I know it’s only a rumour, but nevertheless profoundly believed, that male medical students have an easy time with the girls. Many women appear to be under the impression that a doctor would make a ‘lovely husband’, and exert their wiles to make them believe they would make a perfect doctor’s wife.
But if medical students in NUIG back in the 1950s and early 60s believed that they were in for an easy time of it socially they were sadly disillusioned. As part of the American government’s reward for services in World War II, Korea, and VietNam, veterans were offered education, housing and employment benefits. Some of them chose to study medicine in Galway. And boy! Did they shake things up. In a world where the average Galway boy was gouche, awkward and broke, the Americans were cool, supremely confident, and always had spare cash. Some even had their own transport, an unheard of student luxury at the time.
They had all the latest music hits on vinyl. They could jive superbly, swing or rock ‘n roll. Or a mixture of all three: Knocking their girlfriends literally off their feet, rolling them over their backs, to land safely on the ground again, only to be spun round by their finger tips, before being flipped away to the extent of their arms, pulled back and passed to the other hand, and flipped out the other side. Skirts flew into the air. They all had amazing teeth, and looked like film stars. At least two of them said they were! They had their landladies eating out of their hands. Dinners were kept warm until late. Girls loved these grinning men. In turn, they were called ‘chicks’, which was greeted with whoops of laughter and excitement. Silver Strand late at night was famous for its bonfires, swimming, and steamy car windows.
One of the most attractive of them all was a charming young ex-marine called Dan Beirne whose recent demise on Friday January 8 prompted Dr Enda O’Byrne to reminisce on those heady days. There were three Americans with Enda in a pre-med class of 37 in the autumn of 1953; George McDermott from New York, John Hurley from Chicago and Dan Beirne, a country boy, born in a small town in Pennsylvania. “Not only did the Americans have the girls in a heap, but mothers loved them. Dan Beirne was a particular favourite in my home. My mother fed him all through his medical studies. He just became one of the family.”
Everyone knew Dan Beirne fought in Korea*. He frequently wore his green marine jacket over his shoulders, but he never, or rarely, discussed his part in that war. His Galway friends were astonished to hear some of the stories of his army service; particularly his role in one of the fiercest battles of the war, which was acknowledged at his memorial service on January 13. In August 1952 Dan was a lieutenant with the 1st Marine Division who fought a pitched battle with Chinese forces for the possession of ‘Bunker Hill’ in the western section of Korea. A large force of Chinese moved against 250 marines on a strategically important ridge line known as ‘Bunker Hill’ with tanks, mortar and artillery shells. The marines withdrew leaving 55 men behind, under the command of Lt Dan, to hold the position long enough to allow them to get to relative safety. For four and a half hours this small band of brothers, with the minimum of equipment, kept the enemy at bay, until it was considered safe enough to get out as quickly as possible. Casualties on both sides were appalling, including 14 dead marines (which haunted Dan in nightmares and feelings of guilt, for years ). After days of continuous fighting, the marines managed to retake the ‘Hill’ using a feint which convinced the enemy that its main force was coming in a different direction. On re-taking the heights, Lt Dan was given the honour of being the first marine to move back to its original position. For the rest of the war Lt Dan had the highly dangerous job of flying over and beyond the front lines in a low flying spotter plane directing artillery, and close air support missions. He left the marine corps with the rank of captain.
‘Riddled with smiles’
Dan Beirne chose Galway university for his studies because his forebears left Roscommon for the US in the 1860s. His first ‘digs’ was in the Timree Hotel, Nile Lodge, for one year; and then with John and Margaret Moynihan, Devon Park, Salthill, until he graduated in the summer 1958.
On one of his journeys to Ireland, Dan met his future wife Shirley, an attractive air-hostess on the Pan Am flight. While maintaining contact with his Galway friends all his life, Dan enjoyed a brilliant medical career in paediatrics, clinical research, medical business, and general practice. With his wife and four children he finally settled in Florida, opening a private family practice in Indian Harbour Beach. He was appointed to several administrative posts in hospitals, but he remained proudly active all his life in the US Marine Corps Heritage Foundation.
At his memorial service, Major General John Cleland concluded his remarks saying that Dr Beirne “ was a man of principal and solid character. He said what he meant, and after he spoke, there was never any doubt about what he said.
“Dan was an American patriot who served his country with courage in war, served his community well in peacetime, and was a devoted husband and father.”
His Galway friend Dr Enda said: “ To his family he was a shepherd, to his country a hero, to his patients a bedside manner riddled with smiles, to the world a ‘difference maker’. He loved Galway and Galway loved him.”
* Known as the ‘forgotten war’, it was a deadly conflict, from June 1950 - July 1953, between the Republic of Korea (the south ), supported by the United Nations; and the Democratic Peoples of Korea (the north ) supported by both China and Russia. Despite the availability of atomic weapons on both sides, the war was fought on World War II lines: a slow painful slog involving men, tanks, artillery, and fighter jet aircraft.
The result was a political division between the two Koreas, which exist today.
Many Hollywood, film, and TV stars entertained the troops. Danny Kaye, the famous comedian, once performed before an audience of 5,000 soldiers. He came on stage, and looked in silence at this vast crowd of uniforms before him. Taking the microphone he nervously asked: “Who is holding the line, for Gawd’s sake?”
A reader writes that he is going to Montpellier in France for a conference later this year, but he is puzzled why such a French name should be associated with two Galway places. There is a Montpellier Terrace in Sea Road, and a Montpellier in Athenry.
We’re all puzzled. Can any reader enlighten us?