‘I’m proud to be in the Irish Defence Forces – I’d like that to be matched up with citizenship’

New to the Parish: Capt Catherine Barrett arrived from Scotland in 2015

Catherine Barrett was studying at University of St Andrews in Scotland when she first developed a interest in the Irish Defence Forces and its role in peacekeeping.

Born and brought up in the town of Carnoustie, near Dundee, Barrett had always considered joining the army but did not know she had options outside the United Kingdom. Then she discovered, through her master's in security studies, that as an EU citizen she could apply to the Irish Defence Forces' training programme.

The first member of her family to join the army, Barrett says her family supported her but also thought "it was a bit of a mad idea". "My mum's side would be historically Irish – they came over during the Famine. There's still a strong Irish identity there, and my mum loved the idea of me going to Ireland. "

I have a lot of respect for the UN and their peacekeeping operations, and I wouldn't have had that opportunity with the British army. That was a pivotal reason for coming here

In 2015, after graduating with her master's degree, Barrett completed an online assessment before being invited to spend a day and night at the Curragh Camp Army base and military college in Co Kildare.

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“By the end of that I was completely sold. A girl who is a good friend now gave us a tour around, and she had so much enthusiasm. She emphasised there was nothing you couldn’t do as a woman as long as you achieved the fitness standards.”

The peacekeeping element of the work attracted Barrett the most. “I have a lot of respect for the UN and their peacekeeping operations, and I wouldn’t have had that opportunity with the British army. That was a pivotal reason for coming here.”

In September 2015 Barrett packed her bags and moved to Ireland. She admits that the initial months of fitness training were tough and that she often considered giving up.

“I’d come from university, where I’d had so much freedom and where I did well. But then I came here and it was extremely intense. I’d be calling my parents, saying, ‘I hate it so much,’ and they were anticipating I’d throw the towel in, but it never happened. My classmates were the best bunch of people, and I guess it’s them that pulls you through. I don’t think I’d have managed without them.”

Just six of the 44 recruits who began training in 2015 were women; only four of that half-dozen, including Barrett, completed the Army course.

“It was strange, all right, being in that [male-dominated] environment, and it took a little getting used to. You need to have this hardiness and robustness in order to thrive. And so many women do thrive: I work with so many capable and competent women.”

My experience of Ireland was quite limited from the cadetship – it didn't expand much past Newbridge – so moving to Galway was my first proper exposure to life here. I still think it's the best city in Ireland

After completing her recruit training, Barrett was posted to Galway as an infantry officer for four years. "My experience of Ireland was quite limited from the cadetship – it didn't expand much past Newbridge – so moving to Galway was my first proper exposure to life here. And I was blessed, as it was the best unit in the Defence Forces. I still think it's the best city in Ireland."

She was then posted to Mali for six months, on an EU mission to train Malian forces – a period she says was challenging but also one of the best experiences of her life.

In December 2019 Barrett married her boyfriend, Ross, whom she had met in the Defence Forces. A few weeks after returning from their honeymoon, in January 2020, Barrett's husband left for a seven-month deployment to Lebanon while she settled into their new home in Blessington, Co Wicklow. She'd also just started her "dream job" at the United Nations Training School Ireland in the Curragh.

“I’d plans for all the exciting work we’d be doing, running international courses and peacekeeping training. But then Covid happened, and it was the worst year of my life. We were working in the office, but we weren’t allowed to mix and there was no one at home. I couldn’t see my family in Scotland or my in-laws in Cork. I know it sounds like first-world problems, but I could really identify with the people talking about isolation. It was just a bad time in my life.”

Barrett continued to provide online training courses for overseas deployment, and her husband helped with the running of the mandatory quarantine hotels when he returned from Lebanon.

She had been in the Defence Forces for six years when, in September, the Women of Honour documentary aired on RTÉ radio. In the programme, former female members of the Army, Navy and Air Corps spoke of alleged incidents of rape, sexual assault, discrimination and harassment during their time in the armed forces.

“I wasn’t prepared for how shocked I felt listening to it,” says Barrett, who is now a captain. “After I finished I just sat with it for a while. It was really disappointing.”

Barrett admits she has come across “some bad attitudes to women and gender” in the Defence Forces but doesn’t believe this is unique to the Army. She says “a lot of improvements” have been made in recent years and was heartened by her male colleagues’ response to the documentary.

“I hadn’t expected the mature and empathetic way they’d approach the interviews. There was no attitude that these women were just looking for attention. That was my fear. But I was really impressed by them. There were lots of mature discussions.

There has been a big culture change. It's not perfect, and there's a recognition that this is what the Army was like before and that terrible things were allowed to happen. But there's consequences now for that

“I think there has been a big culture change. It’s not perfect, and there’s a recognition that this is what the Army was like before and that terrible things were allowed to happen. But there’s consequences now for that.”

Barrett believes more female role models are needed within the Defence Forces to inspire younger recruits. She recalls how working under a woman captain while she was in Galway was very important for her own career. “You need to look around and see other women who are successful and have the respect of their seniors and subordinates.”

A more diverse armed forces, with people of different ethnicities and from different backgrounds, is also vital, she says. "Diversity is only positive, and different world views helps groups' thinking. The guys who are non-nationals in the Army are hardworking and decent. They enrich the organisation."

Barrett recently returned from a UN military-observer course in Germany and hopes to be posted abroad again soon. She also recently applied for Irish citizenship.

"I have the Irish flag on my uniform, and I represent Ireland every day. I'm proud to be in the Irish Defence Forces, and I'd like that to be matched up with citizenship. I don't even think of this as a job. It's my whole life, and I love it."

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com or tweet @newtotheparish