TB epidemic - getting the message across

It is no coincidence that the Regional (now the University College ) Hospital and Merlin Park opened almost simultaneously in the mid 1950s. The Old Central Hospital, which had opened in 1922, became unfit for purpose, mainly due to overcrowding, and the difficulty accommodating long stay tuberculosis patients. Tuberculosis, or TB, was, in the early decades of the 20th century, at epidemic proporations. The same year that the Central Hospital opened, the same year as the foundation of our State, there were 4,614 deaths from TB; 611 were children under 15 years.

Even though the new Regional and Merlin Park hospitals had been at the planning stages for some years, it was the dynamic leadership of the newly appointed Minister for Health, Dr Noel Browne, which drove the buildings forward. Browne was haunted by the spectre of TB. His father, mother, and eldest brother Jody all died of the disease. When he was a medical student at Trinity, he contacted it himself. He was two years in a sanatorium. He suffered bouts of ill health all his life.

Elected to the Dáil in 1948 for Clann na Poblachta, Ireland was fortunate that his party was absorbed into a multi party government, under John A Costello. Browne’s passionate speeches urging a national crusade to eradicate TB made him an obvious choice to lead the campaign. He was given access to the Irish Sweepstakes’ fund. Immediately he planned sanatoria in Dublin, Waterford (where he was born ), Cork, and at Merlin Park.

Even though plans for the completion of the Regional Hospital were ready since 1941, difficulties getting matierals during the war, and arguments over its design, meant the hospital was still being debated when Browne came along. Outstanding matters were soon sorted. Building got under way. The first patients were admitted to the paediatric section, which had accommodation for 50 infants and children, in mid 1955.

Seamas Ó Beirne

In the years before streptomycin and other anti-tubercular drugs, there was little that could be done for TB sufferers, but rest, good food, and clean fresh air, which hopefully the sanatoria would provide. The disease was particularly feared because it often struck several members of one family. It was contagious. If TB was suspected in a family, that family was shunned by the community. Country cottages were dark and airless, often with earthen floors. All of which, doctors at the time believed, were ideal conditions for the TB bacillus to thrive.

One brilliant young Galway doctor, Seamas Ó Beirne, realised that educating families on the merits of hygiene and sanitation would help keep TB at bay. Born on Tawin Island, Galway Bay, in 1881, Seamas was a native Irish speaker, and active from an early age in the Gaelic League.* Qualifying as a doctor from UCG, he was the Dispensary doctor at Clonbur/Leenane. Alarmed at the spread of TB in the Connemara area, he prepared and presented a series of lectures, illustrated by lantern slides, at local national schools. These were a great success and attracted large crowds. Padraig Pearse attended one of his lectures at Rosmuc, and was impressed. Through his newspaper An Chlaidheamh Soluis, he raised money, allowing ÓBeirne to expand his mission.

He spent days visiting homes, pointing out defects, and advising on improvements. He paid particular attention to house construction. He urged communities to fight this together. In many cases he helped personally in putting in chimneys, concrete floors, and windows which opened. If Seamas believed that the TB bacillus was somehow lodged in the house, and TB was a factor in successive generations of that family, he had the house burnt down. The family was resettled.

Lady Aberdeen

Seamas Ó Beirne’s pioneerring work was taken up by the remarkable Lady Ishbel Aberdeen. Her husband was the last and longest serving Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He was a well liked man who totally believed in Home Rule!

Lady Aberdeen set up a Woman’s National Health Association aimed at educating householders to keep healthy and well. It was a great success. Throughout the western seaboard she and her helpers would arrive in a caravan, laden with interesting diagrams, literature for distribution, pictures and charts. She would set up an exhibit in a school. Slides from a ‘magic lantern’ would delight everyone. Cookery demonstrations were given to adults and children. There were prizes and games, but as with Seamas Ó Beirne, a serious message on the prevention of TB, the importance to isolate affected patients, and to support the families, was put across.

In 1945 the Tuberculosis (Establishment of Sanatoria ) Act was passed which enabled government to acquire compulsorily any property suitable for the construction of a santorium. But there was no question of compulsion being necessary in the acquisition of the 80 acres estate at Merlin Park, the home for the respected Anglo Irish family, the Waithmans. The story is told that when Captain Wyndham Waithman and his wife Eileen, were told that their house and estate were ideal for a sanatorium, the captain wept. He and his wife loved their house and lands dearly. But he agreed immediately. He was well aware of the ravages caused by TB. He is believed to have remarked: ‘that if one life was saved then it was a good thing.’**

There were no administrative delays in proceeding with the Merlin Park project. It was funded by a grant of £1,955, 407 from the Sweepsteakes fund. It opened in 1953.

The message had got across to the public. The battle to end the epidemic of TB was well underway.

Next week: The Knights to the rescue!

NOTES: *He established a small Gaelic college at Tawin (the building still stands, made into a delightful home by Tom and Rebecca Bartlett ), where teachers could learn how to teach Irish during the summer holidays. Eamon de Valera learned Irish there, attracted, no doubt, by the beautiful young teacher Sinéad NI Fhlannagáin, whom he later married. Roger Casement was a frequent visitor.

**Capt and Mrs Waithman moved to Murrough House. Waithman’s mother was Arabella Persse, a favourite sister of Lady Gregory, beside whom she is buried at the New Cemetary.

Sources: Dictionary of Irish Biography, Galway: A Medico Social History, by James P Murray, published by Kenny’s 1992, and A Holiday in Connemara by Stephen Gwynn, published 1920s?


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