Marking 25 years since women joined the Irish Navy

This year marks 25 years since women joined the Irish navy. Here ANN MURPHY talks to some of those who have risen through the ranks, and others just starting out
Marking 25 years since women joined the Irish Navy

Lt Cdr Orlaith Gallagher.

WHEN Orlaith Gallagher’s young daughter found out that her mother’s boss was a man, she was shocked. To her innocent eyes, many of her mum’s work colleagues were female and she simply expected that her boss would also be a woman.

But when Orlaith joined the Navy in 1995, expectations were much different and she recalls now that she did get some “stick” from her mostly male colleagues.

It is now 25 years since the Navy recruited its first female and Orlaith has risen through the ranks to the position of Lieutenant Commander.

She says: “Overall, it is an amazing career for women. It does become more difficult to manage when/if you have kids.

“The Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, wants to increase the number of women in the Defence Forces and consequently there is a push to make the organisation more family friendly. The opportunities within the Defence Forces are the same for men and women and these family-friendly initiatives are designed to facilitate women to achieve their potential.

“Societal attitudes to women in traditionally male- dominated organisations are changing and this is reflected in the Defence Forces. When I joined initially in 1995, I did get stick, on occasion, for being a woman. But I was young, strong and determined to change the world. And while I may not have changed the world, I certainly think I have pushed boundaries and changed attitudes within the Naval Service.”

The job has certainly brought with it a sense of adventure, given that she was involved in an operation to halt one of the largest ever shipments of drugs destined for Irish shores. She was the captain of the LE Roisin in November, 2008, when she was alerted by Naval Operations that a ship of interest was 220 nautical miles off the southwest coast of Ireland and that the Navy may be required.

She recalls: “Having briefed my officers, each department began preparations for naval interdiction and boarding operations. It is times like this that I really admire the women and men of the Naval Service. At this time, all the ship knew was that there may be an operation which required maritime interdiction with boarding operations, and even though the operation was not yet confirmed, the ship’s company swung into action. Preparations commenced immediately. Training exercises were conducted to ensure all previous training was fresh in people’s minds. The ship was buzzing with activity. The atmosphere was full of energy and excitement — this is what we had all trained for!

“In conjunction with LE Niamh we intercepted, apprehended and detained the drug- running yacht Dances with Waves 165 nautical miles southwest of Mizen Head. This operation was conducted over four days in treacherous seas and weather conditions. Resilience was a key attribute of each and every crew member as they worked hard throughout the operation with little sleep. A total of €675 million worth of cocaine was seized in the operation, the largest ever drug seizure in Europe at that time. I was immensely proud of this achievement, of my crew, and of the Naval Service.”

Orlaith grew up in Dublin close to the coast and always had a love of the sea, leading her to join the Navy immediately from school. Her husband is a garda and she has two children and is also stepmum to two more. Her life is currently more predictable as she is now based in the Defence Forces headquarters, where she works in the Directorate of Operations.

Lt Cdr Elaine Moloney.
Lt Cdr Elaine Moloney.

SAVING LIVES

For Lt Cdr Elaine Moloney, life in the Navy is what she always wanted too, and she joined immediately from Leaving Certificate in 2000.

She says: “Life in the Navy is not suited to everyone due to extended periods that can be spent away from home when at sea, but if this is something that you can overcome then the Naval Service can provide so many opportunities, experiences and challenges that you would never be afforded elsewhere. It was most definitely an excellent career choice for me.

“The single biggest highlight of my career was being afforded the opportunity to partake in Operation Pontus, the Naval Service’s humanitarian aid response to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. I was a member of the second ship deployed and spent three months in the Mediterranean in the summer of 2015. Within this three month period we were responsible for saving the lives of over 4,000 migrants, which is something I am immensely proud of.

“This mission had a huge and lasting impact on me both personally and professionally and I feel that it demonstrates the value of my service.”

She is currently the officer in charge of the Technical Training School in the Naval Service.

Clare O'Brien and her daughter Ellie.
Clare O'Brien and her daughter Ellie.

LONG SERVING

Unlike Orlaith and Aoife, Castlelyons woman Clare O’Brien had not always wanted a career in the Navy. In fact, she did not even know Ireland had its own Navy until her sister saw a newspaper recruitment advertisement.

She says: “The Navy was looking for both male and female applicants for general enlistment. This caught my attention, and I applied. I went on to do an interview, a medical and a fitness test. I am the youngest of six children and there were no military connections to my family.”

More than 20 years later, she is the longest serving female Non Commissioned Officer in the Navy.

She juggles her career with motherhood, as she has two daughters.

Clare said: “ It gave me a new perspective on life and on my career. I am now and always will be a mammy first, but I want to be a role model for my girls.

“Having children in the Navy is not a negative thing. I embraced the changes that this has made to me, in making me a more compassionate and understanding service person in my daily role.”

She describes joining the Navy as one of the best decisions of her life, and she has embraced the travel opportunities that came with it.

But it was an event on her own doorstep which has been the highlight of her career to date.

She reflects: “Although the Naval Service is in the media for search and rescue events and drug seizures, for me personally it was in 2015 when the remains of Thomas Kent were discovered. He was from my home village of Castlelyons.

“There was a state funeral for our 1916 fallen hero. It was my greatest honour to be part of the ceremonial guard duties for his funeral.”

Aoife Lynch.
Aoife Lynch.

STARTING OUT

Aoife Lynch’s stint in the Navy is just starting, but already she feels she has found her calling, currently working as an Engine Room Artificer.

She didn’t go straight into the Navy from school but her love of the sea eventually called strongly to her and she followed her heart.

She says: “After school, my parents wanted us to experience all parts of life. So, I went to college in ITT Dublin and was studying Bioanalysis. However, after completing three years I decided that this was not the right career choice for me. Following this I worked in Dublin for six years in the hospitality trade, while continuing my passion/hobby to assist my father working on refurbishing cars and maintaining the tractors on the farm.” 

She joined in 2016 and was a member of the first crew of the newest vessel LE George Bernard Shaw, before starting learning her trade last year. She says: “I am excited to be doing this trade as it poses different challenges which are both exciting and educational. It is a great opportunity for me to work on the main engines and generators that are on board the ships. During my trade I will learn how to service the machinery, learn what makes the engines etc.” 

Karen Casey.
Karen Casey.

A NEW CHALLENGE

Karen Casey is also relatively new to the Naval Service, having joined four years ago before first working in childcare.

She says no two days are the same in the Navy, adding she was attracted to it because she wanted to challenge herself more.

She adds: “I did not know what was in store for me but was very excited and nervous at the same time.” 

The Carrigtwohill native says time away at sea can be very challenging because of missing home, family, and landmark occasions. But she said: “You make it work, there is great camaraderie. It's a family away from home.” 

Now an able seaman, she is looking ahead to progressing her career. She is also a gunner, tending weapons on board the ships. She says: “I have two more professional career courses to do before I can go for promotion advancement but there are also apprenticeships available which is another option.” 

• Recruitment for the Navy is currently underway. Further details are available at https://www.military.ie/en/careers/current-competitions/

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