Women make naval history with ship handover

Lieutenant Commander Erika Downing, left, hands over control of the LÉ Aoife to Lt Cdr Marie Gleeson, from Cashel, Co Tipperary. Picture: Mary Browne

The helm of a naval vessel was handed from one female captain to another yesterday, marking a first in Irish Navy history.

Lieutenant Commander Marie Gleeson, 34, from Cashel in landlocked Tipperary, took command of the LÉ Aoife.

She met and married the love of her life thanks to a patrol onboard the ship, and takes over from Cork Lt Cdr Erika Downing.

Lt Cdr Gleeson joined the navy aged 19 in 1998, three years after female personnel were first admitted to the navy in 1995.

The Irish Navy now has proportionally more female captains than any other navy in Europe; 25% of all officers are women.

“Women who join the military know it’s going to be tough and challenging, you join with that knowledge,” Lt Cdr Gleeson said.

“It comes down to your professional ability, as promotion is merit-based, it’s nothing to do with your gender.”

She was second-in-command onboard the LÉ Niamh when the vessel was involved in the second-largest drugs haul in Irish history.

The crew intercepted a yacht smuggling €750m worth of cocaine 120km off the Kerry coast in Nov 2008.

Her first posting as a navigation officer onboard the LÉ Aoife led Lt Cdr Gleeson to meet and marry her husband of two years, John Prior from Leitrim. “I met him in Dublin when the ship was alongside on an official tasking. The ship is responsible for my romance and marriage, so it’s nice to be going back [as commander] to where I started,” she said.

The navy formed a protective support network when tragedy struck and the couple lost their first child, Ciarán, who was born with a congenital heart condition and died a week later.

“Life is challenging and you have to roll with the punches. I know he is looking down on me now and he is very proud. I feel very safe at sea with my own personal angel looking out for me,” Lt Cdr Gleeson said.

In her grief, she received huge support from her navy colleagues, whom she describes as family: “You never really understand it until you go to sea for a month. You get to know people so well. On watch they will talk about their own families, friends, and personal lives.

“People hurt when other people hurt. But people are delighted for you when things go well. And on a day like this you realise how much it means to family and friends, too,” she said.

During her 15 years in the navy, Lt Cdr Gleeson has achieved a BSc in anatomy and physiology from NUI Galway, a higher diploma in personnel management from UCC and an MSc in HR and leadership from Sheffield Hallam University.

Based at Rathcormac, Co Cork, between her native county and Haulbowline naval base, Lt Cdr Gleeson’s work schedule onboard the LÉ Aoife follows a six-week cycle, four of which are spent at sea. “It’s difficult to be away from home for long periods, it’s hard on the people we leave behind. But I’m fortunate because I love my job.”


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