Wednesday 17 October 2018

Pins agus needles: I wasn't very gifted at Irish

Finding the correct word as Gaeilge is as much of a challenge for Maurice Gueret as finding needles in a parlour maid.

Dr Maurice Gueret.
Dr Maurice Gueret.

Maurice Gueret

Watching the recent TG4 documentary series Ar Intinn Eile confirmed to me what teachers knew from a very early age: I wasn't very gifted at Irish.

A wonderful lady called Brid taught me early on, and I know it wasn't her fault, as she also taught my daughter from the age of four to seven, and mademoiselle has an excellent grasp of the teanga.

Other muinteoirs tried to encourage me by changing my name into Irish, but when they tried to alter the surname, I wasn't having any of it. Muiris Mac An Gearbox  just didn't cut it.

I'm old enough now to have forgotten individual Leaving Certificate results, but my fading recollection is that I scraped a D in higher level. If you missed this excellent three-part TG4 series (with subtitles) on how we treated mental illness in Irish patients through the centuries, it's certain to be shown again.

I knew that the word intinn meant mind, but I was unaware that the word for brain was the very similar inchinn. I must have skipped the anatomy page in my Nua-litriu phrase book. Mental strain is tuirse intinne, which literally translates as a kind of tiredness of the mind. I'm not entirely gan focal, so I knew what an ospideal was, but I had no idea that a mental hospital is an ospideal meabhairghalair or that a mental illness is a galar meabhrach.

I have put in a special request to Santa Claus for a good focloir this Christmas, and promise next year to be a buachaill maith and bring you some more leigheas as Gaeilge here in the new year.


The good news, with about 60 days of Aldi and Lidl to Christmas, is that you now have a riposte to those do-gooders who wag fingers at you for wagging the salt cellar. A study in the influential New England Journal of Medicine suggests that consuming too little salt in your diet can expose you a higher risk of death from a cardiovascular event.

The study involved the collection of early morning urine samples from 100,000 people, in 17 countries, who had fasted overnight. I mustn't have heard the bell when the men in white coats called on me, but what they found was that patients with both high and low salt levels in their urine seemed to be incurring more risk. So how much are you allowed? Well the recommended maximum sodium intake varies between one-and-a-half grams and two-and-a-half grams a day.

If you have kidney disease, diabetes or high blood pressure, you need tailored advice on reducing salt intake from your own doctor. Less than a teaspoon a day will see most healthy adults right, but the complicating factor is that salt is present in so many processed foods already. If you can taste salt in your meal, there's a very good chance that there is too much.


It's not every week that Irish doctors get obituaries in the British Medical Journal , but I saw one in August for a Doctor JP Murphy, who graduated from University College Cork during the last war and moved to Plymouth, where he studied anaesthesia and treated maritime and battlefield casualties. He later moved to the West Midlands and set up one of the first intensive care units in the United Kingdom at Corbett Hospital near Birmingham.

What particularly caught my eye in this obituary was the line that said he did medicine against the wishes of his mother. She wanted him to be a Carmelite priest! This was a conundrum for many an Irish family. I remember it being said some years ago that the traditional Irish mammy would try and send her know-all son to medical school, her shy son into religious life, and her wayward one into the bank. Look where that reasoning got us!


A few malapropisms have come to me in recent weeks. An Athlone reader overheard two Dublin women who were discussing the virility or otherwise of their husbands. One said they had a very satisfactory sex life but the other said "my fella's useless - he's been impudent this five years". And Jimmy wrote to tell me that he has a work colleague whose friend was admitted to the expensive care unit. You can always write to me at PO Box 5049, Dublin 6W, or email


I was writing recently about what I thought were the very first X-rays ever taken in Ireland, and a nurse from Naas who trained in Dr Steevens Hospital over 40 years ago kindly wrote to tell me a tale that throws new light on the subject. She still has her old lecture notes from the hospital and she tells me that within just four months of Roentgen's discovery of X-rays, the technique was used by a surgeon at Dr Steevens, Mr Richard Bolton McCausland.

Her notes recall that they were not called X-rays, but were known as shadow graphs. Apparently, the new technology was used to locate the position of a needle in the hand of a parlour maid. Mr McCausland published his findings in the now defunct Dublin Journal of Medical Science in May 1896.

She tells me the pictures were taken by a Professor Barrett at the Royal College of Science, which I believe is the fancy building now used as government headquarters and the location of the Taoiseach's office on Merrion Street. Using the pictures, Mr McCausland knew exactly where to operate on the parlour maid's little finger. He operated carefully using a 'blunt knife'.

On placing his finger into the wound, he found the needle in the precise spot shown on the shadow graph. I am very grateful indeed for this information. It proves that nurses are much better listeners and take much better notes at their lectures than doctors.

Dr Maurice Gueret is editor of the Irish Medical Directory

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