Unsung heroes of the Irish Red Cross
The Irish Red Cross is marking its 75th anniversary this year. It is part of a huge international organisation that provides humanitarian aid all over the world.
Joe Millar Who volunteered for the Irish Red Cross in 1945 (centre) pictured with other volunteers from left to right Jane Ronan, Cormac McGinn, Emma Gannon, Andrew Patton, Paraic McGahey, Lea Pepper and Barbara Cole. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
‘That it’s only about overseas aid.” “And disasters.”
“And it’s only for adults.”
There are nine of us sitting in the slightly chilly meeting room of the large Georgian building in Merrion Square that houses the headquarters of the Irish Red Cross. Apart from me, the others are eight of the 5,000 volunteers in Ireland that work with the Red Cross. They’re discussing the misconceptions that the public have about the work the Red Cross does.
Lea Pepper, who is 18 and belongs to the Santry branch, has been a volunteer for six years. “I joined when I was 12,” she says. “I had been doing kick boxing, and my mother thought that the Red Cross would be a good extracurricular activity. I learned the basics of First Aid, and now I’m mainly involved with youth issues, particularly anti- bullying.”
Somewhat wistfully, she adds: “You can join when you’re five, you know.” She loved it so much that her mother, Jane Ronan, who is also present, ended up joining too.
Of the 5,000 volunteers in Ireland, 1,000 belong to the “youth section”, a cohort that ranges in age from five to 25.
Joe Millar snr, who is 77 and believed to be the longest-serving volunteer in Ireland, joined in 1951. He has come along with the uniform jacket and hat he first wore in 1951 and he gamely puts it on for the photograph.
Astonishingly, it still fits, to the high amusement of his fellow volunteers. (Well, it almost fits.) “It was a hand-me-down when I got it,” he explains.
It’s 63 years since Millar first put on this jacket, and he has the stories to go with it. He is that most valuable of longstanding volunteers to any organisation: a living archive. “You’re doing something for mankind and you’re helping people. It grows on you,” he says simply, when asked why he has remained a volunteer for almost all of his life.
The Irish Red Cross is marking its 75th anniversary this year. It is part of a huge international organisation that provides humanitarian aid all over the world, and is particularly well-known for its frontline responses in time of war and natural disasters.
Sixty people work at the Dublin office, and 10 of those are usually in the field, somewhere in the world. Some have recently been working in Liberia with local Red Cross volunteers. They have been travelling round with their local colleagues, trying to educate communities about how to prevent the spread of Ebola.
This is the best-known face of the Red Cross. However, thousands of people who volunteer to work with the Irish Red Cross will never get on a plane and do that kind of visible front-line work.
What the 5,000 Irish Red Cross volunteers do is highly valuable, under-the-radar work all over the country, by offering for free, First Aid cover at big public events, such as matches and concerts. They also offer many community services, such as working with the HSE as first responders to medical emergencies, especially in rural areas.
They go into nursing homes and offer hand massage therapy, and train people there in how to administer it themselves. They offer a skin camouflage service, where people who have skin conditions, such as port-wine stains, can be shown how to disguise them.
In hard weather, they keep an eye on vulnerable people. They have helped rescue people from their homes in times of flooding and have a mountain rescue team. They have 150 ambulances. They have jeeps. They have at least one boat, “but no sea captains”, Millar jokes.
“I don’t think people understand we don’t get paid for any of this,” Cormac McGinn says.
He doesn’t mean that he wishes they were paid; he means it’s a pity their work has such low visibility within the general public.
McGinn is from the Carlingford branch, and has been a volunteer for five years. In his branch, one of the things they do is organise regular gatherings for senior citizens, collecting them via minibus. Recently, while working in a bar, McGinn’s Red Cross experience in First Aid meant that he could respond immediately when a customer had a heart attack on the premises.
“There is a wee bit of satisfaction if you can do something for someone else.” He points out that a key age when the organisation loses their volunteers is between the ages of 18 and 24: “Lads going off the college. But you hope they’ll return later.”
Paraic McGahey, who has been a member of the Drogheda branch for seven years, grew up in a house in which both of his parents have been volunteers for more than four decades. “I’ve been a volunteer officially for seven years, but unofficially since I was born,” he jokes.
Barbara Cole joined because, as she says, “I wanted to be involved in the community. It’s a job, but you don’t get paid for it. You’re also passing on your skills to younger people.”
“People took the time to invest in me and teach them things,” Pepper states, while emphasising there is also a whole social element to being in the Red Cross, with regular gatherings, including cross-branch meetings.
Andrew Patton, from the Dun Laoghaire branch, is studying medicine, which is what first attracted him to the organisation. “You get training and have experience in First Aid through treating patients.”
He also points out that the training that’s provided is free of change through the Red Cross, but otherwise usually expensive. Patton can give up to seven hours of his time at once, “at events, or matches”.
Although the Red Cross have 5,000 volunteers in Ireland, they need more. “More volunteers would mean that we could look at offering a 24-hour service,” Patton says.
“Having more volunteers mean that you can do more in the community, all across the country,” says McGinn, and they all agree.
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