The knights ride to the rescue

I have written before about the woeful lack of ambulances that serviced the old Central Hospital, especially in the 1930s. That shortage became acute during the war. Because of the severe rationing of petrol, and the unavailability of spare parts, for a long period only two ambulances were available for the whole county. As they were frequently on the road simultaneously there was no reserve vehicle to answer any emergency.

That crisis was relieved somewhat by the founding of the Knights of Malta Ambulance Corps. The Galway unit was the first to be established in Ireland. It was set up by Professor Conor O’Malley in October 1937, and the following year the unit had passed all its medical training. It was now ready to be fitted with its distinctive grey uniform, peaked cap or beret, with its white cross against a red shield badge. Its first public appearance was the Corpus Christi procession in 1939. It was the first time in Ireland a unit of Knights of Malta appeared, and it was regarded with great curiousity. Rather shyly the young volunteers lined up outside the Nurses’ Home, before marching through the town. But they were quickly put to good use attending the sick at Knock and covering GAA matches. During the war, until the Irish Red Cross was formed, it manned first-aid stations at the university and Woodquay. It provided a transport service for the sick, and provided home nursing. It transported TB patients out of the Central Hospital to a temporary sanatorium at Woodlands; and later from there to Merlin Park when that hospital opened a few years later.*

Only months following its first appearance outside the Nurses’ Home, it was to provide sterling service to the victims of The Athenia, torpedoed off the west coast on the first day of the war (September 3 1939 ); and later helping the victims of the Trans-Canada air disaster on August 15 1949, and the crash of the KLM airliner Hogo de Groot, off the Galway coast August 14 1958. Within months of the war starting there were 25 units throughout Ireland.

Proud heritage

The Knights of Malta would have become a complete anachronism, and written out of history, if it had not rediscovered its original roots. It is the oldest surviving chivalric order, tracing its foundation to the early 10th century Jersulem, where the Order was established to protect pilgrims, and to provide shelter and care for the sick. Its hospital was dedicated to St John the Baptist. Then it became embroiled in the Crusader wars. As the wars and invasions progressed the knights began to provide escorts for pilgrims to the Holy Land, but this move from simple carers to active protectors was the start of the order’s evolution into a military body. It took part in the most fearsome sieges and battles of the time, until finally, 500 years after its foundation, its defeat at Malta proved to be the turning point in the conflict between Islam and Christendom. Its descendants came to Rome where for centuries the knights hovered between poverty and indifference. But it proudly clung to its historical heritage.

Today the Order is part of an international organisation working in more than 120 countries with a clear mission to ‘serve the sick and the poor.’ It was probably as a result of the chaotic medical situation that was emerging in Galway in the 1930s, the overcrowding in the Central Hospital, the epidemic of tuberculosis, the difficulties in getting agreement on the plans for the new regional hospital that the Marquis McSweeney, the then chancellor of the Irish Association of the Order,** asked Professor O’Malley to form an ambulance corps to help relieve the situation.

A formidable pair

I have touched on Conor O’Malley before, mainly in connection with his wife Sally and her heroic struggle for equal pay with male doctors (Diary January 12 ). They both came from the Maam Valley in Connemara and were a formidable pair in the medical life of Galway. From 1922 Conor worked as ear, nose, and throat surgeon and ophthalmologist at both the Central Hospital and St Bride’s (private ), and also as a radiologist; while Sally was the principal anaesthetist at the Central and Regional hospitals. Both were lecturers in their subjects at UCG.

Despite his arduous medical duties, Conor was not a man bowed and furrowed by responsibility. He relished his boyhood days in Kilmilkin, Maam, surrounded by a large family and close-knit cousins and relations. He was a first class snipe shot, and had a passion for fishing, especially for salmon.*** He was a keen sportsman during his studies at UCG and London, a talented GAA footballer and boxer. He regularly spent holidays in India sharing his technique at cataract surgery, all of which he did free of charge. He started a tradition of Galway surgeons who generously share their skills with Third World communities today.

Conor and his wife Sal have long passed away, but they had two sons, both of whom became leading ophthalmologists in the USA; and three daughters who all resided variously at the Crescent, Lenaboy Park and Eagle Lodge, Barna.

Next week: A series on the sinking of The Athenia, the accommodation of 430 survivors in Galway, the medical and humane response. Even the ranting of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels that it was all an American plot, did not phase Galway one bit. We sailed through it all magnificently.


* The first unit of the Order of Malta included Michael Burke, Fintan Coogan, Maxi Dooley, Michael Healy, Patrick Heneghan, William McCullough, Seán Minahan, Jimmy Lydon, Tim Murphy, Bernie Raftery, Bernard Shapiro, Maurice Staunton and Gerry Glynn. They were instructed in first aid in the X-ray department at the Central Hospital, by Conor O’Malley and Dr WJ McHugh. Drs Sal O’Malley and Mai Costello and nurse Mary O’Shaughnessy, instructed a girls unit, who gained medical experience in the wards of the Central Hospital. Further units were established in Mervue, Tuam, and Ballinasloe.

**The Marquis McSweeney was an interesting character. Sir Anthony Rhodes (author of The Power of Rome in the 20th century ), gives a highly coloured account of the marquis, who had obtained a high post in the Vatican during World War I.

‘It was subsequently discovered that he was not a nobleman, but an Irish butcher’s son who had married the Brazilian heiress, Cavaleranti de Albuguerque. He became suspect to the British embassy because, having divorced the Brazilian lady, he married Her Highness Countess Anna Von Schlitz, a relative of the Kaiser.’

The English were convinced that the Marquis McSweeney was a German spy, while protected by his official status at the Vatican.

*** In 1976 he wrote and published With a Fishing Rod In Ireland.

Sources: Galway: A Medico Social History, by James P Murray, Google, and Tom Kenny’s Old Galway, May 2 2013


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