Séamus Ó Beirn made his difference as a doctor

Week II

 Air-tight rural homes often kept the tuberculosis bacilli alive for generations.

Air-tight rural homes often kept the tuberculosis bacilli alive for generations.

The praise lavished on Dr Séamus Ó Beirn by the Tuam Herald (February 22 1908 ), for his lectures and lantern slides on the scourge of tuberculosis in Connemara, was justified. The journalist said he is ‘a plain dispensary doctor whose soul is aflame with Christian charity, and the love of his native tongue’.

In the early years of the last century the Irish language was part of the Nationalists’ ambition for Ireland and Ó Beirn was very much part of that persuasion. Later in life he was one of the co-founders of the Irish language theatre in Galway An Taibhdhearc. Yet he really made his difference as a doctor. In 1906 he started his anti-tuberculosis and hygiene campaign, in the Cois Fhearraige and South Connemara areas, all through Irish which was the language of the people at the time. His campaign was a success. The Tuberculosis Act was passed two years later, allowing for special TB officers to be appointed. His brother Bartley was the first one in Co Galway. Ó Beirn, however, continued his crusade with growing support and bigger audiences.

He was born on Tawin island, just across the bay from Galway city, a native Irish speaker, and an early supporter of Conrad Na Gaeilge, which had championed a famous dispute over the teaching of Irish at Tawin national school, but that is a story for another day. Ó Beirn’s early schooling was followed by the Jesuits in Galway, and he qualified in medicine and public health at Galway’s Queen’s College in 1905. His first appointment as a doctor was in Spiddal.

As a student he was aware of the ludicrous situation of appointing doctors to Gaeltacht areas with no knowledge of Irish. He had already enjoyed acting and writing plays for the college’s drama society and with the idea of focusing public attention on the problem, and having a bit of fun, he wrote a bilingual two-act play, An Dochtúir, about an English-speaking doctor appointed to an Irish-speaking parish. The play was presented by no less than the Tawin Village Company of Players, which Ó Beirn had assembled for the occasion. He first presented his play at the Oireachtas of 1904 in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin. It was such a success it was presented for a second night. From there to the Town Hall Galway where it was the talk of the town for is ingenuity and humour.

Hopeless bewilderment

It is a very simple play and the enjoyment obviously relied on the talent of its cast, which by all accounts lived up to expectations. The hopeless bewilderment of the poor befogged doctor as one patient after another came in and tried to relate their illnesses was obviously the high point, but the serious side of the situation was not lost on the audience.

In the second act there is the snobbery of the O’Clunain family who were encouraging their convent educated daughter to marry the doctor. Mrs O’Clunain instructs their servant how to address the doctor, in grand English tones. But when the daughter is introduced to the doctor, she comes across as too Irish to please her mother. In the end the daughter is encouraged to entertain the doctor, and to show-off their sophistication, by singing a French song, but instead she belts out the Spailpín Fánach.

The Tuam Herald, which has always offered helpful criticism and encouragement to local drama, as it still does to day, perhaps surpassed itself on this occasion proclaiming that ‘from start to finish the audience was choked with laughter, blinded with tears, and every now and again was heard the long drawn out sigh that betrayed the splitting side.’

Visiting homes

But perhaps it was the untimely death of Ó Beirn’s dearly loved brother, Michael, aged 25 years, who died of TB following ‘a bad wetting during his travels’, that drove him on to even harder work. Padraic Pearse, who, at this time, was staying for long periods at his cottage at Rosmuc, was impressed by Ó Beirn’s sense of urgency and the imaginative presentation of his lectures. Through an appeal in Pearse’s paper An Claidheamh Soluis he organised a subscription to pay a substitute dispensary doctor at Clonbur, thus freeing Ó Beirn to conduct a far-reaching lecture tour into the desperately impoverished Gaeltacht districts. He spent days visiting homes to advise on practical improvements; often physically assisting householders to install concrete floors, chimneys, windows that opened, and outhouses.

Others would follow ÓBeirn’s example, notably Lady Aberdeen, but Ó Beirn was regarded as the apostle of anti-tuberculosis work and public health in the west of Ireland.

Next week: A row over the teaching of English at Tawin NS that won the support of Sir Roger Casement, Douglas Hyde, Padraic Pearse and others, which I will try to tell next week.

NOTES: The mention of the O’Malley’s hedge schools at Kilmilcin, Maam Valley, last week prompted Paddy Cunningham of Dangan Nurseries, to tell me that from those beginnings a total of 64 O’Malley descendants became doctors, and counting!

Paddy’s mother Else and her sister Ulla Nevander, were Finnish, coming to Ireland having participated in the so called ‘Winter War’ when the Soviet Union invaded Finland 1939, and were fiercely resisted. Else married Paddy Cunningham Sr. and eventually started the nursery; Ulla married Jack O’Malley of Maam, whose children became doctors. Séamus Ó Beirn married Sabina O’Malley of Kilmilcin. They had 10 children, three of whom became doctors.

I am indebted this week for an essay Fíoradh na Físe Gaelaí? by Nollaig Mac Congáil, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society (vol 62 2010 ), and ‘Séamus Ó Beirn’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, by William White.


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