My Dad, the doctor

Throughout my whole life, from my earliest childhood, people would make the comment to me that my father was ‘a great man’. This was a little disconcerting at first. When I would be introduced to people – especially those in residence around the village of Borris-in-Ossory, Co. Laois, they would very often give me a visual inspection – eyeing me up and down – and then deliver the line: ‘”Well, your father was a great man”.

My mother was much more cynical. She would say: “They probably owed him money.” And they probably did. Those were the days when people kept ‘books’, and when you went into the grocery store or the ‘doctor’s’ (surgery) you had your groceries or treatment or medicine recorded in a ledger, and then, when the end of the month came, you were sent an invoice.

And that was often where it ended – at least for doctors.

My Dad died on August 6, 1979, but in truth, he is still here with me – looking over my shoulder at what I am writing, encouraging, praising, smiling. His influence on me has been profound and lasting.

He was a man who was born in a different era and time, and he graduated from UCD in the 1930s. He was old enough to have been my grandfather when I was born, but he never let it stop him from participating in my childhood events.

He taught me to swim, to ride horses and bikes, maths (unsuccessfully), and the meaning of love and family. He was, without doubt, the most loving person I have ever known, the greatest example ever given me.

He had TB in the 30s and was a Blueshirt. I asked him about this and why, and he told me it was to prevent the IRA from breaking up political meetings. He proudly wore the shirt of blue and, like his brothers, often used fists and the blackthorn stick against revolvers and knives.

When he couldn’t live on the income provided to a doctor here (in Templemore) he moved to England and worked in a hospital. He was universally known as ‘Paddy’ to all staff. When he mentioned this to a colleague, the colleague reminded him that war had broken out, and if he joined the army, everyone would have to call him ‘Dr Paddy’ or face a court-martial.

This was at the time of the ‘phoney’ war when everyone hoped and assumed that no war would actually happen. There were no air raids, and the only activity taking place in London was in the dark alleyways and sand-bagged doors where lovers took the opportunity to engage in that activity that street-lights discouraged.

He joined the army, and, of course, the war took off when he did. He was sent to Africa to sew on the big toes of reluctant soldiers, and to carry out public health duties as best he could. He became an excellent surgeon with this training.

His colleagues realised he was very ill when he was injured with shrapnel, and he was then posted to a refugee ship on the Italian coast. He did his obstetrics training there, shall we say, on raped women and children being brought back behind the Allied lines in these ships.

Years later, he would express his horror at the Nazis and their atrocities because he had such a great respect for German soldiers, who rarely indulged in rape, and were generally shot if they did. He was getting sicker and sicker however, and was eventually sent to South Africa to a sanitorium to die or recover.

He did the latter. He returned to Ireland in the late 40s with not just a car, but a ration book which could get him petrol. Many had cars, no-one had any petrol. That led to a romantic liaison with my mother and a marriage late in life.

An ex-British army officer and a former Blueshirt had only two chances of getting a job as a doctor in Ireland at that time, where every County Council was dominated by Fianna Fail. Slim and none. He was told at one interview that he might as well ‘go Protestant’ as he was already as high on the Blacklist as it was possible to go.

He went for every job advertised. He even went for a job on the Aran Islands, and they turned him down for an English-only speaker. But my mother wasn’t for leaving Ireland, so he had to keep trying.

Eventually, he got locums here and there in the very poorest of parishes. It only arose when every single other option had been tried.

He once went for a job in his home parish, but they delayed the appointment for six months until the Fianna Fail nephew of the Bishop of Ossory had graduated. And then, well, you know the rest.

Finally, because they couldn’t get a doctor for Borris-in-Ossory, they gave him a locum. A locum that dragged on year after year without a permanent appointment. Eventually nine years went by. Still no appointment as they advertised the position every year. No Fianna Failer wanted it.

Oliver J. Flanagan is a figure of fun now, but at the time he caused ructions – forcing the Council to make my Dad permanent. We had to rent the house they ‘gave’ us, but it was a permanent job after almost 15 years of looking. (When my Dad retired, the Council sent us a note to that effect. And also to note that we had ‘six months to quit the premises or face forcible eviction’.) Then they sold our house to the new doctor.

I have so many good memories of my Dad. The day we went to visit two farmers in their 40s who kept their elderly mother on cushions and blankets on the flagged kitchen floor. “You won’t see them,” he said. “They’ll be hiding up the fields because they owe us money.”

He was a cripple himself at this stage, struggling with arthritis. But we managed to get the woman upstairs and into a (very comfortable) bed. Then he went downstairs and got all the blankets, cushions, dog hair and rubbish in that corner and dragged it outside to the yard. Where he poured some petrol on it and set it on fire.

That was enough to produce the sons and some heated comments were exchanged. The argument ended when my Dad said: “I won’t be charging you for the petrol. That was a public health matter. Now it’s done there’s no need for the Guards.”

That was only one call of many where he made a difference. The difference he made in my life goes way beyond that – he was, and is, my inspiration, my example, my direction, my hero, my father.

He was a reader of Irish Medical Times too and introduced me to the paper. I’d like to think he still takes an interest in it, wherever he is.

No, I know he does.

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