Since its foundation eighty years ago this year, the Irish Red Cross Society has been a dynamic force in Ireland for humanitarian action and voluntary service and continues to be one of the state’s leading charitable organisations, writes Dr. Shane Lehane.
While the Irish Red Cross is a distinctly Irish voluntary charitable organisation, it is also part of a wider international concern – namely the Red Cross movement which in essence originated as an idea or vision in the mind of the Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, amidst the carnage and human suffering he witnessed at first-hand during the Battle of Solferino in Northern Italy in June 1859.
What he encountered shocked him to the core; multitudes of dead and wounded soldiers lying all around. He immediately decided to do all he could and enlisted the help of local villagers to help care for the wounded and bury the dead. Dunant constantly encouraged his helpers to make no distinction between friend and foe by exclaiming ‘tutti fratelli’ – we are all brothers.
In 1862, three years after the battle, Dunant self-published a booklet entitled Un Souvenir de Solferino (A Memory of Solferino) in which he set out his idea that neutral, impartial voluntary relief societies should be established in each country to provide care and medical assistance to those wounded in time of war.
Within a short few years, his vision was realised with the adoption of the first Geneva Convention in 1864 and the gradual establishment of new national relief societies which subsequently became national Red Cross societies. Today, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement has an estimated 17.1 million volunteers worldwide operating across 190 countries.
The terms of the Geneva Convention stipulate that an approved Red Cross society should be legally established in each country and be administrated in accordance with domestic law. As such, there can be only one Red Cross society in any give nation and its government must be a signatory to the Geneva Convention.
In 1929 the Irish Free State became a party to the Geneva Convention of that year and as such, was obliged to enact legislation for the establishment of an Irish Red Cross Society. Nine years later, the Oireachtas introduced the Red Cross Act (1938) and on 6th July 1939, a government order formally established the Irish Red Cross from 1st July that year.
However, there was a Red Cross presence in southern Ireland under the auspices of the British Red Cross prior to the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922. By 1907, the British Red Cross had established 12 branches in southern Ireland and its most active years centred around World War One. Volunteering with the Red Cross provided an ideal opportunity, especially for females, to engage in the war effort.