Galway greets first female naval commander


THE STATE'S first female commander of a Naval Service ship brought traffic to a halt in Galway yesterday - and that was just on land.

As Lieut Cdr Roberta O'Brien was piped on board the LE Aisling in Galway docks, car drivers hooted to mark the historic occasion. Even her husband, Army captain Peadar Ó Catháín, must now address her as "Ma'am".

Present to congratulate her yesterday were mayor of Galway, Cllr Padraig Conneely (FG) and Capt Jim Robinson, DSM, Officer Commanding Naval Operations Command and second-in-charge of the Naval Service. The LE Aisling is twinned with Galway and the ship's crew regularly raised funds for the city's hospital.

Lieut Cdr O'Brien (31), who hails from the Glen of Aherlow in the landlocked county of Tipperary, seemed a mite uncomfortable with all the attention. But then she did captain an otherwise-male under-16 hurling team in her native Co Tipperary, and doesn't think that was so unusual.

"When you join the Naval Service, this is your aim - this is 13 years coming to fruition," she told The Irish Times. "All the training you do, whether with gunnery or navigation or fire-fighting or fishery boardings, is geared towards this."

Only a week ago, her contemporary, Lieut Cdr Orlaith Gallagher, was relief or temporary captain on the LE Roisín, which participated in the €500 million cocaine seizure by a joint drugs task force off the southwest coast.

Both women joined the Naval Service as cadets in 1995 and were commissioned in 1997. Lieut Cdr O'Brien completed her own relief helm duty last February on the LE Aisling .

The highlight of her career until then had been her appointment as navigation officer on the LE Niamh's voyage to Asia in 2002.

Lieut Cdr O'Brien also became the first female instructor at the Naval Service cadet school, and taught at the National Maritime College of Ireland in Ringaskiddy, Cork. She served as executive officer and second-in-command on the LE Emer, and then spent two years ashore at Naval Operations Command. She holds a post-graduate qualification in management and marketing.

She has strong family links with the Defence Forces. Her mother, also Roberta, grew up on Haulbowline in Cork harbour, and her grandfather, the late Paddy McKeown from Enniscrone, Co Sligo, was a warrant officer in the Naval Service.Her grandmother, Jean McKeown, passed away earlier this year. "She was a feminist," Lieut Cdr O'Brien says. "She would have loved to have been in Galway for this."

Lieut Cdr O'Brien has three brothers and three sisters, with a younger brother and sister both in the Army, and her husband, Capt Ó Catháin, is an artillery officer based in Collins Barracks in Cork. "Life in the Naval Service is difficult, whether you are a man or a woman, and you have to make certain sacrifices," she said.

Lieut Cdr O'Brien, who takes over the LE Aisling from Lieut Cdr Neil Manning, will also have to temper her passion for football, rugby and hurling while at sea. "I don't like to commit to a team when I am not around," she says.

Among the spectators were staff in the adjoining Dockgate building, who had erected a congratulatory banner, decorated with balloons.

Martin Canavan, retired staff member of the Limerick Steamship Company in Galway docks, also came to shake her hand, saying he couldn't resist witnessing a piece of maritime history.

The Defence Forces have accepted female applicants into the Army since 1980, and since 1995 in the Naval Service.

Women comprise just over 5 per cent of overall Defence Force strength in the State.