Speech by Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan TD, at Launch of exhibition, “World War 1: Ireland’s Humanitarian Effort”


Cathaoirleach of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, Cllr Ossian Smyth,  Commissioner John Hughes, St. John Ambulance Ireland, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am delighted to be here this evening for the formal launch of the exhibition entitled “World War 1 Ireland’s Humanitarian Effort”, which has been brought together by St. John Ambulance Ireland in conjunction with dlr Libraries.  I am pleased that my Department was able to provide the State funding to enable it to be brought to fruition.

Tháinig an Chéad Chogadh Domhanda, nó an Cogagh Mór, chun críoch céad bhliain o shin i mbliana. Agus muid i mbonn comóradh, ná déanamais dearmas riamh ar na blianta tromchúiseacha seo agus na hÉireannigh a d’éag.”

The Exhibition sets out to recall some of the stories of Irish people’s support for, and humanitarian contribution to, “The Great War”. In my opinion it’s an aspect of the past that gets much less prominence in the history books than it should and it’s a subject in which I have a keen interest.

Recently a constituent of mine Sabina Purcell from Kilmacud approached my Department with plans to arrange for a visit to Ireland of “The Haunting’s Soldier,” a sculpture made entirely of scrap metal. The Hauntings Soldier represents all soldiers, irrespective of rank, class or casualty who fought during World War 1. She did this, not because she has family or links to The Great War but just as a mark of remembrance to all the Irish men who fought and died on the battlefields of Europe.

I’m pleased to say we were able to allocate 7,000 euro to help transport the sculpture from Devon to Dublin where it will be placed in St Stephens Green park for a period of time in November.

The St Johns Ambulance non-combatants who we are here to commemorate tonight came from all sections of Irish society and in the words of the British Red Cross report of 1914-1918:

 “These contributions represent all social grades of the people, and all religious denominations, Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist, rich and poor.’

While the tragedy of the First World War coincided with a period of turmoil in here Ireland in terms of our push for Independence from British rule, the horrors of World War I and all it represented brought out the best in many Irish people.  Many thousands joined the British and other allied armies in the fight against German and Austro-Hungarian aggression and, hopefully, their sacrifice and valour is well understood today and will be remembered once again at Remembrance Ceremonies later this year, marking the centenary of the Armistice.

What this Exhibition is focused on, however, is the lesser-known contribution made by the thousands of Irish citizens who gave freely of their time on humanitarian relief work during the War.

The volunteer work of citizens during that period was extraordinary.  They responded to the humanitarian call out during a time when no national health service existed.  The number of volunteers, the range of activities, funds raised, and sacrifices made, including the ultimate sacrifice, is largely, I might suggest, unrecognised and unremembered.

This Exhibition draws heavily from the archives of St John Ambulance Ireland, a volunteer based charity grounded in the mottoes of “For the Faith” and “In The Service of humanity”.  The exhibition aims to tell the personal stories of those who worked quietly and tirelessly in the background to alleviate pain, suffering and deprivation of both combatants and non-combatants alike.

Only recently unearthed by St John Ambulance volunteer Padraig Allen, the archive is a substantial collection of over 3,000 photographs and records dating back to the start of its work from 1880 onwards. Many of the photographs and records have not been publicly displayed before. And, in addition to the main exhibition there is also a vintage St John Ambulance vehicle from the era.

Over 600 members of St. John Ambulance left Ireland to serve in the War and the majority of these were non-combatants. Humanitarian aid aboard hospital ships and in hospitals across the world was the effort they came forward to support.

To this end, 23 auxiliary hospitals were set up in Ireland to alleviate pressure on the civil and military hospitals, over 10,000 were trained up in first aid during the war years, 46 hospital ships at North Wall carrying just over 20,000 soldiers were attended to, many sick and injured were transported and 2 special trains were built to get the injured to hospitals.

This Exhibition also highlights, how following the war, how St. John Ambulance Ireland requested that  money raised by the people of Ireland during the war years, but which had been unspent, be returned to Ireland to support the civil hospitals and for the establishment of Ireland’s first national ambulance service.

The Exhibition also provides new information on the response to the 1918 Influenza pandemic that killed over 20,000 in Ireland and affected over 500 million worldwide.  In Ireland, St. John Ambulance medics and nurses were called on by the Government of the day to provide expertise on addressing the pandemic and a number of public notices on the “does and dont’s” were prepared and issued to citizens.

Immediately after The Great War, St. John Ambulance continued to be a driving humanitarian force and in 1920 established an Invalid Transport Service. In 1921 it assisted during the War of Independence and in 1922 over 300 served during the Civil War.

All of this culminated in the establishment of a Welfare Department where key driving forces were Gwendoline Barrington – an industry nurse and dietician – and Dr Ella Webb.  This initiative saw over 1,250,000 meals served from 1925-1949 with hundreds of babies given a fighting chance at life.  The infant mortality rate was 81.3 in Ireland in 1916, i.e., for every 1,000 babies born during 1916, 81 died before they reached twelve months of age.

An anonymous author once said;

“Humans are the only helpline that humanity has got.” 

Today St. John Ambulance Ireland has humanity at its heart. It continues to offer a range of Pre-Hospital Emergency training courses and personnel and ambulance cover at many public events at local, regional and national level. It honours the efforts and past voluntary sacrifice of its first members and leaders over a century ago.

Is cúis áthais dom gur deis dúinn an Taispeántas seo atá á sheoladh agam anocht cur le canóin na n-éachtaí a rinne an gnáthphobal, nó an pobal neamhghnách a d’fhéadfaí a rá, in Éirinn, idir fhear is bhean, chun tacú leis an gcomhar cogaidh.

And it is that effort from 1914 to 1918 which is the focus of this Exhibition we are launching this evening.  I fervently hope you find the individual stories recounted through the St. John Ambulance archives informative, interesting and inspiring.

Go raibh mile maith agaibh


Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, 23 Kildare Street, Dublin , D02 TD30. Tel: 01 631 3800 / LoCall: 1890 383 000

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