Thursday, 12 February 2009

Rebel in the Soul

“MacBride refuses to stand behind him
McQuaid has got him in a vice
The country turns its back upon him
No choice left but to resign…”

Both people mentioned in the above verse will be a mystery to many, but those of a certain age will know the song deals with one of the most enigmatic men to ever grace Irish politics – Dr. Noel Browne.
No matter what ones views on him, it can hardly be argued but that he changed Ireland and for the better.
Sixty years ago the country was in the grip of Tuberculosis, also known as Consumption. Noel Browne set out to rid Ireland of the dreaded disease and, amazingly, he succeeded. Not single-handedly, of course, but he was the engine that drove a crusade.
As many who knew him would testify, he could be a difficult man at the best of times. Then again, his boyhood was beyond Dickensian.
His father died from the disease when Browne was seven. Homeless and near destitution, his mother took the family to England where she soon after expired. His account of kissing her damp forehead goodbye would wrench tears from a stone. His elder brother - crippled from birth by the curse - along with two of his sisters would die from it, while Browne himself suffered recurring attacks through much of his life.
Yet there is a fairy-tale element to this tale. Through sheer good fortune and his immigrant sister’s efforts he was enrolled gratis in St. Anthony’s, an exclusive Catholic prep school. He then won a scholarship to Beaumont, a Jesuit public school, where he met Neville Chance whose wealthy family more or less adopted him and paid his way through Trinity College where he resolved to become a doctor.
Although he would later specialize in psychiatry, he devoted his early medical years to eradicating Tuberculosis. He and his colleagues did Trojan work in various hospitals in the UK and Ireland, but he eventually realized that the magnitude of the problem called for a political solution.
He joined the nascent Clann na Poblachta party led by Sean MacBride (talk about a fascinating, controversial and multi-faceted character). In the general election of 1948, Dr. Browne was elected on a personal platform of eradicating TB. On his first day in Dail Eireann he was chosen as Minister for Health in the coalition government that had unseated Eamonn DeValera’s Fianna Fail party.
The new government was riven by ideological differences. Led by Fine Gael’s John A. Costello, it spanned the spectrum from right to left - while to add fat to the fire the Minister for External Affairs, MacBride, had once been chief of staff of the IRA.
Nonetheless, Browne hit the ground running. He recognized that the only way to halt and ultimately defeat the disease was to isolate those suffering from it. To that end, he converted hospitals and commissioned new facilities, sending all patients - regardless of means - to sanitoria whose very names can still evoke unease amongst those who remember them: Ardkeen, Cherry Orchard, Portiuncula.
He had a number of things on his side: much money from Joe McGrath’s Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes Fund, the recent discovery of the drug, Streptomycin, and the support of a broad swathe of people whose families had been oppressed by the disease.
Tuberculosis was not eradicated overnight but Browne and the many who combated it in the 1940’s and 50’s stopped it dead in its tracks, so much so that the dreaded “san,” as it was known, has slipped off into its own chapter in Irish history along with diphtheria and scarlet fever wards .
And what of Browne? We’ll need another column to deal with his complex story but here’s a clue for next week.

“Did you think you were the Saviour
When the sick blessed your name
You may have defeated your enemy
But you made new ones
And they had patience and they were waiting…”

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