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'I am not ashamed to say I had an abortion in my 30s - we can change the law here if we stand together'

Multi-talented Karen O'Rawe, marketing manager for the forthcoming Belfast International Arts Festival, has been named as one of the 20 most inspirational women here. She tells Lee Henry how she became a public supporter of pro-choice after taking part in a photographic project

Published 03/10/2016

Proud graduate: Karen O’Rawe at Queen’s University
Proud graduate: Karen O’Rawe at Queen’s University
Big success: Karen founded History Hub
Busy life: Karen works on many projects
New relationship: Karen with partner Lieutenant Commander John Gray at a commemoration for the Battle of Jutland
Family fun: Karen and partner John with her children, Emily and Dylan, and his children, Mollie and Bertie
Fallen heroes: one of the images from her First World War project

It's hard to pigeon-hole Belfast woman Karen O'Rawe who is well-know for her historical projects which connect people here with their ancestors who fought in the First World War through archive photographic exhibitions among others.

Having founded History Hub NI, a not-for-profit, volunteer-led organisation dedicated to bringing history to life through genealogical research, community projects and partnership facilitation, Karen (37) also became a voice and campaigner for the pro-choice lobby in Northern Ireland.

Now her decision to speak out against what she sees as the "restrictive" Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, which permits abortion only when a birth would put the mother's life at risk, has been recognised - alongside her other achievements - by a local business publication in its inaugural list.

The Business First's 20 Most Inspiring Women is voted for by the public and is an impressive and eclectic roll call of outstanding professionals, a testament to the breadth of talent that exists here in 2016.

Among the company directors, software developers, health care workers and artisans is Karen, who has made it her mission to promote, commemorate and celebrate our rich and riveting history.

Having graduated from Queen's University, Belfast, as a mature student and single mother aged 30 with a first in history, O'Rawe created History Hub initially as a means of fostering connections between disparate historical groups.

She says: "I met so many people as part of my studies who were working on the same things but never spoke to each other, people with amazing skills in one area and others with skills in other areas. I wanted to find a way to get them all together to produce projects that were interesting and engaging to the public, and to the members. And so History Hub Ulster was born."

Today, History Hub is at the centre of Belfast's diverse historical society. Karen and her colleagues now help to programme and promote large scale events, including the recent North Belfast Remembers project and Belfast Somme 100, marking the centenary of the First World War battles with exhibitions, talks, film screenings, musical productions and more in venues across the city.

"We were delighted to be awarded the funding to run such an important series of events," she says. "With the help of an Advisory Panel, we have programmed events until November, both in the city centre, shared locations and in community settings. From a trench art exhibition on the Springfield Road to Philip Orr's new play No News Is Good News in the Ulster Museum, it's been a busy few months."

Those who share her keen interest in genealogy may also recognise her as the driving force behind the Castleton Lanterns project, an investigative endeavour involving hundreds of families from north Belfast since 2013.

After discovering a box of 77 lantern slides in the organ loft of Alexandra Presbyterian Church, containing images of soldiers and sailors resplendent in First World War uniforms, Karen wanted to find out who they were.

"We've managed to learn the identities of 50% of the soldiers featured," she adds. "But at this stage we've exhausted all sources and are hoping that descendants will come forward.

"The problem is that people have photographs of their grandfathers as old men, not as teenagers, so it's difficult to match them up. It's an ongoing project. I suspect we'll still be working on it in a decade."

Karen is happy to be described as a researcher, a storyteller and a leader, but baulks at use of the term 'historian'. "I've always been interested in history," she confirms. "First of all as a genealogist, then as a classicist and now as a First World War Researcher, but I'm not a historian.

"When people hear the word historian, they think you know everything about the past, but that is an impossible ask. I don't have all the answers, but I know where to find them. I know how to get people excited about history and about what it can tell us. I believe in designing projects that touch the heart and allow our ancestors to talk to us and be relevant today."

One of the projects O'Rawe is most proud of took place earlier this year during the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, a North Sea naval battle that took place over two spring days in 1916 between the British Royal Navy and the German Imperial Navy.

"I gathered together descendants of sailors from all over Ireland for a memorial service at HMS Caroline," she says.

"Families crossed the seas from Australia, America, Canada and Spain. Some of these families had never felt able to remember their men before and the pride and sense of closeness we had that day will never leave me."

Tireless in her fascination with the First World War period in particular, Karen spends much of each year travelling around the UK and Ireland to attend military commemorations, exhibitions, tattoos and dinners. Recently she has done so in the company of her current partner, Commander John Gray (48), the most senior naval officer in Northern Ireland.

"People think we're an odd couple," she laughs. "We're from very different backgrounds, are in different age brackets and are almost polar opposites on a lot of issues, but we also have lots in common. We have kids of a similar age, the same naughty sense of humour and a strong belief in equality for all.

"The four kids - Emily (17) and Dylan (13) on my side, and Mollie (18) and Bertie (16) and John's side - get on well, but are all very different. Getting them all in the same place at the same time has only happened once in all the time we've known each other. That night out cost me a fortune. The future is unknown, as is the way within a new relationship, but it is always bright."

Karen currently lives with her daughter, Emily, in the Ormeau Road of Belfast, while Dylan resides in Armagh with his biological dad, from whom O'Rawe was amicably divorced in 2014.

"They both have big dreams and great ideas for their lives, but if they are anything like their mum, they'll not take the straight route," Karen jokes. "Emily is currently studying beauty but eventually wants to join the PSNI in the Child Sexual Exploitation team, while Dylan has always wanted to be in engineering but is currently toying with the idea of being a zoo keeper. I always have to remind myself that I wanted to be a forensic scientist, which is as far from my life as you can possibly get."

Another hugely influential factor in Karen making it onto the Northern Ireland's 20 Most Inspiring Women List is her stance on abortion. A vocal advocate for the pro-choice lobby, she took the brave decision to begin campaigning on behalf of women forced to seek abortions outside of Northern Ireland due to the "restrictive" Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, which permits abortion only in circumstances where the birth of the child would risk the mother's life.

"I am not ashamed to say I made a choice to terminate a pregnancy myself when I was in my 30s," she adds. "If I hadn't made that choice, I would not be here to talk about it. Pro-choice is not pro-abortion. Pro-life does not have to be anti-choice. This issue is not black and white and therefore the law cannot be either. The more women able to stand up and be confident enough to talk about abortion, the less hidden this issue will be."

She became visible in the pro-choice camp after taking part in the X-ile photography project, an online gallery of women who have accessed abortion services outside of Northern Ireland and the Republic.

"It took me weeks to decide to be part of the project," Karen says. "I was angry because people weren't standing up for women in horrific situations. And then I realised that I had a voice. I'm no longer willing to stand by, be quiet and watch women be vilified for wanting control of their own bodies.

"After my photo went up on X-ile, I had many messages from women saying they had been through the same thing but hadn't told anyone. If we can find the strength to stand together, I think that we can change the law in Northern Ireland - slowly but surely we'll force our wee country into the 21st century."

Campaigning and community work aside, Karen is currently hard at work putting the finishing touches to the upcoming Belfast International Arts Festival, where she works as marketing manager and looks forward to some downtime in the months ahead.

"My ideal evening would be spent watching a great show at the theatre or attending a First World War-related event," she says. "I haven't lost the love of either and so my hobbies are my work and vice versa. Apart from that, and reading, I have what my kids describe as a deeply disturbing addiction to Pokemon Go."

And what of her impressive new title? She admits to being "scundered at the attention" that the list has brought to bear, but is grateful to those who took the time to vote. "Being named one of Northern Ireland's most inspirational women is lovely, it really is, but I'm not one for the limelight, if I'm honest."

Belfast Telegraph

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