The Association was founded in 1980 by a small group of hospital chaplains in recognition of the changing face of healthcare in Ireland and the isolation many hospital chaplains were experiencing. Their vision was to encourage and support chaplains in their ministry to those who are sick, their relatives and the staff who care for them. This vision continues today.

The first AGM was held in Dublin in 1981. The members then were almost exclusively Irish Roman Catholic priests, with a few religious sisters. The demography has changed dramatically since those days, the balance between lay and ordained chaplains has changed, with the majority of our members now being lay chaplains and also a number of chaplains from the Protestant traditions. Today NAHC members come from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds with diverse life experiences. Thus the Association is reflecting the changes in Irish society and is inclusive and ecumenical.

The founders of the NAHC recognised the need of professional training for chaplains. The securing of approval and funding from the Department of Health for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) for two training centres in 1982, was key to the development of the skills and expertise of healthcare chaplains working within multidisciplinary teams of health professionals. Between 1986 and 2009 a further three training centres were opened. The NAHC also recognised the need for accreditation of these centres and certification of chaplains. They worked with the Healthcare Chaplaincy Board to establish standards of good practice and certification of chaplains. The Church of Ireland established the Chaplaincy Accreditation Board in 2010. The development of CPE and the establishment of accreditation boards ensured that NAHC members are now professionally trained and certified and accountable to standards and competencies. Many chaplains also recognise the need for ongoing professional development and participate in professional supervision.

In 1992 the Healthcare Contract Negotiation Group, a subcommittee of the Catholic Healthcare Commission, was set up to negotiate directly with the Department of Health for contracts and salary in line with other healthcare professionals. They successfully negotiated pay structures for all chaplains employed directly by healthcare facilities.

President Mary McAleese when opening the Silver Jubilee Conference in Athlone in 2006 observed that ‘the foundation of the National Association of Healthcare Chaplains marked a watershed in the history of pastoral care in hospitals throughout Ireland, North and South’. At this conference the NAHC Guidelines for Best Practice were launched.

In 2009 the NAHC made a submission to the ‘End of Life Forum’ and in 2013 the NAHC made a presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children.

The first Irish research on ‘The role and practice of Healthcare chaplains in the Republic of Ireland’ was completed in 2013 on behalf of the NAHC.