It is hard to imagine today the scourge of tuberculosis (TB ) that was at epidemic proportions throughout Ireland from the mid 1850s right up to the 1960s. Not only did it kill indiscriminately, but families whose members may have contacted the disease were shunned and isolated by their communities. It was a serious social and medical catastrophe. In the 1940s the challenge to effectively tackle this widespread disease was dramatically helped by not only an understanding as to how the disease could be curtailed, but also by the discovery of new drugs notably streptomycin and penicillin. Even so up to the early 1950s there were still approximately 7,000 new cases every year. It was a long battle.
During the 1930s and 1940s extra beds, even patients on mattresses on the floor between beds, were a common feature in Galway’s Central hospital. If we complain about patients on trollies today, the shortage of hospital beds, the long queues at A and E, it appears this is an eternal problem. But, if we can imagine the problem mixed with TB patients, especially those with bone and joint tuberculosis, the situation becomes enormously serious.
Ireland was fortunate that a young, energetic and intelligent man became minister for health at that crucial time. Coming from a family blighted by the disease, Noel Browne wasted no time. He introduced a nation-wide free screening for TB sufferers, vaccinations for all children, a public advisory service, and vigorously began a construction programme to build new hospitals and sanatoria.*
Distracted by nurses
The first choice in Galway for a sanatorium was the estate of Lieut Col Pierce Joyce at Mervue House,** where Tara Hall stands today. The 80 acre site was considered ideal, but an unholy row broke out when the Provincial of the Order of Redemptorists, Fr Kerr, objected. He believed that the young men studying for the priesthood in the near-by Redemptorists’ Seminary, would be distracted by the introduction of young, female nurses into area.
The government responded that the sensitivities of the student priests could be ameliorated if the seminary surrounded itself with a high wall. The students would not be able to see the nurses. But that would not do. The half-brother of Éamon de Valera was a Redemptorist priest in Dublin and his influence was brought to bear. The plan to build in Mervue was scrapped.
The next choice was the Waithman estate at Merlin Park. It was too large for the purposes, but it was close to the city and amenities, and would have to do.
Mrs Waithman, formerly Eileen O’Driscoll from Prospect Hill, and known to all as Drico, first came to Merlin Park House as a 19 years-old governess to the captain’s son Stan. Captain Wyndham Waithman had first married Winifred Lindsey, but after her untimely death he married Drico who had seamlessly become a close family friend to all the Waithmans.
In contrast to the earlier inhabitants of Merlin Park, Drico and the captain lived a gentle lifestyle in that vast house, and expansive parkland. The captain and Drico enlarged the forest, worked the marble quarry, and he applied his skills as a keen inventor in his workshop. They took an active role in several charities, especially the Society for the Blind.
During World War II, because Merlin Park House was on a height with commanding views of Galway Bay, the Waithmans were invited to keep a look out for enemy ships. Together with two colleagues, professors Liam Ó Briain and Tom Dillon, they searched the horizon. I can imagine the fun they had. The captain and Drico learned Morse code, and listened out for signals coming from the sea.
They were very productive gardeners, cultivating soft fruits and apples which became the target of local schoolboys who sneaked into the orchards only to set off alarms the captain had ingeniously placed about the trees.
Drico described to Jim Fahy on his RTE radio programme ‘Looking West’ how one day four men called to the house. ‘They were shown in. My husband who had been out in his workshop came in and very politely said: “Good afternoon gentlemen, what can I do for you?” Little did he know what they were going to do for him.’
It quickly became clear what the visit was all about. They explained they were looking for a site for a sanitorium and that Merlin Park could be ideal. The government could take possession of the property by compulsory means if necessary.
The captain and Drico were in a state of shock. The men, however, were very polite. They were fully aware the attachment the captain had to his home. They were as sensitive as they could be. Nevertheless, the matter was urgent. After looking around the house, and the grounds, the men said that a decision would be made in a few weeks. The Waithmans would be informed by letter.
When the the letter finally came, it was left on the dining room table. They decided not to open it until after breakfast. Drico told Jim Fahey that there was no need for a compulsory purchase order for Merlin Park. When the captain opened the letter he was in tears. He told Drico they had to leave, but added that if by making Merlin Park into a sanitorium, and if it saved one life, then it was worth the sacrifice.
Next week: The move to Murrough House.
NOTES: It is remarkable that Browne (1915 - 1997 ) achieved all he did as he was only minister for health for four years 1948 - 1951. He was however a TD and senator for 33 years, for five different parties, two of which he co-founded . These were Clann na Poblachta (resigned ), Fianna Fáil (expelled ), National Progressive Democrats (co-founder ), Labour Party (resigned ) and the Socialist Labour Party (co-founder ). He was forced to resign his ministry when he tried to introduce the unwelcomed ‘Mother and Child Scheme’. He lost the support of his political and medical colleagues when the Catholic Church denounced his ideas as ‘an expansion of socialised medicine’.
** Joyce was an officer of the Connaught Rangers, and commanding officer of the British Mission to the Arabs during World War I. Col TE Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’ ) served under him.
I am leaning on Norbert Sheerin’s excellent A Georgian Memory - A Brief History of Merlin Park House, published 2018, and Galway: A Medico Social History by James P Murray, published 1992.