Through a Rose Glass but darkly

It’s too easy to retain an innocent and rose coloured view of the Ireland of yesterday, when times were good, men were men and the women stayed at home.

Having spent most of my childhood there, I have some experience of many of the issues that we so studiously avoided at the time. I will look at the Ferns Report at some time in the future, but its important to realise that other vulnerable people were exploited, of whom we’ve heard nothing, and whose voices will be forever silent. There is still a story to be written of the treatment of older people in care facilities in Ireland in the middle of the last century. When I was a ‘ward maid’ in Dublin in a particular facility, I witnessed cruelty and inhumanity on a daily basis against old and vulnerable people that haunts me to this day.

But the one that is still rattling on, and continues to reflect the ability of those in power to exploit is the scandal of Michael Neary at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, in Drogheda.

As a student midwife, I recall so vividly a day that this man was going to do the ward rounds. Well in advance, we were sent around to all the women, whose beds formed a U-shape down the walls and across the bottom. There were probably about 30 or so in the ward, and we had to pull their nightdresses above their ‘bumps’ to their chest, and the sheet down to just below. I remember standing in the doorway and surveying the pink bumps, all sizes and shapes, like so many melons in a row in a field.

Neary entered the ward, with his coterie of medical and nursing students and a great silence fell upon us. He made his way from bed to bed, never speaking except to the Sister, feeling, probing and grunting. About half way down, he came to the bed of a young mother, who broke the stillness and asked ‘Doctor, is my baby alright’.

He stopped and stared at her, spoke in the ear of the Sister and walked to the next bed. Sister turned to the patient and hissed, “You are only a patient, you never, never address Mr Neary to his face”. I left Drogheda after 2 months, deciding midwifery was not my bag.

It wasnt until 1998 that 2 student nurses took the very brave decision to challenge Neary’s behaviour and ask to have his record of caesarian hysterectomies reviewed, due to what they felt was an abnormally high rate of such procedures. http://

Neary was suspended by the Irish Medical Council in 1999, and was struck off in 2003. A Public Enquiry was established by the Minsiter of Health in 2004, and the Report was published in February of this year. An apology was issued by the Government in March to the women who were affected, with Bertie Ahern telling them that he was appalled. The Harding Clark Report into the scandal also identified that 44 of the 129 relevant patient charts had gone missing, and the entire issue is being referred to the Gardai.

There are many complex layers of issues in the Neary story. Lack of accountability and training were certainly 2 of the areas identified in the report. The idea of other colleagues not finding it strange for such a shocking level of this procedure being carried out is also one that calls into question the idea of medical solidarity at all cost. The impact of blowing the whistle on such a tale is also going to have to be considered seriously by the powers in Dublin.

But more than anything, it highlights the utter disregard of a Male surgeon for his vulnerable female patients.The arrogance and lack of concern for these women, their lives and their futures make this a disgraceful episode in Irish history.

  • Donnacha

    Miss Fitz, sadly it reflects the all-too-pervasive, unquestioning respect for “men of position” in Ireland of the time. Doctors, teachers, guards and especially priests could do no wrong, giving them a free hand for their darkest urges. I remember the local garda sergeant in my home town who would rape tinker women on a whim. He was revered as a near-saint by the settled people of the town, however, and was never charged with anything. After all, who would believe a travelling woman above a repsected officer of the law? Indeed, who would take the word of a young boy against a member of the clergy?

  • Miss Fitz

    I had to re-visit this thread today, and noted your comment. Ironically, the woman who questioned Neary in that piece was possibly a Traveller as well, although I cant be 100% certain.

    It was quite some psyche, wasnt it? The unquestioning acceptance and respect for misdeeds. We may have cause to complain about a lot of things now, but at least we have options about the acceptance of such bullying and domineering behaviour.

  • Donnacha

    Miss Fitz, I still get a slight (but still noticeable) adrenaline rush at the sight of a man in uniform, whether it be cop, soldier or postman. The sheer dread I felt at the threat of an authority figure has never truly left me. I almost cured myself a few years back when I was home and bumped into a teacher who had bullied me ferociously, causing me to quit school at 14. He started on about something, I answered back and an argument ensued. I am sad to say that I beat him until my knuckels bled, but by Christ did it feel good. Funnily enough, that was also the last non self-defence punch-up I was involved in.

  • Miss Fitz

    Hey Donnacha
    Cheers for that, it takes a brave man to admit to that.

    Hope your flu is better 😉