AN ENNIS native who served for a spell as aide-de-camp to President Mary McAleese was among a group of women who attended a special event at Áras an Uachtaráin recently to mark the 30th anniversary of recruitment of female personnel to the Defence Forces.
Máirín McEnery, originally from the Gort Road, Ennis, and a past pupil of Colaiste Muire, was one of the first four women to join the army in 1980. She retired after almost 30 years service in the army just last year.
Speaking at the function on December 9, President McAleese, said the 30th anniversary marked a watershed in the history of the Defence Forces and a fundamental shift in the cultures and values of this country. “With the recruitment of women to the army, navy and air corps, an important step was taken towards the realisation of a culture of equal opportunities and a turning away from the cynical culture of waste, exclusion and discrimination.
“The first female recruits were pioneering ambassadors for all those women who seek to make the fullest contribution to their lives, their communities and their country. We see today how the inclusion of women has shaped an organisation that enjoys great praise and acclaim both at home and abroad, a force in which we take justifiable pride,” said the President, the supreme commander of the Defence Forces.
Máirín said the event was a wonderful occasion, which made her
and all of the others present very proud.
“Over the years, I began to take it for granted that I was an army officer but I can remember that, at the time I joined the army with three other girls, it caused quite a stir
and it certainly attracted a significant amount of publicity,” Máirín said.
She retired from the army a year ago and over her 29-year career, she had many different roles within the army.
“Every officer takes on many different roles over their years in the army. Initially, I spent time training cadets, then in administration particularly human resources and in the military police in the Curragh and in Cork. I also worked as a commanding officer, as an investigating officer and as instructor in the military police school. For my last four years in the army, I worked with the Reserve Defence Officers as training and operations officer. Since joining the army I’ve always lived in Naas, County Kildare, apart from a spell when I moved to Cork,” she explained. She progressed through many ranks in the army, reaching the rank of commandant.
At one stage, she was the most senior woman serving within the Irish Army and Commandant McEnery also worked as aide-de-camp to President McAleese in 2001.
She has remained close friends with the three other women, who became cadets with her, the first group of women to join the army in 1980.
While there are significantly more women in the army now, numbers are still quite low proportionally.
“Nowadays, there is still a relatively low number of women in the Defence Forces, currently about 566 out of a total of 9,500, so women are still very much in the minority. Women were only allowed join the Irish Defence Forces after an amendment to the Defence Act in 1979. I’m not sure that those in charge of the Defence Forces at that time actually felt that it was a great idea, but how and ever the legislation was enacted, and they had to leave women into the defence forces then. The regulation was then any woman entering the defence forces had to be a graduate,” Máirín added.
She had qualified as a PE teacher from Thomond College in Limerick and was teaching in a community school in Dublin.
“A friend of mine saw the ad in the paper looking for female applicants for the defence forces and she thought it would suit me down to the ground as I was always in a tracksuit and very active. I thought about it and I felt it would be something completely new for me and I felt I was ever going to do it, I would apply to be amongst the first batch of women joining the army.
“The job was made for me. I couldn’t imagine working at anything else now. The days were long and I worked hard but there was great variety working in the army and the training and experience I gained over the years equipped me with great life skills. I would, unreservedly, recommend it to anyone now as a career, either male or female,” she said.
Commandant McEnery also served in the Lebanon in 1983, which was unusual at the time.
“It wasn’t until 1992 that all restrictions regarding women doing combative work were lifted and since then women in the Defence Forces can work in exactly the same roles as men,” she explained.
She admitted that during her training, she and the other three female cadets in her class were quite closeted and it was a case of the four girls and then a large bunch of men.
“But once training was over and we were stationed, we just became part of the team. But there was a huge novelty amongst the men we worked with and certainly at the start, many of them weren’t quite sure what way to deal with us. I did feel at the start that I had to prove that I was just as good as any of the men working in the army,” she said.
Máirín married an army officer by the name of Tom Aherne.
“We met 28 years ago while on an exercise in the Glen of Imaal in Wicklow. He is still serving in the army. I would say that it’s an occupational hazard and it happens quite regularly that military personnel marry other military personnel. I guess it’s because they understand each other and the commitment to the job and the way life is for another officer.
We have two sons, David, 24, and Billy 20, but neither of them are in the army,” she said.
After the presidential function for the first intake of female cadets and the first platoon of women who joined in 1981, the chief-of-staff held a function for a larger group of women who worked in the armed forces, which Máirín also attended.
Máirín still has family living in Ennis – her brother, Colm, lives on the Gort Road, and brother, Mike, lives in Larchill and she regularly visits her home town.