Marking 65 years of Civil Defence in Cork

To mark 65 years since the Civil Defence service was set up in Cork, PAT POLAND recalls how it all came about during the threatening times of the Cold War
Marking 65 years of Civil Defence in Cork

An AFS group before a training exercise at Cork Oil Refinery in summer, 1963, with Comdt J. G. O’Kelly, Chief Fire Officer, centre, front. BELOW: Morning parade at Camden/Fort Meagher, Crosshaven, at training camp in 1964

WHEN Winston Churchill gave his famous address declaring that “an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent” in 1946, it marked for many the beginning of the Cold War.

Relationships between the former Western and Eastern wartime allies grew increasingly toxic, as the Soviet Union exerted a grip on eastern Europe.

In Britain, the stand-down of the Civil Defence organisation after World War II had been short-lived. Perceived threats from the Soviet bloc resulted in the re-formation of the Civil Defence Corps, an all-volunteer, civilian organisation tasked with affording some modicum of protection against the population in the event of a nuclear attack.

In December, 1950, Ireland’s Minister for Defence, Dr T. F. O’Higgins, summoned a meeting of City and County Managers for a briefing on the re-establishment of the Civil Defence corps (known as ‘Air Raid Precautions,’ or ARP, during the Emergency).

The new Civil Defence Training School at Ratra House, Phoenix Park, Dublin, accepted its first students in June, 1951. The various Civil Defence sections were to be: Headquarters, Warden, Welfare, Rescue, Casualty and the AFS.

Paul Humphries, BE, who was Cork City’s ARP Decontamination Officer during the Emergency, was appointed Civil Defence Officer (CDO) by Cork Corporation in December, 1951. He was tasked with formulating a Civil Defence plan for the city, to include such matters as personnel, a training centre, control centres, shelter requirements, rest centres, emergency feeding centres, supplies of equipment, reception centres, warning systems, and operational areas.

A site on Department of Defence lands at Ballincollig was acquired as a training range for the proposed Rescue Service, complete with ‘bomb-damaged’ two-storey building.

By the end of 1956, 12 Rescue instructors had qualified at Ratra House and were ready to commence the training of Volunteers. In the meantime, the original Civil Defence plan for Cork City (based on an Atomic Bomb scenario) was already redundant with the development of the far deadlier Hydrogen Bomb.

Civil Defence appliances prior to participating in the ‘Civil Defence Week’ parade through Cork in September, 1961
Civil Defence appliances prior to participating in the ‘Civil Defence Week’ parade through Cork in September, 1961

The first volunteer to Cork City Civil Defence was enrolled 65 years ago this year - on March 29, 1957. Initially, classes were held in the Lecture Theatre of Crawford Art Gallery on Emmet Place. It was a ‘red letter’ day for the unit when a dedicated Training Centre opened on Eglinton Street (now the site of City Hall multi-storey car park) in September, 1959.

Early Members

Dan Hurley (later, Waterford County Manager) was appointed Chief Instructor, with Donal Crosbie (Director of Examiner Publications), Chief Warden. Messrs Paddy Murphy, Hugh Falvey and John Murphy were early Rescue Instructors, while Chef Don Bloss headed up the efficient Welfare Service.

As Cork city already had oluntary Aid First Aid organisations, namely St John Ambulance Brigade and the Irish Red Cross Society, no CD Casualty Service was established. The Civil Defence aspect of those cadres became the responsibility of Mr F.S. White and Mrs Barbara de Foubert (St John’s) and Mrs Maureen O’Sullivan and Mr Finbarr Minihane (Red Cross), under the general supervision of the Chief Medical Officer, Dr G. P. McCarthy.

The fire chief, Comdt J. G. O’Kelly, became ‘AFS Commandant’ under the CD Scheme.

Training of the first volunteers to the AFS began in May, 1959. Early recruits included Messrs Bob O’Brien, Michael Twohig, Eddie Stack, Seán Barrett and Joel Curtin.

The Women’s Section of the AFS was in the capable hands of Mrs Kay Dunne (née Buckley). Officers Michael O’Mahony and Liam Crowley of the Fire Brigade, both of whom had served in the Emergency, were appointed instructors. It must have been with a certain degree of déjà vu that they surveyed the equipment made available for training: Beresford Stork trailer pumps that had been delivered during the war, in September, 1940, and now maintained by the Fire Brigade.

The first Storekeepers were Messrs Jim O’Hara and Jack Burke.

The social side was not forgotten. Warden Tom Ryan and Mrs Ahern of Welfare were stalwarts in ensuring it would not be a case of ‘all work and no play’ for the lads and lassies. Dinner Dances, Film Shows and Socials were held throughout the long months of winter, and who can forget the memorable AFS bus ‘excursions’ to Kerry and West Cork of the 1960s? A Drama Group was also formed.

Multi-agency exercises were regularly held, the most ambitious of which took place (on a miserable day!) at the old Military Barracks, Youghal, on September 9, 1962. Hundreds of Civil Defence volunteers from a wide area took part and among the observers were Minister for Defence Mr Gerard Bartley, and OC of the First Brigade, Col. P. J. Kelly.

During the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962, the US and USSR superpowers eyeballed each other, and the world teetered on the brink of nuclear catastrophe. In Cork, recruitment to all CD services rose sharply, necessitating reorganisation.

At the training exercise ‘Operation Samaritan’ at the Ballincollig Training Range in April, 1961, from left, Messrs Jack Hayes (Warden), Robert Burton (Rescue), Tim Cronin (Rescue), and M. O’Toole (Warden).
At the training exercise ‘Operation Samaritan’ at the Ballincollig Training Range in April, 1961, from left, Messrs Jack Hayes (Warden), Robert Burton (Rescue), Tim Cronin (Rescue), and M. O’Toole (Warden).

The previous June, the first batch of ten Emergency Self-Propelled Pumps (aka Green Goddesses) arrived in Ireland and were handed over to local authorities at a ceremony in Ratra House. In all, 37 Green Goddesses were purchased from Britain at a starting cost of £4,500 each. While, thankfully, never put to the ultimate test for which they were conceived, in the coming years they would prove their worth, time and again, at emergencies in support of the regular fire and emergency services.

Deployment at such diverse duties as flood relief (their high ground clearance proved an exceptional asset) and supplying water to communities in time of need, were other missions assigned as the need arose. Major incidents attended by Green Goddesses included Sutton’s, South Mall (November, 1963), Punch’s, Glanmire (July, 1964) and Scott’s, MacCurtain Street (February 1965).

One of the more unusual aspects of the period was the rather inspired decision of Chief Officer O’Kelly to name the city’s two Green Goddesses after the legendary queens of Celtic mythology, Ana (AZC 756) and Morrigu (NZH 6), the latter regarded as the ‘Great Goddess’ by the ancients.

The names, associated in Irish folklore with water and deluge, were emblazoned in Gaelic script along the rear wings of the appliances - in flagrant breach, it has to be acknowledged, of strict Department of Defence protocols forbidding such customization!


One prominent historian summarised the general attitude towards Civil Defence at this time thus: “Despite the possibility of nuclear war, unlike almost every other northern European state, Ireland never bothered to invest in shelters, food stores, protected communications, public education for the eventuality of a direct hit or of contamination from explosions elsewhere, air raid drills, or any of the other elements of a coherent civil defence programme in the nuclear age. Defence did establish a skeletal Civil Defence organisation, its members decked out in lumpy black uniforms and equipped with elderly vehicles, painted an incongruously cheerful yellow, which the full-time defence and emergency services no longer wanted. This raggle-taggle body of retired army officers and callow youths was geared for little more than searching for missing hill walkers and occasional flood relief; it was certainly not equipped to cope with the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.”

Those of us who attended parade in hail, rain, or shine, in gleaming boots that would have warmed the heart of a Sergeant Major in the Brigade of Guards, were less than impressed by the historian’s observation that the service comprised a raggle-taggle body of ‘callow youths in lumpy uniforms’. If nothing else, we, like our colleagues in An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil and An Slua Muiri, learned discipline and useful life skills that stood us in good stead in the years ahead. And the assertion about the army officers is incorrect: all Regional Civil Defence Officers (RCDOs) were serving Commandants. (Comdt Barry O’Brien was appointed RCDO with responsibility for Cork City in September, 1961).

The simple truth of the matter was that, as in the 1939-45 Emergency, the fledgling Irish State - in 1960 still less than 40 years old - could simply not afford the huge sums of money required of a Civil Defence structure capable of covering every (hypothetical) eventuality.

By 1968, even Britain, with its advanced Civil Defence organisation which had proved its worth time and again during World War II, realised that trying to keep pace with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their constantly changing technology was an exercise in futility. On March 31 that year, the Labour Government disestablished Civil Defence and the Auxiliary Fire Service.

Despite every encouragement to members of the public to join the organisation in numbers, including frequent promotions in the media, ‘Civil Defence Weeks’, and large-scale exercises which the public could observe, in January, 1962, Mr Humphries had to admit: “No adequate Civil Defence organisation exists in Cork. Public apathy and indifference and ill-informed public opinion was at the root of the matter.”

The Service needed a minimum of 4,000 volunteers, he asserted, while the effective establishment numbered no more than 150.


Today, the all-volunteer Cork City Civil Defence Service, operating out of a modern Training Centre and HQ on the North Ring Road, has a mission statement far removed from its old Cold War mandate. The services have been rebranded as Medical Response, Search and Rescue, Emergency Response, Radiation Monitoring, Communications, Community Assistance, and Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM).

Deriving their authority from the Civil Defence Act 2012, Volunteers often assist the whole-time emergency services in dealing with severe weather events, flooding, major incidents, and searching for missing persons.

The organisation also supports hundreds of community events throughout the year, including sports fixtures, concerts and festivals.

In September, 2018, the Minister with Responsibility for Defence launched the policy document Civil Defence - Towards 2030, thus reaffirming the Government’s commitment to the continued development of Civil Defence.

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