Saturday 3 December 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.

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