Saturday 10 December 2016

Obituary: Risteard Mulcahy

Army chief's son who was a pioneer in the area of coronary care, writes Rory Egan

Published 03/07/2016 | 02:30

GROUNDBREAKING: Risteard with his trademark bow-tie
GROUNDBREAKING: Risteard with his trademark bow-tie

The word 'legend' is one that should be used sparingly in obituaries. There is a temptation to use it by family and friends of those who have been so prominent in their life that no other word will suffice. Sadly, we rarely get to use it in its truest sense.

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However, with the passing of Professor Risteard Mulcahy, somehow the word doesn't seem enough.

Risteard Mulcahy was born on July 13, 1922, to one of Ireland's most prominent families. His father, General Richard Mulcahy, wrote himself into our history books and Risteard adored him. For the most part, he grew up in Lissenfield House in Rathmines, where his father was moved after Michael Collins's death for his own protection.

Risteard was sent to Colaiste Mhuire, Parnell Street, a school that was set up by General Mulcahy and Ernest Blythe while he was Minister of Education in the first government. He recalled in later years that he learnt very little at school until he had an unfortunate accident and broke his leg. Lying in his bed at home, he discovered the magic of the 'penny' Penguin books and began reading every one he could get his hands on.

Thus began a lifetime of learning and the study of science of which he never tired.

When he later enrolled at the age of 16 in medical school in UCD in Earlsfort Terrace, he found himself quite hampered by his lack of English, Irish being his native tongue for all the preceding years. Indeed, it was said that he was far more comfortable writing in Latin than English at that time.

He joined St Vincent's Hospital in St Stephen's Green, as it then was, as a resident physician in 1945 and, like all leading medics of his time, he decided to gain more experience abroad and he joined St John and St Elizabeth's Hospital in St John's Wood in London a year later.

It was there that he met Walter Somerville, a consultant whom he admired and who sported a colourful bow-tie on his rounds. Risteard had long bemoaned the fact that when examining a patient, particularly a young woman, his tie would frequently rest on her abdomen, something he found undignified. Thereafter, Risteard sported a bow-tie, a look he made his own.

He also trained in the National Heart Hospital, where he found the speciality with which he became synonymous here - cardiology. When he returned to Ireland in 1950, he became one of the youngest consultants in Irish medical history when he took up his appointment with St Vincent's Hospital. He was also appointed as visiting consultant to the Coombe Hospital in 1951 and was Medical Officer to Our Lady's Hospital for the Dying in Harold's Cross.

Risteard was an early member of the IMA, later to become the Irish Medical Organisation, and served as its president. Golf was another passion and he became the youngest captain of Milltown Golf Club at the age of 32.

But it was coronary care that was his passion and he published his first paper on the link between smoking and heart disease in 1963. This was one of many groundbreaking initiatives that Risteard was to make and was not too popular with all of his colleagues. The smoking industry sponsored many medical functions and lobbied hard to get him to soften his stance, something he was determined not to do. He made it his lifetime goal to persuade the public to look at the full effects of smoking.

He set up the first, purpose-built, coronary care unit in St Vincent's Hospital in 1966 and founded the Irish Heart Foundation in the same year. In 1971, he controversially banned smoking in the cardiac ward of St Vincent's. We think of this as plain common sense now, but some surgeons still smoked in operating theatres in Ireland up to 1985.

Risteard wrote the seminal work Beating Heart Disease and 11 other books, including Improving With Age, which he only published this year.

He was a founding member of the Sir John Corrigan Club, which strove to strengthen links between the Protestant medics of Northern Ireland and their Catholic colleagues in the South.

Risteard retired in 1988. He was one of the most interesting and remarkable men I have ever met. He was loved and respected, a rare combination, by all who knew him.

He will be sadly missed by his wife Louise and children Richard, David, Hugh, Tina, Barbara and Lisa.

Sunday Independent

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