Republic of Ireland news

Former commissioner pays tribute to pioneering women's ‘integral' role as Gardai

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and retired Garda commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan at the launch of The Women Of An Garda Siochana, at Garda Headquarters in Phoenix Park, Dublin (Brian Lawless/PA)
Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA

Retired Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has paid tribute to the pioneering women who were among the first to join An Garda Siochana.

Ms O'Sullivan was speaking at an event at Garda Headquarters to launch the book The Women Of An Garda Siochana: A Reflection On Their Journeys In Irish Policing.

Twelve women joined An Garda Siochana in 1959, at a time when women who were married were not allowed to work.

Sarah O'Sullivan was among the first group of women who joined the Gardai in 1959, and would go on to become one of the first three women to become Garda Sergeants.

When asked why she first joined, she said “for a job”.

At the time, the only Gardai she knew were the men logging agricultural statistics and school attendances.

“The emphasis when we went into Pearse Street at the time was on traffic, not on crime,” she said.

“I did everything. I was investigating very serious crime, but I loved street work.

“I loved being on the street. I think I laughed my way around it. Loved talking and meeting the people, I was very much involved in plainclothes as well and quite successful, I think, sometimes.”

She added: “I'd say it took me two years just to get used to it. And I remember distinctly the day it happened – all of a sudden I'm comfortable. Before that, I wasn't.

“I could wear my uniform like a glove, before that it was awkward. And from that on that day I never looked back.”

Chief Superintendent Margaret Nugent said Mrs O'Sullivan was a “fantastic” boss with a “very strong work ethic”.

Phyllis Nolan, who became the first female Superintendent, said that not much was known about An Garda Siochana when she joined.

“I heard it advertised, it was only the second time (they were recruiting), so there was very little known about it, because there was only one group (of women), they were in training when I went in to train.

“So there was very little known about it,” she said.

She said that the involvement of women is important as Gardai should be embedded in their communities.

“The vast majority of people that we deal with are not involved in crime, they might be the victim of a crime. But the vast majority of people we deal with have no involvement with crime, but you must serve everybody in the community, irrespective of their status in society,” she said.

“It's a very fulfilling profession. I believe I was extremely happy in it.”

Speaking at Garda headquarters on Wednesday, Ms O'Sullivan praised the “worthy endeavours and achievements” of women who first joined An Garda Siochana and took up senior positions.

“I know I join former and serving colleagues in expressing our gratitude to all of you who have gone before us in showing us it could be done,” she said.

“In my case, it inspired me to pursue an extraordinarily exciting if not frightening career that expands over 36 years … and I am truly thankful for the opportunities I was given to do that.

“I'm very proud through all of my achievements throughout my career, made possible by those who inspired and encouraged me and all of us to keep going and follow our dreams, and supported us in achieving many firsts, most memorably in my case, being appointed the first Deputy Commissioner and subsequently the first female Commissioner.”

She said she hoped women's experiences had “paved the path” for other female Gardai and encourage the new generation to become the new “torchbearers”.

Detective Garda Vanessa Stafford of the human trafficking investigation unit at the Garda National Protective Services Bureau and Inspector Jane Ryan at Portlaoise Garda Station, Co Laois, said it was inspiring to see the history of women in the Gardai.

“Jane and I worked on the historical section (of the book) and it was very interesting for us to see how these women paved the way for women like Jane and I in the guards,” Ms Stafford said.

“They had so many challenges that we were not aware of, such as the marriage ban. The first 12 who entered the Gardai were seen as an experiment, as mentioned in the Dail, and we always say, ‘Didn't the experiment work out very well?'.”

They both agreed that more work was needed to integrate women further into An Garda Siochana.

“It's really important that we continue to attract women into the job because there is still an imbalance, and we do need more women in the job,” Inspector Ryan said.

“One of the reasons we put this book together is to encourage more women to join, and through the stories of women who have joined, we hope that people will be inspired.”

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