THIS WEEK, SOME 19 cadets of the Irish Defence Forces graduated after 15 long months of training at the Curragh in Co Kildare.
But this was a graduating class with a difference.
The newly-anointed officers club that emerged from last week’s ceremony contained four women of 26, or 15% of cadets. It’s a great start to a new year of inductions, and it’s very much what the army wants to happen.
Greater gender balance is finally on the way for the Defence Forces it seems. As a source from within the forces told us this week, there’s more to taking on more women than just gender balance – women in the army make for a more cohesive unit and a more effective chain of command.
Going forward the army wants to increase the levels of women within the forces to 12%, so this week’s graduating class is a great start.
Two of the graduates of January 2016, Catherine Smyth and David Kelly, spoke to TheJournal.ie about the last 15 months of training, and their hopes for the future.
Catherine in particular is a noteworthy officer – in that she’s both a woman and a citizen of another country: she’s Scottish, born in Carnoustie.
She tells us that “I wanted to be a peacekeeper, I wanted to wear a blue beret, and Ireland was the best route to doing that”.
“If you’re to be a peacekeeper you need to be a member of a national armed force. I’d always wanted to join and in college Ireland opened up as an option,” she says.
For 24-year-old Catherine, the greatest challenge was getting up to speed with the physical demands of the army.
“It takes a while to get used to, when I went in I had to get up to speed to compete,” she says.
But when you do it’s so rewarding, getting through runs with everyone else, benchmarking yourself against their abilities and times.
The flip-side of this is that Catherine boasts something of an advantage on the academic side – she’s the holder of a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrew’s.
“The academic block covers things like international issues, social issues, historical, political, economic.”
There’s public-speaking and leadership challenges. We’re going to be officers and we’re expected to lead our peers, and that’s the way to teach us how to do so.
Now she has graduated as a lieutenant in the Irish Army, Catherine will be posted to the First Infantry Battalion in Galway.
She says she’s “learned to love Ireland”, although she’s hoping for a posting overseas.
“That was one of the main motivating factors, certainly,” she says.
This has been the longest and quickest 15 months of my life, it’s amazing to be finally finished.
She wants to be in the army “for at least the next 10 years”. And as to being Scottish, what’s it like for her being a non-Irish officer?
It really has never felt any different. I’ll get teased for my accent I’m sure, but that will pass.
Catherine’s fellow graduate, David Kelly from Cork, spent the first 10 years of his life living in England, as can be gathered from the strong tones of his native accent.
From Douglas in Ireland’s southernmost county, David had advantages compared with Catherine, and disadvantages too.
One of only seven of the class with prior military service (he previously served as a private in the 12th Infantry Battalion), he is also an award-winning athlete. Now a graduated second lieutenant, he always knew he wanted to become an officer.
“I knew I wanted to be in the army coming out of school, and my guidance counsellor encouraged me towards it also,” he says.
I went to UCC for a month but this is where I wanted to be. I knew I had to take the chance.
David says that, no less than Catherine, an aspiration towards peacekeeping had a lot to do with his choice to apply for officership.
“I think definitely the peacekeeping is amazing. Ireland hasn’t had a break for 40 years when it comes to that side of things,” he says.
The values of the Defence Forces are something that I hold quite dear. Physical courage, leadership – they’re values that most people would aspire to.
He acknowledges that his status as an athlete was useful in certain respects.
“Everyone has their niches. I guess my fitness was an advantage to me at first,” he says.
But look at Catherine, she has a Master’s and I’m a school-leaver, everyone has their strengths, she has a natural advantage on the academic side, which is equally important.
David will now be posted to the Second Cavalry Squadron in Rathmines, Dublin, where he will be for the foreseeable future. He wants to go overseas in the long run.
For now, he’s sorry to see an end to the group that he has spent the last 15 months with.
“The whole class have had a final meal together, and now it’s the final big goodbye. It’s mad that none of us will all sit together in the same room at the same time again,” he says.
Not that he has any regrets.
I’m in this for life. I’m just happy to be finished and to be an army officer.