In life, sometimes the smallest gestures can be monumental. For Alice Doyle, it was a discreet thumbs up from her husband Tom that signalled life was about to change.

In that moment, she realised all her work at grassroots level would push her through the glass ceiling, to be named the first female deputy president of the IFA.

“I was standing in the Castleknock Hotel looking at the scoreboard,” says Alice. “My sister Colette was tallying my own county, Wexford and had given me the nod. Tom was tallying Kilkenny, and we knew those two counties would have a significant bearing.

“So when Tom gave me that thumbs up, I knew we were in the clear. Not long after, the phone call came. ‘Gather your thoughts, Alice,’ I was told. ‘They’re announcing at 5pm’.”

It is nearly two months later and Alice admits this is the first time she has revisited that moment. Perhaps it’s because once she was elected, she had to hit the ground running but maybe it’s also because she is still taking it in.

“Honestly, I never visualised myself standing at that podium,” Alice says, quietly. “I knew I had been received well around the country and it’s an election, it was going to go one way or the other.

“But it was such a new thing for a woman in the IFA to go forward like that, the first appointment at that level in its 69-year history. I had prepared myself, of course, but I never allowed myself to believe it could be reality.”

Alice Doyle on her home farm in Co Wexford with her husband Tom. \ Philip Doyle

IFA involvement

For over 30 years, the IFA has been part of Alice’s life, although for a lot of it, she was standing on the sidelines. “I’m a farmer’s daughter and when I married Tom, I moved to Ballyoughter in Co Wexford to his family farm.

“We actually met through Macra, like many good romances,” she says, laughing. “It was 1983 and I was county rep for Carlow and Tom was county rep for Wexford. From the start, we were always talking about farm policy.

“We love to travel and constantly kept an eye on agri politics and the world of farming, how outside factors affect what is going on inside the farm gate.”

Throughout their marriage, Tom held various roles in farming organisations including European president of the Marts Association, chair of ICOS Marts Committee, chair of the Farm Apprenticeship Board as well as chair and secretary of the Enniscorthy Mart. His involvement with the IFA weaved a thread throughout and he served as national chair of the IFA Farm Business committee from 2012 to 2016.

“So the IFA was always there, ever present in our home, always a topic of conversation,” says Alice, but she had other priorities.

“I contributed to these organisations in my own way as I kept the show on the road when Tom was away with work. Soon after we married, our children arrived. They’re all adults now – Deirdre is an agronomy technologist with Teagasc, Caroline is one of the coordinators for transplants in St Vincent’s and Stephen works in actuary with Zurich. But when they were young, it was a busy household. We had great support in my mother who came to live with us, and Tom’s father who was also on the farm.”

Alice Doyle on her home farm in Co Wexford with her husband Tom and daughter Deirdre. \ Philip Doyle

Career woman

The support was needed because Alice had her own career as a school principal. To this day, she is still one of the youngest people in Ireland to be appointed as a principal, at just 22.

Her accomplishments reflect that she is a woman who gets results. In every school she was principal in, student and teacher numbers grew. The biggest jump was during her eight years in Riverchapel National School when pupil numbers jumped from 70 to 190.

However, it was Tombrack National School where she really found her calling, and it’s part of the reason why this rural school continues to serve the local community.

“The school was run for many years by Mrs O’Toole and it was thriving for a long time,” says Alice. “When I became principal though, pupil numbers were just 18. I moved from a big urban school to this small two-teacher rural school but I relish a challenge and Tombrack had real heart.” By the time Alice Doyle retired, it had 57 pupils.

Alice Doyle pictured during the election count at Castleknock Hotel in Dublin last December. \ Philip Doyle

High achiever

“I enjoy challenge and success,” says Alice. “I’m not afraid of hard work and I like working with people. If you bring people together and give them a common purpose, you will have success. I’m not a risk taker but I do take calculated risks.

“I would have always been considered a hard task master and any pupil I ever taught would say, ‘she was feral but fair’. The motto in our school was, ‘don’t hide your light under a bush’. If you have a talent or skill of any kind, you must achieve your best potential.

“In any role I’ve been in, failure is not an option. I can fail because it wasn’t possible to succeed or I was in over my head or there were circumstances against us but not because I didn’t give it my best shot. I am a high achiever and I expect people to come at the same speed.”

Farm family

These are some of the qualities that Alice brought to the campaign trail last year but at that stage, she had already made her mark within the IFA.

“I wanted to retire from teaching when I was young enough to do something different. That year, the position for the chair of the IFA Farm Family in Wexford came up. I thought, I’ll throw my hat into the ring. What transpired was a fairly hefty campaign but that spurred me on more. I promised that night if I was elected that I would put Wexford Farm Family on the map.”

Not only that but two years later Alice went on to become national chair of the IFA Farm Family Committee. Last year, talks on succession attracted thousands of members nationwide, making a real impact.

“I wanted to help give the committee a national profile, giving recognition for its work around education, mental wellbeing and health and safety.”

It was during her time as chair that the farm family also attracted its first male members — Micheál Looney from west Cork, Richard Scally from Offaly and Michael Purcell from Carlow.

“Diversity isn’t just about putting women into roles, it’s about balance of contribution, not balance of presence. These men brought a lot to the table.”

Alice Doyle.

Woman’s voice

This different perspective is part of the reason why IFA members elected a woman as deputy president, she reckons.

“This isn’t about a woman being put in a position for gender balance. The IFA is a grassroots organisation and the election reflected the voice of the members. I have seen nothing but positivity so far, so I hope my appointment paves the way for other women to rise through the levels.

“Women get things done; they tend to keep after things. In a way, the electorate has defined my role for me as opposed to my predecessor. I also bring experience from outside the farm gate as well as inside of it.”

At the recent IFA AGM, President Francie Gorman didn’t hold back about the fact that the Government needs to step up and deliver for farmers, that the mood on the ground is that many are feeling downtrodden on the back of actions, or lack thereof regarding the nitrates derogation, CAP, TAMS, delayed payments and forestry. “Francie and I are on the same hymn sheet. You have to have an income and that must be respected.”

Is there anything Francie says that you don’t agree on, Irish Country Living asks Alice. “No, not yet, but if that comes around, we can have a discussion on it. I’m not a head nodder but I have trust that he will hear me out. Sometimes he may be right, and sometimes I will be. But at the moment, we are building a relationship. We have a lot in common.”

Does Alice have her sights set on the top job in four years’ time? “No,” she says definitively. “This is as far as I go. If I can do this right, I have made my contribution. I want to focus on this role, and do it well.

“There is no point in breaking through the glass ceiling if you get to the other side and do nothing. Now is the time to get the work done.”

Quick fire round with Alice

•CAP: CAP is now less a support for food production and seen more as a means of implementing environmental change.

• TAMS: In principle, TAMS is a positive supportive measure but grants need to be more in line with current costs.

•NITRATES: Water quality is the responsibility of everyone in society. Farmers are playing their role in trying to improve water quality so should all other groups.

•DELAYED PAYMENTS: Totally unacceptable. Would not be tolerated by any other sector of society.