Monday 24 October 2016

John-Paul McCarthy: Legacy of heroic doctor is up to us

The physician who uncovered the horror at Bessborough is proof against parody, writes John-Paul McCarthy

John-Paul McCarthy

Published 15/06/2014 | 02:30

TO CURE AND TO CARE: Dr James Deeny, then chief medical officer, took it upon himself to find out why so many infants were dying in Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork
TO CURE AND TO CARE: Dr James Deeny, then chief medical officer, took it upon himself to find out why so many infants were dying in Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork

The doctor has long been a figure of longing and romance in Irish letters. Think of the famous Dublin surgeon Oliver St John Gogarty honouring the Liffey with a gift of two swans after the waterway furnished him with the means of fleeing his anti-Treaty IRA kidnappers. Or the exploits of that eternal medical student Ernie O'Malley, king of the ambush and lord of the 'Jesus-that-was-close' escape.

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What of Dr Noel Browne then, author of the memoir Against the Tide that depicted a Bevan-like struggle against the special maladies of the poor? In popular memory, Dr Browne hands over the baton to Dr Patrick Hillery, himself a brilliant education minister in the early days of the Lemass take-off.

Younger readers are prone to gag a bit when confronted with this kind of A-list, though. None of the above looks all that heroic from the other side of the scandals involving Dr Neary, the horrific symphysiotomists or the blood transfusion board. And besides all that, they had their own problems. Gogarty was a paranoid Jew-baiter. O'Malley had a disordered and cowboy-ish addiction to shoot-outs. Browne proved to have a glass-jaw in the fight against theocracy, and Hillery inexplicably left the way open to Haughey in 1979, by electing to stay marooned in the Aras.

Physicians, heal thyselves!

One Irish doctor remains proof against parody though, the one who filled our newspapers last week, namely Dr James Andrew Deeny, the chief medical officer who came after the nuns of the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork like a freight train, in the Forties.

In his absorbing memoir, To Cure and To Care (1989) Deeny described his mounting horror when studying the infant mortality rates for this place. Bessborough had somehow managed to amass a Latin American mortality rate with well more than 100 deaths out of 180 births.

"It was a beautiful institution," he remembered, "built on to a lovely old house just before the war, and seemed to be well run and spotlessly clean. I marched up and down and around about and could not make out what was wrong. At last I took a notion and stripped all the babies and, unusually for a chief medical adviser, examined them. Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up. There was obviously a staphylococcus infection about. Without any legal authority, I closed the place down and sacked the matron, a nun, and also got rid of the medical officer. The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing."

There was something indescribably northern about Deeny's vigour and despatch here, he being a child of Lurgan who fled Stormont-era Northern Ireland.

The deadliest put-down in the northern vocabulary even today, of course, is the accusation that some people "talk too much out of their mouths", and Deeny acted like a man who was determined that no one would be able to say that of him.

Deeny was a recognisable character in many ways. A deeply devout and socially aware Catholic in the mould of Fr James Kavanagh, he approached the problem of theocracy and clerical chauvinism with a lighter touch than his contemporary Paul Blanshard who could not conceal his (very American) stupefaction at the sheer scale of Catholicism's emasculation of what was supposed to be a republic.

Despite what he saw every day at work, Deeny was insistent that "coming to Dublin was wonderful. For the first time I discovered my country ... I had to realise I was watching a national democracy in place of what I had hitherto experienced, the one-party, long-continuing repressive, fascist-type rule in the North".

The fascist swipe here was understandable since Deeny had been denied a position as a surgeon at Belfast's Royal Victoria, a decision he ascribed to his Catholicism. But even making allowances for that, Hubert Butler's essays about the secret links between Irish Franciscans and the routed Nazis after 1945, help Deeny's posterity see the broader dimension of the problem.

After a stellar rise through the Irish bureaucracy, he ran into Noel Browne, who was made minister for health on his first day in the Dail in 1948. They worked well for a while on the tuberculosis problem before Browne shifted Deeny to the Medical Research Council.

He was treated better by the ministers and officials of Ceylon, British Somaliland, Syria and Indonesia when he offered his world-class insights to them under the auspices of the World Health Organisation.

Browne's was very much the hand that threw the pearl away.

Even if Deeny found First Amendment-style church-state separation ultimately incomprehensible, he did as much as any Irishman of that era to thwart the more revolting schemes of theocracy.

His legacy is what we do next.

Sunday Independent

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