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'Your bosses would resent the fact that you'd go on maternity leave' - Garda culture in 1980s Ireland

The harrowing testimony of Majella Moynihan is once again prompting reflection on the recent past of An Garda Síochána.

THE HARROWING TESTIMONY of former garda Majella Moynihan, who broke her decades long silence to speak to RTÉ’s Doc On One, captivated the nation last weekend.

The Garda Commissioner and the Justice Minister later apologised for her treatment, after she almost lost her job for giving birth to a child outside marriage.

Majella, who entered Templemore in 1983,  said she felt pressured by the force into giving her baby David up for adoption. Speaking in the wake of the documentary’s broadcast and subsequent blanket press coverage over the following days she said she felt “that I was the guinea pig, they put me up there and they said to me ‘we’ll show other women if you get pregnant … this is what’s going to be done to you’”.

The story prompted widespread anger, and once again forced the Irish public to take a closer look at the culture of its embattled police force.

It also prompted other former gardaí to come forward with stories of pressure and harassment within the force.

Anne Cleary, who was a garda based in Fitzgibbon Street in Dublin in the 1980s, told Joe Duffy’s Liveline that Majella “wasn’t the only Garda to get pregnant outside of wedlock”.

There were others and they all went through trauma, she explained. One woman she knew did keep her baby, and another had to give hers up for adoption. She also recounted an incident of harassment which she said was not untypical of the time.

She had been working at a typewriter, she said, when a senior officer came in and “grabbed my boob from behind”.

I swung around and ate the face off him, I said: ‘Excuse me I don’t care how many bars, tips or stripes you have, no one can do that to me.’

She added: “We used to wear pencil skirts – ever try running in one of them? Was a different time.”

Two retired gardaí also spoke to TheJournal.ie about the culture within the force at the time.

A Dublin-based male retired garda who entered Templemore in March 1983 said that at the Garda training college, female recruits were housed in the ‘Banners Block’, and “if you put a toe inside the female block you would be sacked on the spot”.

The influence of the Church loomed large. Mass attendance was compulsory for all Catholic recruits, the retired garda said. Most weekends, the only time they would be allowed home was in the period between the end of Mass and curfew time on a Sunday night

“It was just one straight road from the college to the church, and everybody marched down, it was like something  from the Chinese army – and as you went along you were inspected as you went. And whether you wanted to go to Mass or not, you were going to Mass.”

The culture at the college, he said, was “authoritarian, it was bullying – everything about it”.

Recruits had to endure senior officers “screaming in your face” at drill each day, he said – like a scene from Full Metal Jacket. “You got a lot of that particularly at drill. Every day you practice your march, practice your march…”. 

Anyone who stepped out of line would be threatened with the Garda Code – a thick book covering every aspect of conduct and behaviour expected from an officer.

There’s a million and ones things in the Garda Code so that if you do anything wrong – anything whatsoever – you’re in breach of the code and there’s a fine, there’s a transfer or there’s a sacking.
That’s the type of things that you were threatened with. So because that lady got pregnant, she would have been in breach of the Garda Code, bringing the gardaí into disrepute, etc, and they stuck rigidly to that.

He added: “You were there as a guard, there to be programmed. You were there to look like a shiny pin and then you were there to be pushed out the far end of the chute, onto the street, not ready at all to police the streets of Dublin because the training was so backwards, the lectures were so backward, and the stuff they were teaching was so backward.”

gt Majella Moynihan Source: RTÉ

A second former garda who spoke to this website observed: “The culture has certainly moved on – there’s more emphasis on equality now.”

All of us going in to Templemore didn’t know any different. There were rules and regulations in An Garda Síochána and you had to abide by them, it was a strict regime but that’s the way it was.

Professor of Contemporary Irish History in Trinity College Dublin, Eunan O’Halpin, said Templemore was undoubtedly an “old-fashioned” institution in the 1980s, and the curriculum was decades out of date. 

Said O’Halpin: “The syllabus wasn’t very different from 1922.” 

Professor Aogan Mulcahy, an expert on policing at University College Dublin, described Garda training at the time as “quasi-militaristic”. 

Recruits lived in a hierarchical, “cloistered” society that demanded obedience. And even if the Catholic Church didn’t have a formal input on Gardaí training, its influence was evident. 

Parading recruits down to Mass on a Sunday, he said, “had no bearing on training”.

“It was a statement of their Catholic identity.”

Said Mulcahy: “The official stance of the organisation was not encouraging people to be liberal.”

The close links between the gardaí and church doctrine would be tragically borne out by the Kerry babies case of 1984. 

The place of women

Within this male-dominated culture, the earliest female gardaí faced both condescension and hostility. 

1959 Dáil debate provided an insight into attitudes in certain sections of society towards female gardaí. “While recruits should not actually be horse-faced, they should not be too good looking; they should just be plain women and not targets for marriage”, one deputy told his fellow TDs.

By the 1980s, not a huge amount had changed. At the start of the decade, women numbered 0.97% of the total force. By 1985, the figure was 2.89%. “You can imagine the day-to-day banter of a deeply masculine society,” Mulcahy said.

In her book on the history of the Gardaí, Policing in 20th Century Ireland, Dr Vicky Conway of Dublin City University interviewed several women about their experience of the force. 

One retired female garda said: “We had to fight for our place on the job.” In her case, she said she was often assigned to menial office tasks in the station. 

I remember one girl who was asked [in a promotion interview], ‘how will you manage your children?’… The attitude of management was that all women are a nuisance, pregnant, no good to me. They would resent the fact that they’d go on maternity leave.

Courtney Marsh, a PhD student in Trinity College Dublin who has just published an article assessing the role of women in Irish policing, said the typical profile of a young Garda at the time was a Catholic man from the west of Ireland.

In this environment, women often found themselves assigned to cases that involved women and children. Even in the early 1990s, this was often seen as their “role”, she said. 

For many male gardaí, she said, the attitude was simply: “You can’t be a mother and a garda.”

- with reporting from Daragh Brophy and Cormac Fitzgerald 

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About the author:

Graine Ní Aodha & Dominic McGrath

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