Farmer and TD Holly Cairns grew up on a farm on the Turk Head peninsula in Lisheen, West Cork. The newly elected Social Democrats TD, who describes herself as a feminist farmer, is looking forward to getting her teeth into the job and being the best TD she can be for Cork South West. Her hope is that in the future she will be leading the change to transform agriculture and the way we think about how we produce food – in a just, sustainable way. Holly takes time out of her busy schedule to talk to West Cork People about her move into politics and some of the challenges and highlights.
Tell us about your background
I grew up on our family farm on the Turk Head peninsula. Like many at the time, I moved away for work. After a few years working in disability support services in Malta, I returned home to take on the family farm and did a Masters in Organic Horticulture in UCC.
What did you aspire to be when you were younger?
I wanted to be the red Power Ranger!
What was your first job?
A waitress in Gannet’s Café (on the way out to the Mizen) when I was 12.
Where were you educated?
Lisheen National School, Schull Community College and University College Cork.
Your background is in agriculture. What inspired or motivated you to get into politics?
Similar to many other Irish people, I became active in politics through the two recent social referendums – the marriage equality referendum and the referendum to repeal the eighth. My involvement in those campaigns showed me the power of grassroots activism to address inequalities.
How did you get where you are today?
Through lots of support and lots of hard work.
What have been the main challenges for you to-date and what do you foresee as being future challenges?
Sexism in politics remains the most significant challenge facing me and other women in politics. From passing comments to dismissal of our voices, it is an endemic part of the way Councils and the Dáil work. Changing this is not just about gender quotas and having token women, it is about a larger cultural change that enables women and other under-represented groups to participate equally in decision-making.
What have been some of the highlights of your political journey to-date?
The main highlight has been getting the seat in the Bantry area by one vote! It was a long hard journey to get all those votes and we were certainly thrown in at the deep end with the counts and recounts! The second has to be taking my seat in the Dáil recently, alongside five other Social Democrat deputies, with my grandparents and family supporting me.
What are your future plans/ambitions etc?
To be the best TD I can be for Cork South West.
What do you consider to be the most significant accomplishment to-date?
Getting elected! From once we began the locals campaign, right through to the general election, we were written off by commentators and most of the media. It has required a lot of work and dedication from myself, my team, and family, but it shows that perseverance and giving people new options can lead to real change.
What issues are most important to you, on a local and also a national level?
Environment and equality. These are the key issues facing us as a country, the climate emergency will require us to change the way we do business and live our lives, and these changes will need to be implemented in a fair way that will not disproportionately affect rural and disadvantaged areas.
Based on the current political climate and the current stalemate as such, do you believe there will be change and in your opinion what needs to be done for this to happen?
A lot has changed already with the results of the election; there is a clear indication that many people are looking for a new progressive form of politics. I am looking forward to the challenge of being involved in this evolving situation and making sure West Cork is represented.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
The people, I got into politics to help the people of West Cork, and for me the most important and best thing is to get to meet different people and work with them. Sometimes it is very challenging and upsetting seeing how hard life is for families, but being able to help them and ensure their voice is heard is central to my role as a TD.
What advice based on the lessons you’ve learned so far would you give to young people interested in pursuing a career in politics?
Don’t listen to the vast majority of advice you get, stick to your principles and know that change is possible.
As Cork’s only current female TD, what changes do you believe have to be made for more women to enter the political arena in Ireland?
Gender quotas in Council elections, maternity leave for elected representatives (can you actually believe there is no maternity leave?), parties with gender balance, such as the Social Democrats, to grow.
You’ve been running Brown Envelope Seeds with your mum Madeline for the past few years. Will you miss life on the farm? How does your mum feel about your new career and exodus to Dublin?
Yes. If I had a toss up between the farm and being in the Dáil, I’d chose the farm; I never decided to enter politics, it has just happened, and it feels like the right thing to do which is hard to explain.
My Mum couldn’t be more supportive, I couldn’t have gotten where I am today without her and feel incredibly lucky.
Do you have a good work-life balance? How do you achieve this?
No, tips welcome!
When you do have time off, what do you enjoy doing?
Hanging out with my two girls, Hei Hei, my dog, and Blaze, my cat! Long walks around West Cork with Hei Hei and friends, we’re so lucky we live in the most beautiful constituency in Ireland with fantastic routes.
Who/what are your inspirations?
My Granny McKeever, she took the train to Belfast from Dublin when she was 21 and joined the Royal Air Force in WWII, against her family wishes. She trained with a group of women to become the first female electricians in the RAF. She was an incredible woman.