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Surgeon who never gave up fight for better health system

Heart surgeon Maurice Neligan was a doctor with a difference. He was a maverick in his views not just on the health service but was also sceptical of healthy living zealots.

In a radio interview recently he admitted he was not a follower of regular health checks, joking that it was safer to keep away from doctors.

He was Ireland's answer to Dr Christian Barnard, carrying out the country's first heart transplants. Yet he could quote with ease from poetry and write with warmth about Puck Fair in Killorglin, Co Kerry and the celebration of a goat.

His former colleague, Freddie Wood, another heart surgeon who worked alongside him in theatre at the Mater Hospital for over 20 years, estimated last night that he carried out between 14,000 to 15,000 open-heart operations during his career, many of them on children.

Many hearts are beating today thanks to his skills. On Thursday he met up with some old classmates from Blackrock College to attend their 55th year reunion. They joked they had better not leave it to 60 years or some of them might not make it.

It was sadly prophetic as he passed away unexpectedly at home in Blackrock yesterday morning. But he had a rich retirement as a media commentator and newspaper columnist, writing some of his most scathing reviews of the health service from his home in Glenbeigh where he was an honorary Kerryman.

After so many years at the coalface of the health service he was well placed and free from official restriction to become an outspoken critic with trenchant views that were not always well received by politicians and officials.

He believed that former Health Service Executive (HSE) chief Brendan Drumm, a one time colleague at Crumlin Hospital, had developed Stockholm syndrome, where somebody who is captured identifies with their captors over time.

On Health Minister Mary Harney, he commented: "She won't go on any TV programme where she is up against someone who knows what they are talking about. She won't go into a debate unless she has 10 advisers sitting outside."

Although he was a founder of the Blackrock Clinic, allowing those with health insurance to avail of its services and reduce waiting lists, he later expressed concern about the growth of private facilities here in the last decade.

He believed they were set up primarily to make money and cherrypick patients with the fastest financial return -- leaving the sickest and those with long term illnesses to fall back on the public system.

Many would say he pulled his punches when it came to his views on his consultant colleagues. He defended their right to treat both public and private patients, saying the profession was subject to too much vilification.

But those who felt he was too harsh in his criticism of people paid to manage the service were reminded of the times he had lived through and how he had worked on behalf of patients while still a salaried consultant.

He recalled carrying out the first heart transplant in Ireland in the mid 1980s.

"We did the first transplant off our own bat . We did not get any help from the Department of Health or anything like it. In fact, not long after we did the first transplant the Mater stopped the programme during the cutbacks of the late 1980s.

"We got around that by doing transplants in the recently opened Blackrock Clinic. Then we sent the message that the only way you could have heart transplant is Ireland is if you were a private patient."

Apart from writing, he loved reading and was a regular at Portmarnock golf club.

He was born in Booterstown in south Dublin in1937 and went to school at nearby Blackrock College.He qualified as a doctor in 1962 and went on to train as a surgeon.

He worked in the Mater Hospital in Dublin and Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children from the early 1970s to 2002, carrying out the first open heart surgery and heart transplant .

Mr Nelligan is survived by his wife Pat, and children Maurice, John, Kate, David, Lisa, Lucy. Mr Nelligan's daughter Sara died in 2007.

His remains will be brought to the Church of the Assumption, Booterstown Avenue, Dublin arriving at 5pm on Monday.The funeral will take place on Tuesday after 11.30am Mass to the Crematorium at Mount Jerome, Harold's Cross.

Irish Independent