Happy International Women’s Day from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland!

8th March, 2023

To mark this important day we’re highlighting some of the many amazing women working in the Arts in Northern Ireland.

Collage of images featuring some of the women working in the Arts in Northern Ireland.

Catherine McWilliams, Visual artist
Born in Belfast in 1940, Catherine McWilliams is a visual artist known particularly for her landscapes and studies of the female form. She studied at Ulster University's Belfast School of Art and began exhibiting her work in 1961. McWilliams taught art for many years and was head of Foundation Studies in Art at Rupert Stanley College in Belfast until 1990. Together with her husband and fellow artist, Joseph McWilliams, she opened the Cavehill Gallery in 1986. Paintings by Catherine McWilliams are part of the public collections in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and The National Self Portrait Collection at the University of Limerick. The artist currently has an exhibition showing at the F.E McWilliam Gallery & Studio entitled, Catherine McWilliams: Selected Work 1960-2021.

Claire Murray, Head of Development & Marketing, Lyric Theatre
Claire Murray worked for 15 years in strategy, marketing, and sustainability at a senior level in Coca-Cola and Heineken Ireland and at the National Trust and The MAC Belfast managing their marketing and communications. Claire is currently Head of Development and Marketing at the Lyric Theatre and an independent theatre producer supported by Stage One and is Vice-Chair of Theatre and Dance NI. She is a founder member of the Green Arts Collective, whose aim is to provide a collective cultural response to the Climate Crisis in Northern Ireland.

Jenna Hall, CEO at Circusful
In late November 2018 Jenna Hall joined Circusful as Chief Executive. Before moving to Northern Ireland for the role, Jenna had worked for over 20 years to help improve outcomes for children, families and communities. With an MA in Education and Community Learning, a coaching accreditation and being a champion of partnership working, she had previously led teams across the UK with the aim to increase children and young people’s access to arts and culture. Jenna joined the board of International circus body, Caravan, in 2019 and in 2020 joined the boards of Cathedral Quarter Trust, the Strand Arts Centre and became a Director of The Gymnastics and Trampoline Network. She is also the co-Chair of Belfast Festivals Forum and an active member of the Arts Collaboration Network and believes in the power of circus and adventure as tools with which to change lives.

Giselle Allen, Soprano
Irish soprano and opera singer, Giselle Allen, is a recipient of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Major Individual Artist award, given in recognition of the contribution the artist has made to creative life in Northern Ireland, and to produce a substantial and ambitious project that will make a significant contribution to the development of their professional career.

Born in Belfast, Giselle has appeared in many productions with Northern Ireland Opera, including Mimi La bohème, Senta Der Fliegende Höllander and the title role of Rusalka. She has also appeared with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in the role of Minnie La fanciulla del West. In 2023 Giselle will revive the title role of Tosca for Opera North before performing Praskov’ya Osipovna Nos (The Nose) at La Monnaie, Brussels, and 3rd Norn Götterdämmerung for Opernhaus Zürich.

Sarah McAvera, Deputy Director, Golden Thread Gallery
Sarah McAvera has worked extensively to diversify the arts sector in Northern Ireland, devising projects and gaining funding from Community Foundation NI, VSB Foundation and the Art Fund. Projects have included working with women's groups of refugees and asylum seekers and creating art packs for child refugees. This work has resulted in the gallery being shortlisted for the Calouste Gulbenkian Civic Organisation of the year.

Sarah has over fifteen years of professional experience in the arts as a project manager, curator, facilitator and fundraiser. As Deputy Director of the Golden Thread Gallery, her specialist knowledge includes: strategic development; fundraising; management; stakeholder engagement; curation; and writing. Sarah mentors both artists and arts professionals, and has helped hundreds of artists and young arts professionals in developing their careers.

Sinead Owens – freelance artist specialising in Stage Management
Sinéad Owens is a Production Manager and Stage Manager who has been working professionally in the theatre industry since 2016. She has worked with GBL Productions, Brassneck Theatre Company and Creation Theatre, Oxford and is an Associate Artist with Big Telly Theatre Company. Throughout the pandemic, she became known for her technical ability to Stage Manage shows over online platforms and was approached by Queens University Belfast, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Alfred University, New York, to run workshops on creatively using Zoom in a theatre setting. She was awarded 'most innovative use of technology' for Macbeth in 2020 with Big Telly Theatre Company at the Red Curtain Theatre Awards. Sinéad is currently Production Managing ‘My Corona’ with Brassneck Theatre Company (dir. Tony Devlin) which opens on International Women’s Day 2023.

Cath McBride, Company Director, In Your Space
Cath McBride is the Company Director of In Your Space Circus based in Derry-Londonderry. Cath graduated from Cardiff University in English Literature and worked in youth development with overseas charity Raleigh International and then Belfast Activity Centre. The Circus came calling in 2008 when she joined Belfast Circus School as their Senior Fundraiser. Cath's focus is mainly on company development and fundraising to ensure great things can happen for lots of people, with an aspiration that In Your Space Circus will spread quirky, colourful, happiness across Derry-Londonderry...Northern Ireland...and eventually The World!

Deirdre Gribbin, Composer
Composer Deirdre Gribbin was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is a recipient of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Major Individual Artist award, given in recognition of the contribution the artist has made to creative life in Northern Ireland, and to produce a substantial and ambitious project that will make a significant contribution to the development of their professional career Deirdre was also an award winner in the 2003 UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers with her work Empire States, and won a prestigious Arts Foundation Award for her first opera Hey Persephone! which had an acclaimed run at the Aldeburgh/Almeida Opera Festival. The composer’s music has been performed worldwide including The Lincoln Center in New York. She works extensively with theatre, film and dance and is a Fulbright, Churchill and Leverhulme Fellow.

Deirdre completed the music score for Margo Harkin's Stolen about Ireland's Mother and Baby Home Scandal which premiered at the 2023 Dublin International Film Festival. Her song cycle Kindersang featuring the work of Kindertransport survivor Lotte Kramer was recently performed at Lincoln Center, New York and Center Irlandais, Paris. She is currently completing a cello concerto called Mna, for the BBC and the Ulster Orchestra for performance in 2024. Visit

Raquel McKee, Caribbean Poet, actor, storyteller and singer/songwriter
Raquel McKee is a multitalented artist with a passion for justice. She seeks to broaden the audience for poetry with her Dub Poetry as well as more traditional forms. Her storytelling is a favourite of both children and adults, and her role as Asha in Lives in Translation lives on in the memory for many. Raquel is a recipient of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Minority Ethnic Artists and Residency Scheme, as well as a recipient of Jamaica Cultural Development Commission award. She has had poems and articles published in a number of magazines and anthologies and is a volunteer for the African and Caribbean community. She is a member of the John Hewitt Committee and runs her arts business, Colourscope, through which she operates 'Words 4...' to raise funds for charities.

Claire Kieran, Arts Officer, AnDroichead
Claire Kieran is the Arts Officer and programmer at An Droichead, Belfast’s leading Irish language and traditional arts organisation. She has directed the annual arts programme and a yearly festival which celebrates the best in Irish Traditional music, including artists such as Donal Lunny, Glen Hansard, Moya Brennan, Altan, Martin Hayes and many more. She established the award-winning Belfast Traditional Music Trail the first of its kind in the city and since its launch in 2017 has introduced the story of traditional music in the city to thousands of visitors from around the world. Claire was a member of the steering group for the successful Belfast UNESCO city of music bid.