WHEN Ann Liston talks about life as a woman in the gardaí in decades gone by, it seems like a very different world.
Today, female gardaí are commonplace and Ireland has had its first female Garda Commissioner in Noirin O’Sullivan. There are also several high ranking female officers currently in the force.
But Ann Liston recalls a very different era, given that she joined the force in 1978, just 19 years after women were allowed to join An Garda Siochana, in 1959.
She has been retired since 2004, having worked 26 years in the gardaí and four years before that in the civil service.
Coming from no policing background, Ann’s career path into the gardaí was forged when she was working in the civil service as a clerical officer in the Bridewell station in Cork city. She grew to love the work she saw being done by gardaí based in the station and made the decision to leave the civil service and go to the Garda Training College in Templemore.
There were just 21 other females in her class. This was compared with 300 males. She quips: “We had a ball!”.
Ann reflects that there were just 101 females in An Garda Siochana in 1978 — including her own class. Latest figures available for Cork show that there were 197 female members in Cork city in May, among them Sarah Coakley who is based in Mayfield station.
Sarah started in Templemore in November, 2017, and passed out in June, 2018. She came to the job after studying social care at Cork Institute of Technology for four years. Like Ann, she had no policing background in her family. She too had seen the work of gardaí while on placements during her studies and was drawn to the job.
She explains: “I saw it was an exciting job and that every day is different. That drew me to it. I am on a regular unit and I could be called to anything — traffic accidents which can range from minor to serious assault and domestic violence.”
Last Thursday, a special gathering took place in Killarney to celebrate the 60th anniversary of women in An Garda Siochana.
Sarah is very aware that life now as a woman in the force is much different to the experience of females who joined the force in the decades before her.
She explains: “We have the same expectation as male gardaí, we respond to the same jobs, women are working in all units.
“Women are now right across all ranks, which shows the contribution women have made to the force.”
Equal pay was unheard of in the early days of Ann’s career and there were other stipulations at the time which stand out to Ann now.
For example, she recalls that ban gardaí were not allowed to carry batons, or work full night shifts. Neither were they allowed to wear trousers.
She adds: “I remember one night, I had to chase some fellow and I had to hoist myself over a gate, wearing a skirt! We were also issued with just 12 pairs of support tights per year.
“It is laughable now but it was normal at the time. Our working dress was the skirt and the tunic. It was well into the ’80’s before we were issued with a jumper.”
Her entry to the gardaí was just four years after the marriage bar was lifted for female gardaí. She reflects: “Times were so different. It was only in 1979 that they (senior garda management) decided to place ban gardaí in stations which were divisional headquarters.”
Previously, female gardaí were assigned only to city stations.
Ann’s first station was in Limerick city. When this changed in 1979, she and another female colleague were assigned to Thurles garda station.
At that point, she and her future husband, John Liston, had met during training in Templemore. They married in 1981, while she was in Thurles.
Shortly afterwards, Ann sought and got a transfer to Naas because at that point, John was stationed in Ballymore Eustace. He later was also transferred to Naas and the roster was managed to ensure the couple were never working on the same unit.
She applied for an office job in Naas, to secure a 9 to 5 position which would make it easier for family life. Her background as a clerical officer in the sergeant’s office in the Bridewell helped her in that role and the couple ultimately spent 15 years in Naas, before transferring back to Cork in the mid-1990s.
She recalls that it was a tough time for her and her husband John when in Naas, far away from both of their families in Cork and Tipperary.
She adds: “We depended on child minders.”
Mortgage rates were high at the time as their children were born in 1985 and 1988, when Ireland was in recession.
Taking a career break was not an option for Ann as a result, as it would have been difficult to meet their bills.
When she had both of her children, she was only allowed 12 weeks of maternity leave and she also took a further four weeks without pay.
On transferring to Cork, Ann got a position in Anglesea Street station for a few months, before being allocated to the new divisional headquarters for Cork North when it opened in Fermoy in 1996.
She later applied for a transfer to Mallow, where she spent the last six years of her service as a district clerk. When she was in Fermoy, her husband was transferred there from Mitchelstown, to the new divisional traffic corps.
She explains: “I was 50 when I retired. I decided I had worked all my life so that is why I retired then.”
During her 26 years in the force, she had a number of highlights, including protecting Princess Anne during a visit to Ireland.
She also was on duty for visits by three U.S presidents — Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton — as well as for the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II.
Now, gardaí regularly have to deal with drug-related offences.
But Ann says that during her career, drugs were not an issue, particularly in the early days.
She reflects that living with other gardaí helped when dealing with incidents of a very serious nature as they helped each other to deal with any upset or trauma arising from difficult cases.
She adds: “There was a lot of rape, incest and sexual abuse which would have been hidden but then, for example, you would find out about someone who was pregnant and more would come to light about the circumstances.”
Sarah says that the nature of the job means that it is very important to learn how to switch off.
She adds: “You have to learn how to switch off.
“You use your colleagues for support if you need them. It is a great community to work with, it is really supportive.”
She lists sudden deaths and fatalities in road accidents as being some of the toughest part of the job.
One of her highlights to date was being able to reunite a missing child with its mother. Although the child was missing for less than 20 minutes, she will never forget the relief and joy when the mother was reunited with her child.
She reflects both her and Ann’s experience of life in the gardaí when she says: “It is a great job and I love it.”