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Tributes pour in for life-saving 'maverick' Neligan

IRELAND's best known medic, heart surgeon Maurice Neligan, who has died suddenly, carried out up to 15,000 open heart operations during his career -- many on children. Many hearts are beating today thanks to his skill, colleagues said yesterday.

Known for his outspoken views on the health service and as an advocate for patients as much as for his pioneering skill as a surgeon and his role in setting up the Blackrock Clinic, the multifaceted Dr Neligan was also something of a maverick.

Somewhat sceptical of healthy-living zealots, in a recent RTE radio interview with his wife, Pat, conducted by Miriam O'Callaghan, he admitted he was not a follower of regular health checks, joking that it was safer to keep away from doctors.

Dr Neligan, 73, had met up with old classmates from Blackrock College for their 55th year reunion last Thursday, many gently teasing that they had better not leave it to 60 years or some of them might not make it.

Sadly, Dr Neligan died at the family home in Blackrock, Co Dublin, on Friday.

His death drew an avalanche of tributes, led by Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who extended his sympathies to the Neligan family.

"Mr Neligan was a distinguished practitioner of medicine, a distinguished surgeon and there are many families in Ireland today who are grateful for the lifetime's work he undertook. I knew him personally in my time as Minister for Health," he recalled.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny paid tribute to his gentle nature, realism and colourful opinions on health and politics. "I spoke at length with Maurice only last week. He was the first superstar of Irish medicine, following his achievements as a leading cardiac surgeon. There are many who enjoy a normal lifestyle today because of his work.

"He was a deeply compassionate Irishman, proud of his profession and caring for his family," he said.

Fine Gael spokesman on health, Dr James Reilly, said Ireland had lost a leading champion of the patient and of the health service.

A statement from Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin said: "Maurice was a giant figure in the history of Irish medicine and made an extraordinary contribution to medical care in the hospital. He was a pioneer of children's cardio-thoracic surgery and was instrumental in the establishment of cardio-pulmonary bypass and intensive care facilities on site.

"His energy, enthusiasm, skill and dedication have left a lasting impact on the hospital and generations of children who have received their care here." His friend and colleague Freddie Wood described him as a "professional big brother".

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"People forget that 30 years ago a consultant was like a god; you carried their coat, you did what you were told. Maurice was not like that. Surgically, we got up to a lot of mischief together," he quipped.

Mr Neligan's son, Maurice, said his father had died suddenly, but very peacefully, at home. "Whilst we did not have enough time with him, we are certainly celebrating a life rich with achievement," he said.

His loss was also mourned in Co Kerry where he was a well-known member at Dooks Golf Club.

Former secretary manager of the club Declan Mangan, a close friend of the family, said: "Dr Neligan was a much-loved member. His daughter even got married in Cromane church a couple of years ago. He loved the camaraderie and relaxed lifestyle here and used to come to Kerry to unwind." He was also a regular at Portmarnock Golf Club. Dr Neligan had been due to address GPs in Kilkenny yesterday.

Born in 1937 in Booterstown , south Dublin, he went to school in Blackrock College before going to UCD to study medicine. He qualified as a doctor in 1962 and went on to train as a surgeon.

He performed the first coronary artery bypass graft in Ireland in 1975 and Ireland's first heart transplant in 1985, following in the footsteps of the great Dr Christian Barnard in South Africa. He was consultant cardiac surgeon at the Mater Hospital from 1971 until 2009 and at Crumlin children's hospital from 1975 to 2002.

Dr Neligan was also one of the founders of the Blackrock Clinic and in retirement he enjoyed reading, playing golf, and visiting his holiday home in Glenbeigh, Co Kerry. However, he also took on a new career as a commentator, writing a weekly column for the Irish Times health supplement and was not afraid to voice his views on the state of the health service.

He believed his former colleague, HSE chief Dr Brendan Drumm, had developed Stockholm Syndrome -- a condition in which somebody who is kidnapped identifies with their captors over time.

The former surgeon was also critical of the Health Minister, Mary Harney, saying that she wouldn't go on any TV programme where she was up against someone who knew what they were talking about, and that she wouldn't go into a debate unless she had 10 advisers sitting outside.

He was married to Pat, another doctor, and had seven children: Maurice, John, Kate, David, Lisa, Lucy and Sara, who was murdered in 2007. A man, Brian Barron, was jailed for life in 2009 for the murder of the 34-year-old intensive care nurse. Sara met Barron a few months before her death and they had been living together at an apartment in Pearse Street in Dublin. Dr Neligan attended the court with members of his family, who said in a victim impact statement that Sara was a beautiful caring and dignified person and they would cherish their memories of her.

Maurice Neligan's remains will be brought to the Church of the Assumption, Booterstown Avenue, Dublin, arriving at 5pm tomorrow. The funeral will take place on Tuesday after 11.30am mass to the crematorium at Mount Jerome, Harold's Cross, Dublin.

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