Rarely mentioned on the celebratory frontline workers list, Ireland’s prison officers tend to a challenging job, 365 days a year in all 12 institutions nationwide.
Born into a farming family outside of Tullamore, Co Offaly, Frances Daly, along with her parents and siblings, spent many of her younger days tending to sheep and sowing potatoes on the back of a Massey Ferguson 135.
“We kept sheep and had a few dairy cows at home in Durrow to keep milk in the house. Myself and my sister, Mary, were the smallest, so we got the job of dropping the potatoes into the ground, on our little planter and then picked them by hand, when they were ready. I feel very lucky to have had such a great healthy up-bringing.”
After her Leaving Certificate, Frances completed a secretarial course. Quickly realising that an office job was not on the books for her, she looked for an alternative career path.
“My background was very much in sport. I was playing senior club and county football at the time. I wanted an active career. So I applied to both the Irish Prison Service and An Garda Síochána.
“And on 7 January 1991, I joined the Irish Prison Service, completing 12 weeks of training. I didn’t even know where Mountjoy was until that day.”
Entering a predominantly male career in the early 1990s was a brave move for a 20-year-old woman. Defying all the odds however, Frances trained as one of just seven female recruits from her class of 24.
Never neglecting her love of sport, in 1995 Frances qualified as a gym instructor through the Irish Prison Service. This allowed both her and the inmates an opportunity to enjoy sport.
“In the late 90s I brought in some of my own teammates from basketball and GAA, to play sport against the prisoners. It was a good development for prisoners and opened up an opportunity for women to participate.”
Although Frances has seen a positive revolution of the prison service over the last 30 years, the lack of female recruits interested in the vocation remains.
“In a class of 30 new recruits there may still only be three women. When I joined it was very much a male-dominated and male-led environment. But the prison service has changed dramatically in recent years.
“And it certainly provides equal opportunities for women nowadays, with a number of female staff reaching top grades. For instance; historically, there were no female governors, but now once you put yourself forward, you can work in any role you want.
“It offers a diverse range of qualifications too, such as nursing, administrative and trade opportunities, amongst many others.”
Frances’s job has certainly advanced over time, as she now stand as Governor 1 of Clover Hill Prison,
“Many years ago I was asked by the governor if I would like to take on the role of co-ordinator, in setting up the new female prison, which is now the Dóchas Centre. I enjoyed the new challenge of working in a supervisory capacity.”
Following her appointment as Governer 1 at Clover Hill Prison, Frances progressed through the ranks.
“As the governor of a prison it is your job to ensure the prison is operated well and ensure the safety of both your staff and prisoners. I am also responsible for implementing policies and procedures.
“In this job you need a good team around you and throughout my career, I have been very lucky to work with such supportive and excellent staff.”
Having seen it all – from riots to serious assaults and murders – Frances remains determined to face each day’s challenges with the compassion and kindness she savoured growing up in rural Ireland.
“There is a large increase in prisoners being committed with very serious mental health issues and many of whom have other complexities, such as homelessness and drug use. Dealing with this is certainly a challenge.
“But I am a firm believer that if you can do somebody a good turn, or help them out, it will pay back tenfold. I listen to the prisoners and I try to understand the difficulties they face. It is very heartening when a prisoner says thank you for saving them and helping them turn their life around.”