First established in 1939 as the Irish Red Cross Society (IRCS), today The Irish Red Cross is part of the world’s largest humanitarian network helping people affected by crisis and conflict. Over the years the organisation has provided first aid services in wartime and peacetime, playing a vital and pioneering role in public health and social care services in Ireland, as well as providing international humanitarian aid and relief. Celebrating an impressive 50 years of service to the Irish Red Cross, Cork South West Area Director of Units, John Joe Lyons (72), chats to Mary O’Brien about his ongoing work with the organisation.
Disbanded in the 1940s after World World II, the resurrection of the Clonakilty branch of the Irish Red Cross was spearheaded by a Dr Edward Barrett in the early 1970s. At that time, a young John Joe Lyons, 22, was volunteering with the Civil Defence when he and two other volunteers, Denis Lee and Conor Dullea from Courtmacherry, were recruited over to join the mostly female team of Clonakilty Red Cross nurses.
The Irish Red Cross has always played an important role in supporting the elderly in Irish society, particularly before the introduction of nursing homes. When John Joe joined the organisation in 1973, his training consisted of basic first aid and home nursing care courses. “Our role in the early days revolved mainly around teaching people who were caring for elderly family members at home how to make a bed properly, give a bed bath and so on,” he shares. “The training today is obviously very different,” he laughs.
Since its inception the Red Cross has been very involved with the settlement and needs of refugees, the organisation’s impressive work in this regard seen most recently with their support of thousands of Ukrainian refugees seeking temporary refuge in Ireland. John Joe’s experience with assisting refugees dates back to his first year with the organisation, in 1973, when Clonakilty welcomed some of the refugees from Northern Ireland, who had been streaming across the border since 1969 in their thousands to escape the violence of the Troubles. During those years, the Irish Red Cross was charged by the government with collecting money and relief supplies for the refugees. Those who arrived in Clonakilty were housed outside the town at Darrara Agricultural College and bused into and out of Clonakilty by the Civil Defence. The Clonakilty Red Cross looked after their basic needs, supplying them with spending money, food, clothing and first aid where needed.
Fast forward to 2022 and the Red Cross branches in the Cork South West Area under John Joe worked closely with Cork County Council to support the Ukrainian people seeking refuge in Ireland. “It was a huge undertaking,” says John Joe, who shares how the Red Cross branches across Cork County have given out almost 6000 welcome packs to-date.
Clonakilty Community Centre provided temporary emergency accommodation for some of the first arrivals into West Cork from Ukraine. “Of course it was better than having no place to go but it was heartbreaking to see all the same,” says John Joe. He recalls one teenager, who arrived in severe pain from a toothache after several days of travelling on her own. As it was late at night the only pain relief she could be offered was paracetamol. “It’s a very sad situation but there was and still is massive support from the local community. You only have to put the call out and something arrives when needed. It’s unbelievable how kindhearted and generous people are. It certainly makes our job a lot easier,” says John Joe, who recalls another occasion in the past when the local branch collected the grand total of £25,000 at a church gate collection when fundraising to help people affected by a natural disaster in a third world country.
Jumping back to 1975, the Clonakilty branch of the Irish Red Cross was put on the road for the first time with the donation of a secondhand ambulance by a local lady, Mrs O’Donoghue of Western Road. This allowed the team – driver, first responder and nurse – to offer assistance at community events such as the Festival of West Cork, Clonakilty Show and various horse racing events and festivals in the locality. In the early 80s, the Clonakilty Red Cross even provided cover on Inchydoney beach for two months of the busy summer season when hordes of holidaymakers would inevitably result in the requirement for basic first aid. “While at the time we were able to help with most fractures, we had to call on the National Ambulance Service for cardiac arrests,” explains John Joe. “In those days, the Red Cross ambulance was basically a van with an oxygen tank!”
While he has attended many incidents over the years, from serious car accidents to children falling off merry-go-rounds, dealing with everything from fractures and concussions to severe burns, cardiac arrests and spinal injuries, one of the most frightening events that still stands out in John Joe’s memories was the moment a jockey completely lost control of his horse at the races in Clonakilty Show. “I can still see him coming around the corner, holding on to the horse by the skin of his teeth. The sound his head made as he hit the ground going past us stayed with me,” he shares. “We carried him on board the ambulance on a spinal board, which is nothing like the special vacuum mattress you have today that packs around a body like a plaster of Paris. Thankfully he survived.”
As time moved on, in 2000 the National Ambulance Service and Red Cross service was regulated with the formation of the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council (PHECC), an independent statutory agency with responsibility for standards, education and training in the field of pre-hospital emergency care. From thereon the lowest level of qualification in the Irish Red Cross was that of Emergency First Responder. “Emergency Medical Technician roles were also created, which meant the service was capable of treating a patient with cardiac drugs in an ambulance,” explains John Joe.
Finally in 2004, the series of troublesome secondhand ambulances that the Clonakilty Branch had been at the mercy of for so many years, were replaced with a brand new vehicle, due to the fundraising efforts of the Clonakilty branch and the generosity of the local community. “There were great celebrations when we purchased the new ambulance,” remembers John Joe. “The other ambulances were a lot older and inevitably broke down regularly, so on numerous occasions we would have had to call on one of the other ambulances in West Cork for cover.” The same year, the Irish Red Cross created divisions within the organisation and John Joe was appointed as the Cork South West Area Unit Director, a role he still holds and and one which involves overseeing and providing support at training sessions at all of the West Cork branches and recruiting new volunteers, as well as community work like distributing flood relief or organising the transportation by ambulance of a 95-year-old lady from Dublin to spend time with her daughter in Clonakilty, providing medical cover at local events or attending serious incidents such as the Tit Bonhomme fishing tragedy off Union Hall in 2012, where John Joe was on standby for the entire ten day search and rescue operation.
In 2017 John Joe was honoured with the National Volunteer of the Year Award by the Irish Red Cross.
Today the father-of four married to Sheila – who passed on his love of the job to his youngest son Ray, now an advanced paramedic working full-time with London Ambulance Service – is as busy as ever, making sure that all of the Red Cross volunteers under his care in West Cork are as qualified and licensed as they need to be.
“I’m very proud that we have an ambulance service in our community that’s second-to-none and that so many of our volunteers advance to the National Ambulance Service,” he says. “It’s a great starting block for volunteers who want to eventually become paramedics,” he says.
After 50 years of service, John Joe’s dedication and commitment to his role with the Irish Red Cross is unwavering. “I just love the work,” he shrugs. It’s this passion that has inspired so many volunteers over the years and to which the West Cork community undoubtedly owes a great debt of gratitude.