Indeed the teaching of swimming and water safety as we know it was done on an ad hoc basis around the country, but mostly in the cities of Dublin and Cork where indoor swimming pools were available. It was only when a member of An Garda Síochána, Mr. Harry Gillespie (who was Chairman of a small Water Safety Committee in County Clare) decided to approach the Irish Red Cross Society in May 1945, that Water Safety was established in Ireland on a formal basis.
Under the auspices of the Irish Red Cross Society, local Area Water Safety Committees were established in all of the counties of Ireland. Naturally, there was very little expertise in this country in the matter of water safety and swimming rescue, so it was decided that the American Red Cross should be approached as they had an excellent Water Safety Service running in the USA for many years. From them, came the necessary approach to teaching water safety, then generally known as swimming rescue. Their booklets were also used as the bases for the first water safety manuals published by the Irish Red Cross Society (Water Safety Service).
It is worthy of note that several of our present members are recipients of the “Service Medal of Honour” being founding members of the Water Safety Organisation in Ireland. For twenty-six years, Water Safety operated under the auspices of the Irish Red Cross Society and it was during this period that the structure of Examiners, Instructors and other voluntary (non-technical) personnel was established. During those early days, there were few indoor swimming pools in this country for the teaching of swimming and lifesaving. Much of the work was done during the Summer months at piers, quays, beaches, on riverbanks, and at lake sides. It was also during those first twenty-six years that we saw the increase in the use of lifeguards around the coast of Ireland during the summer. It must be remembered that few people could swim and fewer still could swim and save a life. Indeed, in many of the coastal towns and villages, particularly where their livelihood was derived from the sea, there was an old superstition, that it was better not to learn how to swim as it only prolonged the agony in the water when in difficulty.
Change was slow due to a lack of resources, but voluntary commitment was strong among the members, as it is to day. With time, improvements followed and a more conscious awareness of water safety began to unfold throughout the country, particularly as the seventies approached and the work of the Water Safety Service expand to every county throughout the country. The leading light at that time was a man called Plunkett Walsh, an employee of the Irish Red Cross Society with special responsibility for Water Safety. His great enthusiasm was an inspiration to all involved in the Water Safety Service to promote water safety awareness. However! His untimely and sudden death left a great void within the organisation.
Following this, in 1971 an approach was made to the Minister of Local Government who agreed to the establishment of the Irish Water Safety Association under the auspices of the Department of Local Government. This move was universally welcomed, albeit tinged with certain sadness on leaving the Irish Red Cross, with whom water safety had been for twenty-five years. The first Chairman of the Irish Water Safety Association was Mr. Desmond Kenny who was from Galway.
With the establishment of the Irish Water Safety Association came an upsurge in membership, to meet the growing demand for swimming and lifesaving instruction throughout the country. In turn, this demand led to the construction of many indoor swimming pools and improved bathing facilities in many parts of Ireland. Shortly after the establishment of the Irish Water Safety Association it was invited to join both Federation International De Sauvetage and World Life Saving, both international bodies dealing with water safety and rescue.
In 1987, a Government decision was made resulting in the Irish Water Safety Association being amalgamated with fire and road safety under the auspices of the National Safety Council. The members continued to give exceptional time and effort on a voluntary base to ensure that swimming and lifesaving was taught nation-wide and Water Safety went from strength to strength and the number of voluntary members involved continued to grow. Certificates issued for swimming and lifesaving increased annually, and the “Water Safety Awareness” was promulgated nation-wide. With the encouragement of the National Safety Council, water safety personnel played an active role in the formation of the new International Life Saving Federation, which was established in 1994. It is an acknowledged fact that without the assistance given the amalgamation of both International Bodies would perhaps have taken much longer to achieve.
1995 was the 50th Anniversary of the formation of Water Safety under the auspices of the Irish Red Cross, the Irish Water Safety Association and the National Safety Council. To mark this occasion, a suitable medal was struck to honour those who had given long and valued service throughout those fifty years. In November 1996 at a meeting of the Board of the National Safety Council, it was agreed that Water Safety be known as Water Safety Ireland. In the National Budget of 1998, it was announced that the Government had set a side the necessary finance to re-establish Water Safety as a singular organisation. The effect of this decision being that Water Safety was to leave the National Safety Council. The decision to establish Water Safety as the Irish Water Safety Association with its Headquarters in Galway took effect in November 1999. A Council of 12 persons was appointed with Mr. Frank Nolan (a retired member of An Garda Siochana) being appointed as Chairman. The functions of the new body are similar to those that have been traditionally carried out over the past fifty-five years.
The new Association, which is the Statutory Water Safety Body for Ireland, is financed by Government, Local Authorities, fund-raising and sponsorship. The Association continues to be actively involved with International Life Saving (the world body) and co-operates with the other national organisations involved in water safety and rescue.
On the 25th August 2000, in front of a large audience, Minister of State, Mr. Robert Molloy, T.D, opened the new Headquarters of Irish Water Safety close to the Spanish Arch in Galway City. Irish Water Safety is governed by the Council, which is appointed by the Government for three years, supported by a full-time permanent staff. The functions of the Association are supported nation-wide on a voluntary bases through 28 Area Water Safety Committees and two special Committees (one within the Irish Police Force “An Garda Siochana” and the other within the Defence Forces). Persons who give exceptional Service over 25 to 50 years receive the ” Medal of Honour with Bar”. Persons outside the Association, who have been supportive of Irish Water Safety over a number of years, can be honoured with a Life Governor-ship of the Association. Ten persons so far have been conferred with this honour.
The Irish Water Safety Motto:
“Every Person a Swimmer and Every Person a Lifesaver”.