Rewind - Dr. Noel Browne

By Sean Heffernan

This week we are hopping on the 18 bus and at stop 2815 Drimnagh Road-Slievebloom Road we shall be taking the bus to stop 903 Chelmsford Road-Chelmsford Avenue in Rathgar.

We are now walking in the heart of the Dublin South-East constituency, an electoral area that once counted this week’s person of interest, Noel Browne, as their local TD.


The future Minister for Health was born in Waterford in 1915 and was the fifth of eight children his mother Theresa and father Joseph were to rear.

But he was not to have much memories of a city that was once home to a sizeable Viking settlement as the family uprooted themselves to the other end of the island when his father got a job in a shirt factory in Derry.

At the age of five he was to find himself exploring the midlands when a new job in Athlone saw the Browne’s moving house once more.

As a teenager he was spending a lot of time over 100 kilometres away in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo where he attended the Christian Brothers School there.

At this time it is reckoned that less than 20 per cent of the kids who went to Primary School went on to study at second level, with the high cost of second level education being a major barrier, and most 12-year-olds found themselves quitting education to take jobs working  as messenger boys, sewing garments in factories, and the like.

However, this country would later owe a major debt of gratitude to his parents for the sacrifices they made to pay the fees that enabled their son to progress in his studies.

Like so many families in Ireland at the time, the scourge of tuberculosis was to rip the Browne’s apart as his father and sister were cruelly taken away from him by the disease and even more tragically his mother was to suffer the same fate just four years later at the young age of 42.

The eldest child in the family, Eileen, was living and working in England at the time, and she managed to get her teenage sibling a scholarship in a Jesuit School in Eastbourne on the Essex coast.

It was here that a chance meeting would steer his life along a wholly unexpected path that would open doors most could only dream of going through.

While studying in England, Noel befriended a member of the wealthy Chase family whose father was a prominent doctor in Dublin and when he was made aware of the harrowing life story of his son’s classmate he offered to pay for the bright young student Noel Browne to study medicine in Trinity College.

Upon graduating from this venerable Dublin institution he worked at hospitals in Ireland and England helping people who had succumbed to TB, as he tried to understand why people were getting such an infection.

After people had remarked to him that unless there was the political will to change things people would continue to die in their thousands every year from water-borne illnesses, he decided to put himself forward in the 1948 General Election.

He ran for the Clann na Poblachta party and was successful in his quest taking the third and final seat in the Dublin South East constituency.

With neither Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael securing an outright majority, a Coalition government needed to be formed and it was Fine Gael who won the day to lead the formation. As part of the horse-trading Browne was made Minister for Health.

It is no accident that so many of the countries elderly population still speak in glowing terms about the former Government Minister, such was the legacy he has left.

He saw to it that buildings and other non-essential assets owned by the Government were sold and the money was then used to build extra water treatment facilities and build specialised TB units in hospitals.

His actions led to an illness that at one stage claimed up to 10,000 lives a year in this country become all but negligible.

However, the issue he is most remembered for is his titanic tussle with the Catholic Church hierarchy – particularly the all-powerful Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid and the conservative members of the church for what was known as the “Mother and child scheme”.

Following on from the recent inauguration of the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, it was planned that the state would fund free healthcare for all children up to the age of 15 in Ireland.

This was opposed by the Irish Medical Organisation who feared their members were set to lose a lot of income as they reasoned the payments from the State would fix the amount they would receive for each patient they saw, while they could get a higher rate if they were able to charge a fee while remaining a sole private practice.

But a far bigger opponent was the all-seeing, all-powerful Catholic Church hierarchy who worried that this would lead to the State having a bigger say and stake in the control of health services in the state, which then was largely operated and controlled by religious institutions.

Archbishop John Charles McQuaid also claimed it was also the first step towards implementing socialism in this country.

Sadly Browne’s very sensible and equitable plan was shot down and he resigned as Minister for Health, so disgusted was he at his government colleagues bowing to the pressure from the Church.

A man of the utmost conviction and principles, Dr Browne retired from politics in 1982 and spent the final years of his life living in Connemara. He was to live until the ripe old age of 81, when he passed away in 1997.

With all the Tribunals that have taken place and the plethora of politicians who were found to have lined their own back pockets to the detriment of their constituents, Noel Browne really was a courageous honest diamond in the rough when he was elected in 1948.

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