The first unit of the Order of Malta in Galway began in 1937 when Dr Conor O’Malley was asked by the Marquis McSweeney, the then chancellor of the Irish Association, to recruit members to form an ambulance corps aimed initially at Connacht only.
In October of that year, Harry Warner asked the fifth year boys in the Bish if any of them were interested in joining a first aid class that Professor O’Malley was organising — weekly lectures at the Central Hospital starting at 8pm. Only six places were available. All of the class were interested so six names were drawn out of a hat. They became known as ‘the schoolboys’. The first lectures were held in the eye and ear department of the hospital, they then moved to the X-ray department and later to a small room which was the ambulance driver’s rest room. These lectures were given by Conor O’Malley while theatre sister Mary Shaughnessy taught them bandaging.
By January 1938, the big class which had started out had dwindled to 13, the six Bish boys, four from CYMS, two scoutmasters, and one ‘lay’ member. These were the founder members. Only 12 sat the exam as one was ill at the time. This was regarded as a good omen by Dr O’Malley who was suspicious of the number 13. All of them passed the exam, as did the sick man who did it a week after the others. The examiners were Mr Michael O’Malley and Dr B Mahon. The first certificates were handed out on May 12 1938, 75 years ago this month.
The recipients were Michael Burke, Fintan Coogan, Maxi Dooley, Michael Healy, Patrick Heneghan, William McCullough, Seán Minahan, Jimmy Lydon, Timothy Murphy, Bernie Raftery, Bernard Shapiro, Maurice Staunton, and Gerry Glynn. The Mayor Joe Costelloe and members of the corporation were present as was newly elected Bishop Michael Browne, for whom this was his first official function.
This unit went into action quickly, attending the sick at Knock and covering GAA matches. The Corpus Christi procession in 1939 was a special occasion for them as they gathered in front of the Nurses’ Home in the hospital where they were blessed by the bishop. It was the first public appearance of an Order of Malta unit in uniform in Ireland. They all felt very self-conscious. In September 1939, they gave much needed assistance to survivors of the Athenia which had been torpedoed off the west coast and they also deserved great praise, as non-medical people, for the way they dealt with the horrific scenes after the KLM crash.
The Knights moved to a room on the top floor of the CYMS in Mill Street for a time. Later they obtained a place in St Paul’s Road, and from there moved to a dilapidated one-storey building in Burke’s Lane. This was the first property they owned and it was made habitable by members and their friends. Their final move was to a premises in Helen Street. Their big problem was raising the cash to buy it, it was mainly raised by John Francis King, Seán Malone, and Seamas Kavanagh, and they got a lot of help from Claude and Billy Toft and their families.
The youthful enthusiasm of the founders has continued down through the years as this organisation has given remarkable service to the city and county, attending thousands of civic and sporting occasions.
Our photograph today shows a group of cadets lined up outside the CYMS (Cumann na n-Ógánach gCaitiliceach ) in 1953. They are, from left, Cyril Doyle, Frankie Colohan, Paddy Fox, ---------- , Ronan Gill, Wally McNamara, Christy Murray, Joe Flynn, Marty Newell, and Mickey Kavanagh. Dr Conor O’Malley can be seen in the distance. Our thanks to Paddy Fox for this photograph.