Blazing a Trail: Q&A with Sarah Webb & Lauren O'Neill
2018 is an extraordinary year for women in Ireland. It’s the centenary of suffrage, the 8th amendment has been repealed and we’re moving towards a constitution that doesn’t put women in the home. CBI’s #BOLDGIRLS campaign celebrated bright, brave and self-possesed girls in children’s books, giving them much-needed visibility alongside their male counterparts, and now Blazing a Trail by Sarah Webb and Lauren O’Neill celebrates the real-life Irish women who have shaped the world. This timely and richly-illustrated compendium celebrates 28 women who blazed a trail in science, medicine, sport, politics, the arts and more but whose names aren’t as familiar as their male peers. I spoke to author Sarah Webb and illustrator Lauren O’Neill – two remarkable women in their own right – about the motivation behind the book, the research process and the women who have inspired them.
What inspired you to write Blazing a Trail?
I've always been interested in history. I studied History of Art in college and was fascinated by the artists, architects we studied, mostly all men. Over the years I started to realise that women were painting, drawing and designing furniture and buildings (look at Mainie Jellett or Eileen Gray), they just weren't the people that were in my history of art books. And Louise Bourgeois! Why on earth were none of my very learned and wise lecturers at Trinity talking about Louise Bourgeois or even Frida Kahlo or Georgia O'Keeffe?
There have always been remarkable women shaping our world, but over the years they have been overlooked. I decided I wanted to do something about this – shine a light on Irish women who have made a difference, changed things for the future generations.
You had two main criteria when selecting the women included in the book: they had to be outstanding in their field and they had to support other women along the way. Why were these criteria in particular important to you and what other criteria did you work to? Was it important to represent a variety of fields or to have a balance of historical and contemporary Irish women, for example?
I wanted to make sure that every child reading this book could find someone to inspire them on the page – sporty kids, science-loving kids, kids who love fashion or design. So it was very important to me to represent women from all kinds of spheres.
There were so many amazing women to choose from that I had to put some criteria in place - they had to be outstanding in their field and they had to be supportive of other women. The criteria helped me focus – I'd ask myself 'Did they help other women?', 'Did their achievement change the world?' Dame Ninette De Valois trained Margot Fonteyn, one of the greatest dancers of all time, Dr Kathleen Lynn employed women doctors and nurses in her children's hospital, St Ultan's. These were women who cared about other women, women who fought all their lives to make things happen. I had and have so much admiration for all the women int he book.
Can you tell us a bit about how you researched for Blazing a Trail? Was it difficult to find information on any of the women and does anything from your research process stand out as a particularly fascinting find?
It was all fascinating. As soon as I started researching a new woman, she became my favourite. Some women were hard to research as there just isn't much material out there about them. Someone should write a biography about Anne O'Neill who played professional football in France and Italy for 18 years. Amazing woman. I had to read old newspaper articles (in English and Italian – luckily I have a friend who is fluent), listen to radio interviews (great one on 'Off the Ball') and talk to her brother, Tony to find out information about her.
There wasn't much on Aleen Cust either, the first female vet in Ireland or Britain. Just one biography which is now out of print. Luckily I was Writer in Residence in Dún Laoghaire Lexicon Library at the time and the wonderful librarian, Nigel Curtin ordered research books from libraries all over the country for me, including out of print ones. I was very lucky.
As a collection, Blazing a Trail is incredibly inspiring but are any of the women especially inspiring for you personally? And if so, why?
Yes, Sarah Purser. I found out after writing that book that my grandfather and mother used to go to Sarah's Tuesday salons. Sarah was from Dún Laoghaire (where I live) and helped set up the History of Art course in Trinity where I studied - so I owe a lot to her. Plus we share a first name!
The illustrations in Blazing a Trail are stunning and give such a strong sense of who each of these trailblazing Irishwomen were and are. How did you research for this book and was it difficult to find visual references for any of the women?
Thanks so much! Most of them have achieved so much in their lifetimes, it’s hard to home in on one point in time for each one. Most of my research was done online. In some cases there was a wealth of reference material available, and in others only one or two obscure, grainy photos. So my approach was less about accuracy and more led by my imagination and whatever imagery jumped out at me most from Sarah’s text. The images are my own impression of their character and personalities, but I did try to stay true to time periods where possible. I love researching period clothing!
Can you tell us about your process as an illustrator and how you created the artwork for Blazing a Trail?
The artwork for Blazing a Trail was actually a bit of a departure from my usual style in kids books. Generally I’m more focused on linework, but for Blazing I’m combining line drawings with figures that felt a bit more painterly, which seemed to work well with some of the more historical subject matter. I mostly work digitally but I always use scanned textures in my work on some level. For Blazing I sketched out lots of small composition thumbnails in pencil for each image, and chose the one that I felt would work best full size. I would then take a photo of it on my phone, send it to my computer and paint over it in photoshop. At the end I added in scanned paint textures to give everything a more organic and traditional feel.
You mention in the introduction that you hope this book will inspire young readers to change the world in their own unique way. Which female artists – Irish or international – inspired you when you were growing up?
Honestly I don’t think I paid attention to any particular artists until I got to college! I was more into animation growing up, and only knew the studios rather than the artists themselves. But I did read a LOT of Enid Blyton.
Are any of the women in Blazing a Trail particularly inspiring to you personally and if so, why?
I actually think the one who made the biggest impression on me was Margaret Bulkley, who lived her whole adult life as a man, Dr. James Barry. Her, or I should say his, academic achievements alone were amazing. But he was also the one who made the biggest leap in terms of how he wanted to present himself to the world. You have to admire that level of self conviction! Also he was a big animal lover, which deserves a thumbs up.