Universal charity in time of war and ‘peace’

Universal charity in time of war and ‘peace’ Photo: Goodreads
A History of the Irish Red Cross

by Shane Lehane (Four Courts Press, €45.00)


Following the estab-lishment of the Red Cross in Geneva in 1863, the British branch was founded in 1870 as the ‘British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War’ and reconstituted as the British Red Cross in 1905.

Red Cross activity in Ireland prior to the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 was carried out under the auspices of the British Red Cross. The earliest reference to this activity in Ireland dates from 1907, when 12 Red Cross branches were established across the country.

World War I provided an enormous stimulus to the development of the Red Cross in Ireland. A great number of Irishmen enlisted with the British armed forces and many Irishwomen mobilised to help the men and the Red Cross provided the ideal opportunity to do so.

Theirs was a significant contribution to the war effort. Between October 1914 and February 1919, 46 hospital ships arrived in Dublin with some 20,000 patients. These were transported to the 30 military hospitals by the Red Cross and St John Ambulance Brigade. Apart from vast quantities of clothes and other textiles, the Red Cross also sent £40,000 worth of dressings and other medical supplies to the battle fronts.


The 1916 Easter Rising provided the Red Cross with an unexpected challenge. During the Rising over 400 people were killed and 3,000 were wounded, combatants and non-combatants.

Despite the danger to themselves, members of the Red Cross were on the streets during the week-long fight assisting civilians, insurgents, the police and British soldiers alike. They were assisted by members of Cumann na mBan, who also wore the Red Cross insignia.

The war of independence effectively ended the first phase of the Red Cross in Southern Ireland. According to a 1922 report some 100,000 people were reduced to destitution and more than 1,000 buildings were destroyed during the hostilities.

The American Committee for Relief in Ireland and the Irish White Cross were founded to provide funding and relief in the war’s aftermath. Apart from attempting to cope with the widespread distress, the Irish White Cross also took responsibility for the role normally carried out by the Red Cross.

The earliest reference to this activity in Ireland dates from 1907”

The Red Cross was re-established as the Irish Red Cross Society in the Irish Free State in 1939. It soon became a constituent element in the overall plan prepared by the government for the ‘Emergency’.

The Red Cross organised classes in first aid and nursing.  From an Emergency Hospitals’ Supplies Depot, it distributed about a million dressings and bandages within Ireland and overseas, as well as providing the medical supplies required by a hospital it established at Saint-Lo in France (where Samuel Beckett helped out).

Most importantly the Red Cross established a national blood transfusion service and financed an anti-tuberculosis campaign. It facilitated the reception of $500,000 worth of aid donated by the American Red Cross Society for relief in Ireland.

Lesley Bean de Bara was chairman of the Red Cross from 1950 to 1975. She successfully instigated a period of re-organisation and development. A Junior Red Cross, a Water-Safety section and Geriatric Services were established. Under her stewardship the society provided care for Hungarian refugees in 1956, and support for an Irish Peace-Keeping Mission in the Congo as well as relief to the Congo and Nigeria/Biafra in the 1960s.

In Northern Ireland the ‘Troubles’, as they came to be called, coincided with de Barra’s time at the helm. She placed the Red Cross at the centre of delivering assistance to the families and refugees following the upheavals in Belfast.

Notoriously some of the funds it transferred were used to purchase arms for the Provisional IRA. Subsequent investigations failed to establish who was responsible for the misappropriation of these monies and this left a cloud of suspicion hanging over the Red Cross leadership of the day.


Dr Lehane describes infighting between staff, branches and members of the organisation, difficult and strained relations between the Red Cross and various national administrations and cognate organisations and ever-reoccurring financial challenges, owing to members’ lack of enthusiasm for fund-raising.

However, he does not allow his discussion of these issues to obscure the compassion and generosity of the members of the Irish Red Cross who committed themselves to carrying out the noblest ideals of their organisation.