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Dublin Game Changers – Sinead Burke

Words by Gretel Downey

Photo by Peter Varga

The idea of this series is to highlight those who are working away tirelessly, to change and improve their community and Dublin as a whole. So obviously we had to start with a challenge and someone who defies being a citizen of just one community. Sinead Burke, aka Minnie Melange, was the first person I thought of when deciding to do this series and I was delighted when she agreed to sit down with me.

So where to start with Sinead? For someone so young she has fit an impressive amount into her 25 years, from winning Alternative Miss Ireland 2012 to publishing a deadly blog, being a PHD candidate and passionate activist, the list is never-ending. That being said, she’s always downplaying her achievements.

I’m supposed to have a car by now or a physical property but I don’t have any of those things.

It’s cool Sinead, neither do I. I also don’t have a loyal readership or invites to the hottest fashion events globally but I’m sure I’ll get there in the next year to catch up with you!

As Lewis Carroll has taught me, the best place to start is at the beginning, so we start our chat with the first time I saw her as ‘Bangles’ in The Gaiety Panto’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (oh btw, did I mention that Sinead is also a little person?), and her connection with the story of Snow White.

I never realised as a child that the dwarves were more representative of me than the protagonist. After all, I was a little person but I always saw myself as Snow White. As I got older I began to question that narrative. For example, why were the dwarves never a romantic interest for Snow White? So I began to think, if Disney aren’t going to create the story for me and if society isn’t going to challenge the status quo, what’s stopping me from doing it?

And that’s how she became Alternative Miss Ireland 2012! After helping out Shirley Temple Bar with the event the year previous, Sinead found that ‘the atmosphere was tangible’ and she wanted in. She managed to talk herself out of it for a brief period of time but when she realised that it would be the last one ever she rallied the troops.

Enlisting family and friends, Sinead became Snow White, took home the crown and even a cover of GCN. Citing the evening as one of the best nights of her life, Sinead never felt so at home or included as she did on that stage. This led to our conversation about her status as an LGBT ally and how she felt accepted into their community straight away, even though she was a ‘straight white gal’.

When I was younger, going out to clubs was really difficult because people treated me as an other and when alcohol comes into the system that’s augmented and made worse. I had quite really nasty experiences in nightclubs, just because people felt that they could belittle me in some way or make me feel less. Mu first time in a gay nightclub was so refreshing because I was left totally alone. Nobody had any interest in picking me up or making lewd gestures in my direction, I was just alone to dance to Britney and Madonna.

Preach girl, preach!

And there is no better ally than Sinead which is evident when we start speaking about her work with Little People of Ireland, children’s rights and her role as an ambassador for the ISPCC. Again Sinead stays humble saying that her work with the Little People of Ireland, going to schools and talking frankly about what it’s like to be a little person, was ‘borne out of necessity’.

When I was younger I would’ve loved someone to visit my class who looked liked me because undoubtedly the kids in my class were curious aboute being a little person. I imagine they went home to their parents with lots of questions and perhaps their parents were unable to answer them. But it’s never polite to be the girl or boy  come into your class and ask a friend ‘will you be able to get married? Will you be able to have children? Can you drive?’ Visiting schools came from the parents of Little People of Ireland saying my child’s friends and teachers have questions, can you come in and talk?

Fun fact about Sinead: she’s an excellent talker! She’s even done her own TEDx Talk. She sees herself as a facilitator to people’s curiosity and finds the key to her talks in schools is actually listening and encouraging questions. Children and young people have incredibly open minds and Sinead has found this first hand as she was training to be a teacher, where every student above junior infants was bigger than her.

I had 6th class boys in the inner city and they knew that the classroom environment [light switches, blinds, putting artwork on the walls] would be a physical challenge for me but sharing  the workload gave them a little bit of responsibility. I’d put the projector on and 30 seconds later someone would jump up and turn the lights off, another would pull the blinds down and we’d be ready to go!

Her passion for teaching and children’s rights is highlighted again with her PHD topic of the student voice and giving children a say in their education and what matters to them. She’s questioning if currently in Ireland if students have a voice and what their experiences are of that. This also links with her role as an ISPCC ambassador with the Blue Shield Campaign.

It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. The work that the ISPCC do is revolutionary, it really is. The volunteers who sit by the phone in Childline and listen to young people and make them feel safe when they’re probably in a very fragile space emotionally or physically, you can’t measure that work. You can’t measure the impact that’s having on people. To be in a position to be an ambassador for the,  even in the most minute way is an absolute honour.

Then self deprecating Sinead comes back out!

‘Even if I’m the only non-celeb in the campaign’. In my mind however, her and Colin Farrell and kind of on par…

Finally, if all that wasn’t enough, Sinead runs the very popular blog Minnie Melange. While it often gets categorised as a fashion blog, it really is so much more than that. Don’t get me wrong, her love of fashion and the way we use it to express ourselves shines through, but with her Minnie Meets and Extraordinary Women series Sinead highlights issues prevalent in Dublin and across the globe.  Her interview with Maureen Grant, who’s been working in The Olympia since 1949, is a must read in my mind but there’s such a variety of interviewees that it’s wonderful to see a diverse range of Extraordinary Women.

Reflecting the diversity of extraordinary women something I’m really passionate about in terms of age profile, race and background, from different parts of the world too. I think that when we talk about extraordinary women or successful women we tend to point to the same people, which is really important because there are so many women doing amazing things, but also it’s essential to tilt the lense. It’s about saying yes those women are amazing and they need to be listened to but so is this woman, have you heard of her? Women who are just starting out in their careers, just finished college and are doing something new. They’re just as valid as someone who is CEO.

And where to from there?

It’d be amazing to turn it into a book. Portraits of these women with text alongside or tell it more holistically and have it themed. It’s kind of a long term ambition.

Sure, I mean it’s not like you’re doing much, plenty of time to start a new project!

To end on, there is always something I like to know about people because I feel it really says a lot about a person.

If you could be any animal what would you be?

As per usual, Sinead is incredibly humble.

I’d like to think that I’m a tiger because of my love for animal print, not real fur of course, I love the bold colours.  But I think I’m a bit delusional, I’m not a tiger, I’m probably an owl. I’m a barn owl, big eyes, wise, nosey, always lurking at the most inconvenient moment. I’d also like to learn to fly, see things from an aerial view.

However, I beg to differ; after seeing the passion with which she speaks on so many topics, I’d definitely put her as a fiery tiger!