It is time the west had better health care

Week IV

Noel Browne, after a controversial life in politics, retired to a cottage in Baile na hAbhann, west of Galway, with his wife Phyllis.

Noel Browne, after a controversial life in politics, retired to a cottage in Baile na hAbhann, west of Galway, with his wife Phyllis.

Galway politicians have it easy. I have been told that when each and everyone of them kneels down beside their bed at night to say their prayers, they thank God that Galway has two major hospitals. For all their faults, Galway University Hospitals, comprising University Hospital Galway (UHG ), and Merlin Park (MPUH ), provide a comprehensive range of services, from serious injury to cancer care, serving a catchment area in the region of one million people along the west from Donegal to Tipperary North.

Our politicians have seen the wrath of an electorate in other areas when a hospital is downgraded or, worst of all, threatened with closure. These unfortunate politicians are dragged from their homes, forced to sit backwards on asses, and have rotten vegetables thrown at them as they are driven through the streets.

Understandably so. Galway hospitals are designated ‘centres of excellence’ offering skilled, experienced, specialist care, backed up by modern technology, impractical to replicate in smaller towns. The result is that many patients living outside the city, have to endure the misery of long distance travel to Galway for treatment. With good reason people are vigilant in protecting the services they have.

Spent lavishly

The main reason why Galway city was fortunate to get two major hospitals in the middle of the last century was the extraordinary ability of Noel Browne, appointed minister for health on his first day as a member of the Dáil in January 1948.

Browne grew up in Waterford, Derry, Athlone and Ballinrobe. One of eight children, his father Joseph, an RIC sergeant, originally from Loughrea,* contracted TB and died when Noel was nine. The family emigrated to England, where, shortly after, his mother Mary (nee Cooney ) from Hollymount, Co Mayo, and his elder brother Jody also died from the disease. Browne contracted the disease himself, recovered but intermittently suffered from the disease throughout his life. He was sponsored by a wealthy medical family in Dublin to study medicine at Trinity, and entered politics at 33 years of age.

He immediately, and with extraordinary energy, spent lavishly on sanatoria for TB sufferers, and on new hospitals around the country, many of which were built in record time. Browne laid the foundation stone for Merlin Park Hospital the same year he was appointed minister, which was completed six years later in 1954, at a cost of approximately £2,000,000.

He laid the foundation stone for the new Regional Hospital (now UGH ) in 1949. It was completed in 1955, costing £2,500,000.**

Millions raised

Where did all this money come from? Public finances were unable to meet the huge costs involved, so an ingenious form of gambling was established by the Dáil in 1930. It was given the innocent title of the Irish Hospital Sweepstake. The idea was that you bought a ticket, it was placed in a large rotating drum, and was hopefully picked out by one in a line of Irish nurses, all wearing smart uniforms. Each ticket drawn was assigned a horse expected to run in several races, including the Cambridge Handicap, the Derby, and the Grand National.

It was very popular among Irish emigrants in the UK and America where, incidentally, it was illegal in both jurisdictions. The sale of tickets and their return to Ireland were unregulated and under cover. A thriving black market grew up in the sale and the return of tickets. Nevertheless it raised millions for Irish hospitals.***

‘What are you at?’

The cluster of medical buildings on the hill at Newcastle Galway grew from the necessity to separate TB patients from the rest, and to accommadate overcrowding, which is the painful reality in all Irish hospitals yesterday and today. On this site the Galway Workhouse became the Central Hospital, then the new Regional hospital, and today, with many add ons, part of Galway University hospitals.

Trying to cope for an catchment area that includes one million people Galway hospitals, as they are today, will never be able to take the strain. Perhaps the time has come to change policy and create another centre of medical excellence in the western region? There is the practical suggestion of upgrading Merlin Park to include more specialist care facilities, which would ease the burden on UHG. Why is it taking so long?

It deserves to be the major political issue in this election. Noel Browne, in his autobiography Against The Tide offers this jaundiced anecdote: ‘During the laying of the foundation stone in Galway for Merlin Park Hospital (1948 ), a Fianna Fáil deputy, Mark Killilea, a member of the opposition who had been generously helpful to me on a number of occasions, asked me in a guileless way: “What are you at? We used to make great milage out of simply promising hospitals coming up to an election, and then forgetting about them. We would keep the hospitals until the next election. What will you do when you have built all these places?”’ ****

Something more has to be done. We need another Noel Browne.

NOTES: *Joseph later resigned and became an inspector for the ISPCC shortly before his death.

**The Nurses’ Home, which faces UCH today, was built 1933-1938. With its distinctive Art Deco design, it is an extraordinary landmark building. It is probably the most interesting building in Galway architecturally speaking. It urgently needs paint and restoration on its extensive exterior.

*** Despite the wholesome look of nurses in uniform it was in fact a private for-profit lottery company. The main organisers included Richard Duggan, a well known Dublin bookie, Capt. Spenser Freeman, a Welsh born engineer and a former captain in the British army, and Joe McGrath, a well known businessman.

**** Page 114 in paperback edition of Browne’s Against the Tide, published 1986 by Gill and Macmillan.


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