'Courage is walking away': Keelin Shanley, Frances Fitzgerald, Noeline Blackwell and others on the meaning of courage

Female leaders from various walks of life write about what courage means to them.

Keelin Shanley, Broadcaster

Courage is the ability to put worry, ego and fear to one side and push forward to try and bring about change. It’s being able to say, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ and facing down the prospect of failure.

Courage is different to resilience, but the two are often confused. Resilience is about being able to deal with adversity, or making the best of something when you have no choice but to put up with it. Courage, to me, is proactive – choosing the tough route, when you also have an easier option. It’s the person who intervenes when they see bullying or mistreatment; the person who questions the status quo; who risks their own well-being or comfort to do the right thing.

We’ve seen huge courage both in Ireland and around the world in recent years, with individuals speaking out about experiences in an effort to change attitudes for those coming behind them. The #MeToo movement and the recent referendums encouraged many people on all sides to speak out, regardless of the personal cost.

Working in journalism over the last three decades, I have met many courageous people. From well-known icons like Malala Yousafzai, to the unsung heroes who tell their stories of homelessness, drug addiction or crime, so we can shine a light on the world we live in.

People like Maria, a girl I met who was trafficked into Ireland from Romania, and forced to work in a brothel from the age of just 16, until she was deported a few years later. Maria suffered horribly in Ireland. The only people she met were uncaring clients and vicious pimps. Yet, when we went to her home town in Romania, she was able to put the hurt and terror aside to tell the true stories behind the Irish sex industry.

I had an early introduction to professional courage. I worked with Mary Raftery for two years on an arts programme in the 1990s. At the time, she was in the initial stages of making States of Fear. Many of the people she interviewed never expected to be even listened to, let alone believed. But Mary’s sense of courage and her zeal for the story helped bring out courage in those she met. That documentary opened the vaults on horrors that many half-knew about, but had dismissed or ignored.

Mary was never what you’d call easy. The great thing about that was she didn’t care who she had to cross to get what she believed was right. She was the toughest taskmaster I’ve ever had. She missed nothing, and after a hard day’s filming, there was nothing she loved more than a G&T and another good row. She was bolshy, warm, funny, difficult, and the purest example of courage I’ve known.

Making a documentary is to walk a fine line. You want people to reveal themselves to you, but you need to ensure they’re not paying too high a price. Mary managed to achieve that, and, in doing so, changed so much in Irish society, and inspired a generation of journalists and film makers who are still building on the work she started.


Frances Fitzgerald, TD

Frances Fitzgerald


Courage is the red badge of bravery. It’s easy to buy into the conflict definition of courage. Particularly easy for me, as my father served in the Defence Forces for all his professional life. I remember as a teenager listening, with shock, to the stories of Irish men, who in the course of peacekeeping work in the Congo, had demonstrated exemplary courage in the  face of terrifying circumstances.

It took me a while to realise that while showing courage in an emergency is not easy, most people can rise to a crisis. It’s everyday courage that’s really difficult. Everyday courage when life presents a challenge that may, at first, seem dramatic, but, over time, becomes a grinding, relentless, insistent demand that is difficult to bear. And yet, each of us knows people in our own families, among our own friends, within our community, who somehow find the courage to cope with awful realities that, in theory, should bring them to their knees.

Women and men coping with life-threatening illnesses, those who suffer unimaginable tragedies and appalling losses. A tiny minority become household names. But the majority of those who wear the ‘red badge of courage’ are not famous, nor does their challenge arrive with headlines attached.

Every month, every week, every day – in this country and around the world – some women are subjected to trafficking, sexual and domestic violence, and rape. There are also those women who are diagnosed with breast or other cancers, and enter a half-life of treatment, pain, nausea and fearful hope. Many mothers and fathers care for family members with such debilitating physical and mental-health issues that simply starting another day filled with routine impossibilities requires courage. Massive courage.

In politics, as in life, courage is a constant requirement, rather than an occasional demand. Politics is combative and conflictual beyond the value of combat or conflict, and the capacity to take on vested interests, to withstand the inevitable setbacks and to stay enthusiastic about doing the right thing, requires fortitude.

Many of the social changes that our country has experienced in the last decade have been made possible by the courageous actions of others over many generations. Those who broke the moulds, fought adversity and raised emerging issues.

It will take the courage of many more women, and the men who support them, to continue the efforts initiated by suffragettes over one hundred years ago to create an equal society: increased political representation, equal pay, and an end to sexual violence. As American poet and civil-rights activist, Maya Angelou said: “We may encounter many defeats – but we must not be defeated.”


Liz Cunningham, Finance Director, Google

Liz Cunningham of Google. Photo: Kip Carroll


Courage is feeling terrified out of your wits and doing it anyway. Or, in the words of Nelson Mandela, courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave person is not the person who does not feel afraid, but the one who conquers that fear. Most of us are courageous every day of our lives, but we don’t look at it as being courageous, we just look at it as doing what we need to do at that particular point in time.

Courage is recognising that we may not know where the road is taking us, but being guided by our own strengths and ideals. Probably the most courageous thing I have done in my career was to join Google. At the time, I had a small toddler; my husband had his own business and, like most small-business owners, was trying to survive in the middle of the worst recession in living memory; and I had a secure, senior position in a professional firm. The timing could not have been worse, but with the support of my husband, I took the risk of moving into the very fast-paced environment of the global tech sector. Today, people would say the decision was a no-brainer, but at the time it was a big risk, and it took all my courage to move.

I see courage displayed in many different and subtle ways every day, especially in the workplace. I see the courage it takes to be the dissenting voice. In the corporate world, as in life, the easy option is to be agreeable and go with the flow. Being the lone voice in the meeting saying you think there is a different way is incredibly hard. It takes self-belief, and it takes courage.

I see the courage of work colleagues struggling with issues in their personal lives and who can still come into work and give it their all. And I was incredibly proud of the courage of my many younger colleagues who decided, in a grassroots movement, to lead a walkout in protest at what they saw was behaviour not in keeping with the values of our company [Last year, staff in Google offices worldwide walked out as part of the Walkout for Real Change protest].

When we held our Compass Leadership Summit late last year, over 350 women came together in Google’s Foundry to explore the theme of courage in our lives. The stand-out moment was [cervical cancer campaigner]Vicky Phelan entering the auditorium to a standing ovation. Vicky is certainly an example of courage in exceptional circumstances – she stood up and spoke out because she felt she had to right a wrong done to her and many other women. Sometimes courage is seen as something you choose, but more often than not, it’s actually because you have no choice that you act in a courageous way.

Courage enables us to not let the past or present dictate the future, to look back and know how far we have come and be confident that every experience – good and bad – emboldens us for the future.


Noeline Blackwell, CEO Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

Noeline Blackwell of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Photo: Kip Carroll


Over the course of my career and my voluntary work, I have been privileged to meet with women who have exhibited the most extraordinary courage.

These are women who have spoken up or spoken out. They have stepped forward at risk to themselves in so many ways. They have defied expectations of what they should be or do as women. They have put their lives or their reputations at risk. They have fiercely defended the rights of others. They have caused consternation in their communities because they have called out human-rights violations or discrimination. In speaking out, all of them have taken risks and have shown huge courage.

The courage to speak up, to speak out, is the courage to speak truth to power. The context has differed depending on my role, but in every situation, I have found women who refuse to condone injustice, and who refuse to stay silent. I do not underestimate what courage this takes, and I admire it every time I encounter it.

In the context of my current work, the women who disclose and report on sexual violence are truly brave. It takes huge courage to confront your abuser, especially as this is usually someone in your family, your workplace, your community. I’ve seen them have that courage. I’ve seen the courage it takes to continue to hold that person to account when family and community is against you. That alone takes massive courage and clear-sightedness.

Add to that the courage it takes to set aside the cloak of secrecy that our society would often like to shroud talk of rape and sexual abuse, and to come out publicly to tell their truth. I salute those people, and I wonder at the reserves of strength and courage that they have when they speak up.

I was particularly pleased that the work of one such woman was recognised in the award of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. One of two committed heroic campaigners against sexual violence was honoured – Nadia Murad. Following her persecution by Isis and her subsequent escape, she has consistently told her story of multiple rape and sexual abuse by people who used it as a weapon of war. Telling that story was, and is, hard, but she does so because, she says, it is the best weapon she has against terrorism and to hold her persecutors and the persecutors of the Yazidi people to account. She is extraordinary.

All of them who tell their story because it needs to be told, because they are protecting someone else, because they want to stop the evil of rape and sexual abuse in our society, are extraordinary. All of them are women of courage.

When I spoke at the Google Compass Leadership summit this autumn, I closed with a quote from the American writer Audre Lorde, as a source of consolation and indication of why speaking out matters: ‘My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.’

We continue to need women of courage to bridge the differences.

Ciara Clancy, CEO and Founder, Beats Medical

Ciara Clancy of Beats Medical. Photo: Kip Carroll


Courage is walking away. Some of the toughest yet most courageous decisions I’ve ever made are the ones where I have walked away. But they have also been the best decisions I’ve made. From a young age, I wanted to help people, so my career path was always physio or nursing. Entrepreneurship was never presented to me as an option. Walking away from tradition and the expectations of a secure job in physio wasn’t easy. I felt like I was walking away from where I thought I could help most.

What I didn’t realise then was that by becoming an entrepreneur one day, I could help people on a greater scale. Had I remained a physio, I could have treated 10 people in clinic a day, now we can potentially treat millions of people around the world every day through our technology. It’s a dream come true, but a dream I never imagined possible when I was younger. Having the courage to walk away to choose another path can often be one of the first and most important steps in any journey. I have held on to this ideal in business. It’s allowed me to hold out for the right partnerships and deals that were a fit for us, and enabled us to build the company we have today.

Courage is knowing when to ask for help. Imposter syndrome can affect us all, the idea that we need to know everything. But I’ve come to learn that not knowing everything can be a strength, too. There is no blueprint to starting a business; you’ve got to assume nothing, take action quickly, and then adapt to the outcomes. But I’ve also learned that the road less travelled is a lot easier when you have people to give you that boost along the way.

I started Beats Medical in my early 20s and I was high on passion, but low on experience. I had a product that helped people, but very few people knew about it. In order for this to have the global impact I wanted to have, I wanted to scale the business fast. So I reached out to business mentors, who not only had this experience, but thankfully shared my vision, and were willing to pass on their expertise. Getting people to say yes to providing their support was surprisingly easy – the hardest part was just plucking up the courage to ask!

Courage is contagious. I truly believe courage is contagious. I have been inspired to set up a business because of challenges faced and the courage shown by people with neurological conditions. I am lucky that I work in an environment where I see courage every day.

Beats Medical provides technologies for children and adults with neurological conditions. You can’t not be inspired by their journeys. From John MacPhee, a person with Parkinson’s who used our app to walk the length of the UK and inspired others to do the same, to Chloe Byrne, one of the users of our Dyspraxia app, who, as her mum describes, turns her disability into her ability every day, and inspires other children to follow suit.

These acts of courage send a ripple effect that influences others to be courageous, too. Running a business can be filled with ups and downs, but these issues pale in comparison to what we’re trying to achieve. Our users continue to push my team and me to take risks and do more for the people we treat. I don’t believe anything can be more motivating than that.

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