IN THE SWINGING Sixties, the sight of five uniformed women in Limerick caused a bit of a stir. In fact, it led to a few car crashes.
Groups of young children ran after them, and male motorists avoided them – and their summonses books – like the plague.
It was the real Mad Men era, when the ladies said their hair had to be a certain length, they had to wear gloves and the seam in their stocking had to be absolutely straight.
And they took their jobs seriously.
The first group of ban-ghardai in Limerick, who took up their duties on October 8, 1962, were welcomed back to City Hall last week, for a reception with Mayor of Limerick, Cllr Gerry McLoughlin.
It was a poignant moment for the ladies, who received a civic reception in the year they arrived in Limerick from Frances Condell, the first woman ever to be officially elected to this position in the country.
“We really were VIPs when we came here first. Heads turned on the street. It was great fun,” said Kathleen O’Sullivan, 74, who now lives in Corbally.
She met her husband from Glengarriff through the force, and 20 members of their respective families have chosen to become members of An Garda Siochana, including her own father, sister and brother, and the couple’s son and daughter, Tim and Maura.
“I loved every minute of it. We made fantastic friends, which I still have today. I never once regretted coming to Limerick. But it’s a lot harder to be a guard now than it was then,” said the native of the Phoenix Park in Dublin.
However, they all had to give up their jobs at Edward Street station, now Roxboro, when the marriage ban was introduced.
Less than three years later Kathleen walked up the aisle, and with that, she said, her career died.
Peg Brown, nee Tierney, 73, who became the first female sergeant in Limerick, said she was delighted with the reunion with all her “chicks”.
She was one of only three female sergeants in the force when she was sent to Limerick that year.
She recalled people “crashing into poles” when they saw the ban-ghardai, as they were then known, on the beat, but the fascination was “a seven-day wonder”.
But if she had the option to go back and join the guards now, she said she wouldn’t. “People today have no respect for man, God or the devil,” she said.
In a garda report from Sgt Brown to Dublin she noted that in 1962 there were no arrests and 25 summonses, but in 1963 there were 15 arrests and 331 summonses - clear that they soon had their fingers on the pulse.
Mary Stratford, nee Garvey, the youngest of the “chicks”, said when they started “we knew it was the beginning of something special. We were kept very busy, but enjoyed every minute of it. Every day was different.”
The Ennis native later transferred to Dublin where she met her husband Willie – while transporting a female prisoner to a psychiatric unit – and two of their sons are now in the force. They became the “first all-garda family in the country”.
Dympna Canny (nee Moore), who lives in Ballincollig in Cork, said: “It [today] has brought back wonderful, wonderful memories. I can’t explain it, it’s just so lovely. The welcome we’ve received today reminds me of when we came here first.” She said her mother was “delighted” with her decision to join the gardai, though other family members were a bit “apprehensive and protective.”
Teresa Dundon, nee Mitchell, from Roscommon, remembered how some male motorists “dreaded” the sight of banghardaí.
“I think the men drivers preferred to see the male garda on the streets because they felt they could talk their way out of a parking ticket with the other men but they couldn’t with us. They hated seeing the ladies coming.”
Mayor Gerry McLoughlin said he remembered the women on patrol all those years ago, when he was just 12 years old, and jokingly remarked: “I remembered thinking to myself ‘What would I do if I needed a real guard?’ Obviously you have proved everyone wrong.”
He paid tribute to all those who devote their lives in the line of duty, saying “it takes a special person to do that job”.
Assistant Commis-sioner Tony Quilter, from Cork, said while romance probably killed their careers, there are now more than 3,500 female gardai serving in the country. His own daughter has also served in the force in Limerick.
Chief Supt Dave Sheahan, Henry Street station and head of the Limerick garda division, said the national debate about women joining An Garda Siochana dated back to 1939 and described the arrival of the first female gardai in Limerick as a “landmark” moment.
In a Dail debate on whether women should be allowed join the force, the Chief Supt quoted one TD on his criteria.
“While recruits shouldn’t be horse faced, they shouldn’t be too good-looking. They should be plain women and not targets for marriage,” said the TD, who went unnamed, while the women practically jumped out of their streets in horror.
In local terms, women now account for 29% of the force, or 160 staff out of 609 gardai in Limerick, including nine female detectives and sergeants.
Special tribute was paid to Pat Kearney, of Rooney’s Auctioneers, a former garda, whom the women fondly described as their “minder, mentor and tormentor.”
He started in the same garda station on July 2, 1961, and was drafted in to the sergeant’s office, where he worked alongside these “pioneers”.
“People were staring at them as they walked down the street. It was a strange experience for people at the time – because they didn’t think women should be in uniform. They were like film stars; like the Spice Girls,” he said with a laugh.
The ban-ghardai, a term which was banned in 1990, were based in Edward Street (now Roxboro) because it was the “cleanest garda station” in the city at the time, Pat explained.
“William Street was falling down, Mary Street was decrepit, John Street was old-fashioned, and O’Curry Street was occupied by the sergeant who lived there with his family. So Edward Street was the best option then available.
“I was sleeping there in my little bedroom on the first floor when I got orders to get out because it was going to be renovated for the ban-ghardai. Every single guard had to sleep in [the station] at the time and pay £1 a week for the accommodation. But I was turfed out.”
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