Thursday, April 3, 2008

The passing of Dr. Joe O’Neill

I was in Sydney Australia when I received a brief text message on my mobile phone, ‘Dr. Joe is dead’. Nothing further was needed to identify the man who since he took over the medical practice of his father, Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill, was known simply throughout South Kildare and further afield as ‘Dr. Joe’. I was visiting the grave of Michael Dwyer, the Wicklow-born patriot of the 1798 Rebellion in Waverely Cemetery in Bondi, Sydney when the news of Dr. O’Neill’s death reached me. The patriotism of both men was unquestionable. Dwyer was a revolutionary patriot of another era while Dr. Joe, devoted to the medical care of the people of this area over many decades, directed his skills to the public welfare and in so doing can rightly be called a patriot of our community.

I had good reason to be especially grateful for the diagnostic skills of Dr. Joe when aged 25 years he diagnosed me as suffering from appendicitis. I was dispatched to Naas Hospital, still then under the control of Kildare County Council as the Health Authority and managed by a member of the Sisters of Mercy. Jack Gibson performed the operation, taking the opportunity to use his skill as a hypnotist to dispense with anaesthetics in some of my post-operative treatment. Sixteen years later Dr. Joe saved the life of my youngest son in circumstances which underlined his skill and his devotion as a doctor. My son Francis, then in primary school, complained one morning of feeling unwell which parents are always wary of hearing from school shy pupils. However, not being one given to making such complaints he was allowed to stay home from school and spend the day in bed.

Late in the evening he called his mother, not in any distress but merely to say that he had heard something ‘pop’ in his stomach. There was no great accompanying pain but fortunately Dr. Joe was called and on examining the youngster diagnosed a burst appendix. He was immediately removed to Temple Street Hospital in Dublin where he underwent surgery that night. Dr. O’Neill’s quick response and his skilful diagnosis of the young fellow’s condition undoubtedly helped save my son’s life.

It is on occasions such as this that the importance of a 24 hour local medical service is highlighted. What I wonder would have happened if the K-Doc system was then in operation? I shudder to think of the possible consequences.

Dr. O’Neill was the third generation medical doctor in the O’Neill family. The first was his grandfather, Dr. P.L. O’Neill who was appointed as medical officer to the local Workhouse in 1874 to succeed Dr. Thomas Kynsey. He had his own private practice prior to this but nevertheless the appointment to the local institution was an important acknowledgement of his standing in the community and his skill as a medical practitioner. Dr. P.L. O’Neill in common with what we would now regard as the educated class of the time was involved in local and national politics. The 1880’s and beyond was an exciting time in Irish political life, what with the Land League Campaign and the developing demand for Home Rule. Men like Dr. P.L. O’Neill and his peers took an active part in the issues of the day, leading the local community as did the local Parish Priest Fr. John Lawler and the local Rector Rev. Henry Bristow, both of whom contested elections to Athy Town Commissioners in 1847. Given their unique positions within the community it was imperative that both the Rector and the Parish Priest would not be embarrassed at the polls and indeed they were not. Both men polled well with the Parish Priest getting 105 votes, tying for top of the poll position with local mill owner Henry Hannon. Interestingly three local doctors, Dr. Kynsey, Dr. Irving and Dr. Ferris also stood for election and were duly elected to what was the first local authority established in Athy following the disbandment of the now elected and unrepresentative Borough Council seven years previously.

Dr. P.L. O’Neill was President of the local branch of the Irish National League until his resignation in November 1885 following a disagreement with Martin Doyle, another member of the League. He continued as medical officer to the Workhouse until 1897 when he was replaced by his son Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill who held the position for the next 51 years. Like his father, Dr. Jeremiah was involved in local politics and served as Chairman of Athy U.D.C. for three years from 1912. He died in 1954 aged 81 years old and was replaced as medical officer in what was by then called the County Home by his son Dr. Joe.

Dr. Joe O’Neill was a dedicated and gifted doctor whose pleasant gentle manner made him a favourite with his patients. He shunned the political arena which his father and grandfather before him had adorned and instead concentrated on his successful medical career which was distinguished by his kindness and thoughtfulness. Dr. Joe continued as medical officer to the County Home until 1991 when his son Dr. Giles O’Neill was appointed as the fourth member of the O’Neill family to that institution which by then was re-named St. Vincents Hospital. Aged 91 years when he passed away Dr. Joe will be sadly missed by all who knew him.

Last week Michael Harris was laid to rest at an age which fell short of the biblical three score and ten. Michael during his life made a huge contribution to the less well off members of the society, having instigated and operated for some years past an annual aid convoy to Romanian orphanages. Michael was in recent years a member of the local Lions Club which is part of the world’s largest charitable service organisation. He organised a number of events to raise funds for Lions charities, the last of which was a very successful concert in the Clanard Court Hotel featuring the soprano Virginia Kerr. A quiet man who made a huge impact within the many charitable causes with which he was associated, Michael will be sadly missed by the wider South Kildare community. His death at a comparatively young age is a further blow to the Harris family who suffered the tragic loss of two family members just over two years ago.

Tragic and sudden deaths are regrettably part of modern life and the recent death of Mary Clare Collins of Ballintubbert while holidaying in Rome brings home to us yet again the uncertainty of life. The loss of a child is a parent’s worst fear and the deaths of Mary Clare and her friend while enjoying a few days in the Eternal City cast a sorrow shadow over communities in Athy and Limerick.

With the deaths of Dr. Joe O’Neill, Michael Harris and Mary Clare Collins our own community has suffered the loss of a wonderful doctor, an exceptional charity worker and a young girl who was part of the generation of young people for whom the future held so much promise. For their families the personal losses are keenly felt and to the O’Neill, Harris and Collins families goes our sympathies at these sad times.

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