Legal and Policy Advisor with Eucolait – the European Association of Dairy Trade – in Autumn 2012. The organisation represents dairy importers, exporters and wholesalers vis-à-vis the EU institutions and other international bodies.
Alice is responsible for key policy questions, i.e. the trade body’s reaction to market management schemes for milk and EU aid packages for the sector. Alice ‘has always kept an eye on what was happening in the political arena’ and would ‘like to see more senior female role models in the agricultural sphere.’
When she first arrived in Brussels, there ‘was snow up the ankles’ and she was living in a ‘freezing bedsit,’ so needless to say, she ‘wasn’t much of a fan to begin with!’ But ‘life is good now … the food is great,’ Alice says, while she has gotten to know ‘some great people, both Belgians and other “international” people in Brussels.’
She misses her family and friends, but also the ‘informality and spontaneity of daily life’ which is unique to Ireland. Alice was spending Christmas Day in Belgium, but heading back to Wilton on December 26th and looking forward to a good friend’s ‘big day’ before the new year.
Mallow woman flies flag for Irish co-ops
MALLOW native Alison Graham moved to Brussels in September 2014 to do an internship with her local MEP Seán Kelly (Fine Gael), the former president of the GAA. Having a Bachelor in European Studies (European Law, Politics and German) from the University of Limerick (2010-2014) and a graduate certificate in Environmental Sustainability from UCD (2015), Alison was well-placed to join the Kerry politician’s team.
Alison is currently the European Affairs Executive for the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS), an umbrella group for co-ops across all economic sectors including multi-purpose dairy co-ops, livestock marts and community-oriented / cultural co-ops.
The past pupil of St Mary’s Secondary School in Mallow represents the Irish co-operatives sector within Cogeca – the European organisation for agricultural co-ops.
She provides information on policy issues to ICOS members, lobbying the institutions on key legislation such as the CAP, trade, climate change, animal health / welfare, competition policy, rural development and Brexit. As a woman working in an ‘overwhelmingly male-dominated sector,’ she points to ‘some amazing Irish women leading the way,’ referring specifically to the West Cork co-operatives which have shown ‘great leadership nationally with the number of women who serve on their boards.’
The former vice-president of the University of Limerick Global Aid Society – which raises awareness about international human rights – has a keen interest in political history and current affairs. Hailing from an area called the Ironmines – about half way between Mallow and Doneraile – Alison misses her family and friends the most, but also the ‘quiet of the countryside’ – something that is difficult to find in the bustling Belgian capital.
Alison was returning home on December 23rd ‘just in time for all the Christmas baking,’ including a gingerbread house that herself and her sister are planning to make.
• Rose O’Donovan is editor of the Brussels-based publication AGRA FACTS & a regular contributor to the video platform www.vieuws.eu/food-agriculture/