The Sunday Tribune - 14th August 2005 - Interview with Senator David Norris on Dr. Noel Browne
The Conscience of Ireland – The Sunday Tribune – 14th August 2005
David Norris on Dr. Noel Browne
The maverick Senator on a controversial hero of Irish medical history.
“When I was a child in the 1940s, tuberculosis was an absolute scourge: it hit right across society, but damaged the poor disproportionately. Whole families were being wiped out by it, including the family of Noel Browne, who was later to eradicate the disease, an achievement which was nothing short of miraculous.
Noel came from quite a poor family in the Athlone area; his father got TB and then the children contracted it. His unfortunate mother realised there was no help there – there was no appropriate medical service available, particularly for poor people like them who couldn’t afford to go to a sanatorium in Switzerland. With the most immense courage, she dragged her last two children, Noel and his brother, to Dublin and got them onto the boat to England to make sure they’d be looked after. She died three days later.
Noel was treated in England and cured, but his brother, who was a hunchback, was put into an institution and essentially used as a guinea pig to test out new treatments. The only time I ever saw Noel dissolve into tears was while talking about his brother, to whom they probably did the most terrible things, simply because he was slow and ungainly while Noel was bright and handsome.
After his brother died, Noel came back to Dublin where he was spotted by a very good medical family called Chance from Merrion Square, who supported him and put him through Trinity to become a doctor. He repaid the debt one hundred fold with his achievements.
Noel went into politics and joined virtually every party in the state, but because he stuck to his ideals, and because parties are pragmatic animals, he’d be in them, become prominent and then be got rid of. From 1949 to 1951, he was Minister for Health, and introduced various radical measures, including the TB eradication scheme.
Since his death, people have said that the plan was there all along, but that’s pure humbug. You can have plans, but unless you get a Minister who has the vision and the command and the energy and the initiative to make things happen, nothing will come of them. Noel spotted an opportunity by using the funds from the Sweepstakes to implement his plans: building sanatoriums, bringing in the latest drugs, training doctors all over the country.
Noel started off being a fairly conventional Catholic, but he began meeting opposition in the Church, which in those days held a lot of sway – and his next idea, the Mother and Child Scheme, brought the government down. He wanted to provide free medical services for nursing mothers – a wonderfully prophetic idea – but the Church objected to it, and so did a lot of the medical establishment. They thought the family was sacred and saw the scheme as the state interfering. In fact the state was making things easier for families and reducing infant mortality. It was indefensible for them to reject it, but they were adamant. Noel became stubborn and dug his heels in – and as a result, the government collapsed in 1951.
Noel never again held power, but he became the conscience of Ireland on all kinds of issues. He was vocal about contraception, he was the first to speak out against the Magdalene laundries, and he spoke about abortion information at a time when nobody would touch it. In 1970 I approached him and he asked the first ever question in the Dáil about homosexual law reform and was laughed out of the place. But that was his nature: to understand people and empathise with the human experience.
When I decided to try and go into politics, Noel nominated me at every election until he died. In 1997, I sent the papers down to the little cottage where he’d retired to in Galway – it was tupical of Noe lthat he lived in the most modest way possible, retiring not to a villa in Spain or France but to a little traditional thatched cottage. On the same day that I got the papers back from him in the post, they announced on the news that Noel Browne was dead.
I felt pleased that one of the last things he did was to sign my papers but really really sorry that we’d lost him. He was so courageous, so prepared to do unpopular things and say what he believed, regardless of the consequences. The political establishment didn’t like him and tried to reduce his achievements but they’re irreducible.
After he died, I had people ringing me up telling me that it was because of him that they and their three children and fourteen grandchildren were alive: all these happy people alive because of this one decent, good man.