The St John Ambulance Association had been teaching first aid to lay-people in Ireland since 1881. In 1903, eminent physician Dr John Lumsden – the Chief medical officer at the Guinness Brewery – set up the first division of the St John Ambulance Brigade in Ireland. The purpose of the Brigade was to provide trained, uniformed personnel to assist at accidents and medical emergencies. At the time, membership was restricted to Guinness employees. However, the organisation grew quickly and the first Division open to public membership – City of Dublin – formed in 1905.
St John Ambulance rapidly gained respect and admiration in Ireland for their calm and selfless service to the public at sporting, entertainment, and national events.
On the Tuesday of the Rising, the authorities – acutely aware that they had little or no field medical resources available – asked the St John Ambulance Brigade in Ireland to mobilise their resources. The organisation was already involved in providing personnel to the armed forces, as part of the Voluntary Aid Detachments, and many members were serving as medics with the British Forces across the world
Individual members had already provided localised assistance during the first day of the Rising; a number were already in action with the rebel forces, albeit in a different uniform. Members of St John Ambulance put on their uniforms and rallied at their Headquarters. The organisation had two motor ambulances at the time, and through contact with the Irish Automobile Club, were able to access a further 12 vehicles suitable for use as ambulances.
Over the course of the Rising, more than 500 members of St John Ambulance put their lives at risk. Uniformed members were on the streets, providing emergency aid to Soldiers and Rebels alike. They also tended to Civilians caught up in the battles, and transported casualties to hospital. Doctors & Nursing members of the organisation helped to staff the Dublin hospitals and clinics.
Members were mobilised all over the city, often very close to the action, as on Northumberland Road. The authorities had brought reinforcements from England. These reinforcements landed at Kingstown – now Dun Laoghaire – and marched into Dublin via Mount St Bridge. A detachment, from the rebel garrison at Boland’s Mill, consisting of 17 volunteers, managed to hold a full British Regiment – The Sherwood Foresters – at bay, from a number of buildings on Northumberland Road, for more than 24 hours.
The resultant carnage meant that the nearest hospital on Baggot St was put under pressure. St John Ambulance Brigade members assisted both in the hospital and on the front line at the battle of Mount St.
A number of senior St John officers were on the front line, managing the retrieval of injured soldiers. Corps Superintendent Holden Stodart, a Guinness employee and the Officer in charge of the Dublin Region of St John Ambulance, was among them. A married man with a young daughter, Holden left the safety of hearth & home to help the people of Dublin in this time of crisis. While assisting with the removal of an injured soldier, he was hit in the chest by a stray bullet and killed. Holden was 33 years of age.
The organisation had a strong and capable female membership, who were ready and willing to serve on the streets and in the hospitals. Number 40 Merrion Square had been used as an aid post from the outbreak of the Rising. By Wednesday of Easter Week, Dr Ella Webb – the most senior female member of St John Ambulance at the time – had organised the loan of beds and bedding from surrounding houses to turn the St John Ambulance building at 40 Merrion Square into a field hospital.
The field hospital treated casualties throughout the week. The first amputation was carried out in a temporary surgical theatre there at 5pm on the Wednesday. Several other premises and private homes were also turned into aid posts or field hospitals to help deal with the rising casualty numbers.
It is a testament to the medical and organisational skills of St John Ambulance Brigade members that, of the casualties treated at the field hospital in 40 Merrion Square, only one – an 80 year old man – died.
St John Ambulance’s reputation as an independent caring service meant that neither side actively sought to cause them harm. There are several eyewitness reports of members – including Deputy Commissioner, Dr John Lumsden – calmly providing lifesaving care to casualties, while bullets passed all around them. While it was often difficult for combatants to see St John personnel – as in the case of Holden Stodart – there were many cases of hostilities pausing, to let an ambulance or stretcher party go safely by.
Conflict will always cause casualties, and the Rising was no exception. Things could have been a lot worse, but for the selfless assistance of the Dublin Fire Brigade; the medical & ancillary staff at the Dublin hospitals; and the civilian volunteers of St John Ambulance.
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