Leslie Bean de Barra – A woman of great perseverance

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“I’m afraid that I didn’t obey orders that day”. Recalling her decision to ignore the order to return home, and instead choosing to join the fighting during the Easter Rising, Leslie Bean de Barra offers us a glimpse into the character of the woman who would go on to become Director of Cumann na mBán and chairperson and President of the Irish Red Cross, leaving behind her an impressive legacy at both a national and international level. 

Leslie Bean de Barra (neé Price) was born in Dublin in 1893 and went on to qualify as aIrish Red Cross primary-school teacher in 1915. She received an honorary degree from University College Dublin in 1963 and later in 1978, received the Henry Dunant medal for her contribution to the Red Cross movement – the highest honour attributed on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross which is headquartered out of Geneva. De Barra’s legacy is one of rebellion and leadership and her partnership with General Tom Barry, the leader of the IRA’s flying column in West Cork, is fitting as the pair married in 1921. As de Barra played a role in the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, it can be easy to think of her only in this context, with her work in the Red Cross taking a back seat compared to the nostalgia that is understandably afforded to the Rising. In remembering the legacy of such an important woman, however, her work and time with the Irish Red Cross is something to be celebrated.  

De Barra’s work in the Irish Red Cross began with the inception of the Society in 1939, and paving her way through the ranks in leadership roles, she was subsequently nominated as Irish Red Cross chairperson in August 1950 by president of Ireland, Sean T. O’Kelly.  De Barra was then reappointed as chairperson of the Society in 1953 and stayed in this position for more than two decades. De Barra’s work with the Irish Red Cross, both important and tireless, has resulted in her name being stitched into the very fabric of the national Society. So much so that Shane Lehane’s study, A History of the Irish Red Cross, has a chapter solely dedicated to the era of Leslie Bean de Barra. Reading about the life and work of de Barra offers not only an insight into her professional life, but also gives us an awareness of her character and personality, and a portrait is quickly conjured up of a woman of fighting character and perseverance – no surprise then that she did indeed refuse to obey orders that day in 1916.

De Barra did not conform with many of the gendered stereotypes that were prevalent in mid-twentieth century Ireland and instead dedicated her time to championing important causes for vulnerable people while maintaining a position of leadership and power. Lehane, noting de Barra’s soldiering spirit, draws attention to her quirk of wearing the society’s uniform while representing the Irish Red Cross – something which no other chairperson has done to date.

Interestingly, de Barra expressed opinions that seemed at odds with her own actions. Speaking of her experiences during the Rising, she said “women, especially married women are a bit of a drag on men who are fighting. I noticed it particularly in the North King Street area … there were a couple of young married women on duty and their husbands were in the same area.” Describing her annoyance with these women, who arrived on scene during the action asking after their husband’s whereabouts, de Barra remembered that she had thought at the time “the three of you, it would be good for you to clear off”.  

This no-nonsense attitude deployed by de Barra appears to have filtered right down into her leadership in the National Society and while on one hand critical of her fellow female comrades, it is worth noting women were afforded the same rank as men in the Irish Citizen Army and can understand de Barra here to be exercising her desire to get the job done at hand, with no distractions interrupting her - or her fellow comrades.   

The work of Leslie Bean de Barra

De Barra worked tirelessly to champion the values of the Red Cross and was particularly insistent on the role of the Irish Red Cross as an auxiliary to the armed forces during conflict and maintaining its independence, one of the core principles to the movement. De Barra worked to ensure that the Department of Defence agreed that the Society could wear the Red Cross uniform and act as an auxiliary to the medical services of the armed forces during conflict.

Another commendable achievement of the Irish Red Cross, with de Barra at its helm, was the establishment of services to address the needs of the elderly community in Ireland. In the absence of any state geriatric policy or funding, dialogue was initiated with the Irish government and the designation of the title “Our Old People’s Year” for 1965 was also introduced by the Irish Red Cross. This provided much needed recognition for the older community in Ireland.

Continuing on the road of championing the needs of the more vulnerable in the community, de Barra was also charged with leading the Irish Red Cross in taking responsibility for refugees in Ireland in the 1950s, particularly those coming from Hungary at the time. Considering the climate in Ireland during this period, this was by no means an easy feat as the Irish economy was facing great difficulties. To create a welcoming atmosphere for refugees in Ireland is a challenge which should be commended. Her refusal to ignore the plight of those fleeing their home countries in search of safety is something which we can reflect on with pride. That de Barra could foster and encourage this sentiment within Irish society is a great achievement – and it is a sentiment which is now more than ever important to keep within the public discourse.

 De Barra also initiated and chaired the “Freedom from Hunger” Campaign which was established in 1960 to address the long term eradication of world hunger, as opposed to solely focusing on emergency relief in such situations. During this time the Irish Red Cross pushed forward with international emergency appeals,  and in light of her dedication to assisting those in need or in vulnerable positions in the community, it is no wonder the Cork Area Committee of the Irish Red Cross have established a trophy in de Barra’s honour. The “Leslie Bean de Barra Red Cross Carer of the Year” award acknowledges the commitment of informal carers at home and in the community, a fitting legacy in Leslie Bean de Barra’s name.

Celebrating de Barra’s legacy in the Irish Red Cross is hugely important in championing women’s voices and ensuring recognition for the work and dedication that has contributed so much to our society. It is necessary to highlight the legacies that are left behind by many Irish women, like Leslie Bean de Barra’s, so that they are included in the Irish narrative that is so often only discussed through the male voice. As the GLOW Red Network celebrates 100 voices of Red Cross Red Crescent women within the movement, de Barra’s narrative deserves to be highlighted as an influential moment in the Irish Red Cross and one that has established standards of work and methods of practice that should be kept to the forefront of the National Society as we continue our work every day.

Irish Red Cross Carers Award 2019

Among the series of celebrations marking the 80th anniversary of the Irish Red Cross  nominations are Now Open for the Irish Red Cross Carers Award 2019. The winners of the Cares Award will receive a fantastic prize including a trophy which inscribed on it are the words “The Leslie Bean de Barra Memorial Perpetual Trophy for Home Nursing”.

Click Irish Red Cross Carers Award 2019 To Enter 

For more information email healthandsocialcare@redcross.ie or phone 01 642 4600

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