BERNIE Kelly is a mould breaker who has burst through the glass ceiling since she joined the Irish Army almost 40 years ago.
The Collins Barracks soldier officially retires on January 2. She was congratulated on her service during a special meeting with the Army Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, at Cork barracks on December 14.
She laughs now as she reflects that when she decided to apply to join the Army, her uncle Jimmy, a former soldier, believed she would only last three weeks in the organisation.
She says: “I joined in 1981 when the Army recruited the first platoon of women. They took in 40 women and 38 of us passed out.
Bernie decided to put in an application, having always been enthralled by all things military, influenced partly by the stories she had heard from her uncle. Ironically, her then boyfriend and now husband, John Kelly, from Dunmanway, was already a soldier in Collins Barracks.
She was working in an office in Murray Kitchens in Youghal for two years, but yearned to become a soldier.
Bernie was thrilled to be one of the lucky 40 to be selected and left Clashmore to begin her training in The Curragh, not knowing that later in her career, she would become the Irish Army’s first female Company Sergeant.
She and two other female recruits were also the first women in the army to undertake a Non-Commissioned Officer course.
She recalls feeling great pressure to succeed, but says she was always treated brilliantly by her male colleagues during her career — “they took me under their wing and were so kind to me.”
Bernie has a vivid memory of one soldier who never spoke to her but she says it was shyness, not malice, which prompted it.
She remembers her arrival in Cork’s Collins Barracks after her training as if it was yesterday: “It was a grey October evening when I arrived. They had done up a new block for us. We were making history. There was a great sense of pride in being one of the first women in the army.”
That pride has continued through to this day, and she speaks fondly of parades on the square at the barracks, wearing her uniform and saluting the Irish flag, as well as taking part in a parade to mark the Cork 800 celebrations in 1985.
She says: “All eyes were on us when we arrived in Collins Barracks. We were breaking the mould.”
Bernie and nine other women from her class were sent to Cork, while the others were spread across the country. She remembers being lonely for those friends on her first night in Cork but says now that they all remain in contact still on a regular basis.
She arrived in Cork in 1981 and lived in the barracks until 1984, when she and John got married. They lived for eight years in Ballinhassig before moving back to Clashmore in Waterford. The couple had two children, Eoin and Aoife, who are now grown up.
Bernie reflects: “The army gave us everything we have. It was a great career to have.”
Her husband John, who is now retired, undertook a number of overseas trips, including to Cyprus, Lebanon and the Sinai desert. Bernie did not get to travel on overseas missions however.
She explains: “When I got married, and had my own children, I could not go abroad because I could not be away from them. I would have loved the experience but I could not leave my family.”
She adds that in those days, embarking on overseas missions was voluntary.
In those early days of her career, the options open to Bernie and other female soldiers were in administration, transport and the military police. Her background in Murrays Kitchens in Youghal helped secure her a position in administration, where she remained throughout her service.
She explains: “I had done my commercial training and I loved administration.
“Women were non-combatant in the Irish Army until 1992.”
This was despite female soldiers being trained in weapons duty.
“I got ‘Best Shot’ when I was in training,” says Bernie.
She pays tribute to her husband for being so supportive of her career in the army.
“I was very lucky because John was amazing. He was 110% behind me. It didn’t matter to him that I outranked him.”
She explains that he retired to look after her sick mother and their two children.
Neither of their children followed their parents into the army, but both Bernie and John have family members in the organisation.
She says: “My niece Carol O’Keeffe is a corporal in the same unit as me and my nephew and godson Corporal Thomas Curran retired this year. John’s nephew is also in Collins Barracks.”
On familial matters, Bernie concludes: “For me, the army is like a whole other family.
“That is what I will miss most — the camaraderie, the sense of belonging.”