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150 Years of Humanitarian Action

A century and a half ago, an ambitious idea became reality with the establishment of the ICRC and relief Societies, known today as National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The Red Cross Movement, with 97 million members worldwide, is the largest humanitarian aid organisation in the world today. It was founded by Swiss business man Henri Dunant following the battle of Solferino in northern Italy in 1859, which saw over 40,000 people killed or wounded.

Horrified by the anguished cries of the war-wounded left to suffer and die on the battlefield (many of whom pleaded for the coup de grace), Dunant organised help from the nearest village, Solferino. The wounded, from both sides, were ferried to makeshift hospitals in local homes and barns.

Dunant returned to Geneva where he penned his account of the battle in "A Memory of Solferino", urging people to set up voluntary relief societies to deal with the hardship of war. His book led to the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This organisation was established by Dunant and four Geneva businessmen in 1863. The following year, the first Geneva Convention for the alleviation of the conditions of the wounded in armies in the field was adopted, together with the emblem of the Red Cross on a white background.

The principles and aims of the ICRC were replicated in National Societies around the world with members trained in First Aid and emergency care. It was decided that the ICRC should continue to be run by Swiss nationals. After World War I it was decided that National Societies should form their own umbrella group also based in Geneva - this was known as the League of Red Cross Societies but today is called the Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The Irish Red Cross Society is a member of the IFRC which has 189 member societies around the world.

The Irish Red Cross was formally established in 1939. Its constitution is based on the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (to which Ireland is a party), Acts of the Oireachtas and relevant provisions of the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.