TWO YEARS after she took the LE Aisling out of Galway’s docks, the Naval Service’s first female commanding officer bid farewell to her crew in the same location yesterday.
Lieut Cdr Roberta O’Brien has completed her first two-year rotation as a ship’s captain, some 15 years after she was the first woman to be commissioned in the service.
She will work in policy and planning for two years ashore before returning to sea again. Her command was taken over yesterday by Lieut Cdr Martin Brett, son of a former Naval Service flag officer Cmdr Liam Brett.
Paying tribute to her crew members in Galway, Lieut Cdr O’Brien singled out their role in several operations, including a drugs-related mission at night involving armed personnel, and a simulated search and rescue, Operation Purple Drum.
The ship, which is twinned with Galway, provided safety cover for the Volvo ocean race stopover last year.
Lieut Cdr O’Brien, from Co Tipperary, said one of her most memorable experiences over the past two years was “that first trip out of Galway, with no one checking you over your shoulder”.
“I also remember one Christmas season we were due to come in for the weekend and were sent back out 140 miles west on a particular fishery patrol, in borderline conditions,” she said.
“The fishing vessel wasn’t detained, but was boarded in very challenging weather. The crew didn’t complain – just got on with it.”
With the Atlantic reported to be getting rougher, Lieut Cdr O’Brien has tested her sea legs on many occasions – not least when the ship made a 45-degree roll in heavy seas off Mizen Head. “It is something that you think about differently when you are responsible for an entire crew.”
Her second-in-command during most of her time at sea was also a woman – Lieut Claire Murphy – and “half the wardroom” on the LE Aisling were female, she says.
Lieut Cdr Orlaith Gallagher, who also has 15 years’ service, has just taken over the helm of LE Emer , while Lieut Cdr Nessa Maloney recently served as relief commanding officer on the coastal patrol ship LE Ciara .
For only the second time in their marriage, both Lieut Cdr O’Brien and husband, Capt Peadar Ó Catháín of the Army, are at home.
He has completed four tours of duty overseas, but when in formal Naval Service company he must address his spouse as “ma’am”.
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 the total serving in the Defence Forces.
I find myself wondering why they had to mention her husband and how he has to respect her rank when appropriate?