Renaissance Girls

At one time, careers were compared to ladders: linear, one-way; hopefully up. Now it’s more like a search party, sending the feelers out in multiple directions, crossing your fingers and hoping one of them will come back with something. While there’s a lot to be said for knuckling down and honing your trade, a new crop of talented and proficient women are emerging who have more in common with the fabled “Renaissance man” than the career model we were shown in school – women who take on multiple jobs or professional hobbies in different fields to push themselves further.


Political PR advisor SOPHIE PIGOT is one such woman. Pigot juggles her demanding career (which has included a spell working for Vincent Browne), with competitive surfing. In 2013, she became female surfing champion of Ireland, competing in world tournaments aided by her sponsor, Energie Fitness. But her decision to take up the sport came only after a near-death experience. Swimming in Lahinch, aged ten, Pigot and her family were caught in a rip current, and into breaking waves. “It took 20 minutes for my older brothers and I to swim to shore,” she recalls, “but my younger sisters and cousins were still stuck in the water, my dad trying to keep the youngest ones calm and above water. The lifeguards were no longer on duty, but a bunch of local surfers rescued them. That night we were all so quiet from the shock, but after that, all we wanted to do was learn to surf.”


“I have to split my week, working in Dublin during the week and spending my weekends somewhere in the West of Ireland. It’s a juggle, but it’s worth it.”


Through practice and perseverance, Pigot eventually became the Irish female surfing champion, not even stopping when, while at college, she slipped a disk. Bed-bound for three months, she took up surfing again six months later, hoping it would help build her core strength. The injury also caused Pigot to reconsider her career – she switched degrees to politics and international relations at Aberdeen University, then spent a year in Hong Kong studying for a diploma in Mandarin, as well as time in Tibet and the West Bank studying Middle Eastern and East Asian politics. No wonder she scooped a job with TV3
on her return to Dublin.

Now working for KBC Bank on its Corporate Social Responsibility programme, Pigot capitalises on any opportunity to combine her two vocations. Last year she organised a non-partisan surf weekend for women election candidates, and she is PR co-ordinator for the Irish Surfing Association. “I have to split my week, working in Dublin during the week and spending my weekends somewhere in the West of Ireland. It’s a juggle, but it’s worth it.”



Similarly dividing her time not only between careers but between places too is CIARA O’TOOLE. A marketing specialist, O’Toole re-located to Lake Como in Italy following her marriage break up, where she learned to fly a plane and published a book about it, Going Solo on Lake Como. “The first draft just sort of burst out of me,” she says. “Sometimes it was very intense and my sole focus, other times I balanced it with other work.”

O’Toole set up her own publishing company, Flying Leap, to self-publish the book in October 2013.Now with a second book in mind, but also running her own marketing agency, flying planes and taking on freelance projects, O’Toole’s multi-faceted career was unplanned and unexpected – she had never thought about learning to fly until she arrived in Como and saw the seaplanes – but she always knew she’d have an unconventional career path. “I always wanted to be independent and ideally work for myself, and I always wanted to travel,” she says. “I don’t see myself as a dabbler – when I do something I do it 100 per cent – but I always need to be challenged. I’m also a curious person so I love doing new things and meeting new people.”



This inquisitive nature counts for a lot. HANNAH LOWRY O’REILLY is pursuing a demanding career in law, but continues competing at a professional level in chess and fencing, and occasionally takes on modelling work. “I studied law in TCD,” she says, “but my friends joked I was actually taking a degree in fencing.”

Working in her first modelling job at the age of nine, Lowry O’Reilly recalls it was nearly her last: “I literally turned blue on Killiney Beach, doing a photo shoot for kids’ summer wear in March,” she recalls. “After that I forgot about it. I think I was still trying to get warm! But in fifth year I won a modelling competition and joined an agency.” This has taken a backseat to her legal career, where she is now in her second year devilling to become a barrister. But she doesn’t divide her pursuits into “work” and “play” – instead describing her career as her “passion”, and admitting that she takes her sport very seriously. “I am naturally competitive,” she adds. “In a nice way, I hope!” With scientific evidence that physically and mentally engaging extra-curricular activities can boost productivity at work, it makes sense that chasing down a second profession like international level chess or fencing could actually bolster one’s proficiency in the office.



For multi-disciplinary artist FIONA HALLINAN though, it’s all part of a cohesive whole. “I’ve always been interested in lots of different things and finding the connections between them,” she told us. “But the recession did drive me, like many other people, by necessity to take on lots of different things in order to survive,” she told us. Food, music, hospitality and teaching all feature on Hallinan’s vast CV. In the past couple of years alone, she has had her work exhibited in prestigious galleries including IMMA, where she was included in group show In The Line of Beauty; co-organised Fraoch Yoga Retreats (she provides seasonal vegetarian food, while pal Luna Dolezal teaches the yoga); overseen a short-term hospitality project, Homestay, in conjunction with the Science Gallery; taught at RUA RED; co-ran pop-up café The Hare, and initiated a collaborative art project, Heterodyne, which sees composers and musicians create soundtracks for places like Military Road, the winding road that meanders through the hills of Wicklow.


“All of the things I do share a common purpose, which is an attempt at new ways of experiencing the world.”

“Heterodyne is about perceiving one’s ordinary surroundings differently by layering music on top of them. Then The Hare altered audiences’ perspectives of a gallery setting by using food to create another atmosphere and alter relationships between people,” she explains. “All of the things I do share a common purpose, which is an attempt at new ways of experiencing the world. Working on The Hare tied together lots of different parts of my practice, which helps with that understanding that everything is connected.”

Hallinan also applies what she has learned to the art classes she teaches at RUA RED, but even this works both ways, allowing her to test new ideas she might later use in her work: “It’s a great way to learn and exchange ideas,” she says. If your work is as interlinked as this, multi-jobbing clearly pays off – informing what you do, and deepening your understanding of different creative spheres.

Are we seeing the emergence of a generation who can’t stay put? Perhaps for Millennials who grew up flicking between tabs in an open browser and Tweeting while walking, career multi-tasking comes naturally. Or perhaps it’s the recession that’s pushed people to diversify – outward confidence belying a deep fear of running down a career dead end. It’s probably a bit of both. But a lot of it is down to the admirable drive these women demonstrate.

Constantly seeking out new experiences and challenges, these modern day Renaissance women have bolstered their careers and enriched the lives of themselves and others. “I want to make an impact with my life,” Sophie told us. And that’s certainly something each of these women is doing.

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