At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, volunteers at the Aviva Stadium looked out as thousands of people patiently queued for vaccines.
“When things got bad, we had a fair responsibility. We saw the queues, it meant that people were responding,” said Peter O’Brien, a volunteer team leader who worked six-hour shifts meeting and greeting arrivals.
“You tried to lighten the humour when they came in. Obviously you would have older people who were cocooning and they were nervous. And you had parents with young kids and they had to be reassured.”
O’Brien was one of dozens of volunteers being honoured for their frontline service at a special ceremony at Dublin Castle on Thursday night. Thousands more were, and will be, recognised at sister ceremonies organised by local authorities around the country.
Ireland appears rich in volunteering spirit; 75 per cent of the public did some sort of service in 2021 according to research conducted by the Volunteer Ireland charity and Dublin City University. That figure represents a significant increase on normal years and reflects a rise in informal volunteering during the pandemic.
Minister of State for Community Development and Charities Joe O’Brien noted how the country’s long history of volunteering benefited the Covid era, “making lives bearable” in difficult times.
“When people were advised to cocoon, to remain safe and out of harm’s way, you faced risk and uncertainty to make life better for those in your community,” he told those who turned out at Thursday’s ceremony which fell during National Volunteers Week.
“Quarantining and isolating, although protecting us from a communicable disease, created fear, loneliness and separation for many of us. Your generosity, tenacity and practicality minimised the suffering for so many people.”
There was a similar sentiment from Nina Arwitz, chief executive of Volunteer Ireland, whose members rallied to the frontline over two years of community response.
"At a time when so much was uncertain – in the early days when we were hearing scary stories from China and Italy – \[volunteers\] went out there and helped other people fearlessly," she said ahead of the event.
“It wasn’t just a one-off, they kept going, helping other people even though they had their own worries.”
Norah Doe, a student at St Paul's National School in Sligo, was also honoured on Thursday for her artwork that won a national competition to design a commemorative badge for pandemic volunteerism. Framed by a rainbow, her hand-drawn tribute offered a simple portrait of community workers.
From the highly organised efforts of vaccination and testing centres to simple neighbourhood gestures, Thursday’s event aimed for wide inclusion and recognition.
In Dublin, Joseph Bennett, not present at the ceremony but acknowledged by the Minister in his speech, organised and delivered hot meals for 68 vulnerable people in his housing estate. He shopped for some as well, all the while holding down a full-time job.
Research from 2013 by the Central Statistics Office showed about 1 million people volunteer in Ireland every year, a net economic contribution of about €5 billion. Approximately 15,000 register on the national volunteering database in typical years, rising to as much as 40,000 during the pandemic.
"Volunteering is amazing and Irish people are amazing at doing it," said Ann Elliott, who has helped out at St Joseph's Centre, a dedicated dementia home in Shankill, Dublin, for the last six years.
When Covid shut things down, she reflected, things were difficult, having no outlet for her work. “When they let us back in, we went back in.”