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Favourite DIB lives: Dr Noel Browne, politician and physician

05 April 2020

Selected by friend of the DIB, historian Dr Niamh Puirséil, Dr Noel Browne is celebrated for his efforts to combat TB and to deliver free healthcare to mothers and children during his time as minister for health (1948–51).

Introduction by Niamh Puirséil

Is there a figure in modern Irish politics so popularly revered, contemporaneously or posthumously, as Dr Noël Browne? His reputation largely rests on two pillars, the Mother and Child scheme controversy, for which he was admired by radicals and liberals, and his role in helping end the scourge of tuberculosis in Ireland, for which he was widely and profoundly loved. 

If credit was not Browne’s alone, his work on the eradication of TB made him a national hero. That status was cemented for posterity by the best selling Against the Tide (1986) his extremely readable and rather self-serving memoir. Reading it for the first time as an undergraduate, I was deeply affected by the sadness of Browne’s background and cheered him on as he struggled against his many foes. 

Inevitably, the reality was more complex. Browne’s biographer, John Horgan, in particular, has done much to illuminate the shadows and deconstruct the stories of the man whom Joe Lee described as ‘probably his own worst enemy, despite the competition.’ 

Niamh Puirséil is the author of The Irish Labour Party 1922–73 (2007).

Noel Christopher Browne

by John Horgan

Browne, Noel Christopher (1915–97), politician and physician, was born 20 December 1915 at 38 Bath St., Waterford city, second son and fourth among eight children of Joseph Browne, of Loughrea, Co. Galway, and Mary Theresa Browne (née Cooney), of Hollymount, Co. Mayo. His father was a sergeant in the RIC at the time of Noel's birth; he later resigned from the force and moved to Athlone, Co. Westmeath, where he worked as an inspector for the Royal Society for the Protection of Children until his death from TB in 1927. The family subsequently emigrated to London, where the early death of his mother (1929) and his older brother, Jody (1930), also from TB, permanently marked his emotional development. Cared for by his older sisters, Eileen and Kitty, he was fortunate enough to get a place in a private preparatory school in Sussex, from which he entered the Jesuit secondary school, Beaumont, in January 1931. An acquaintance with an Irish pupil at the same school, Neville Chance, the son of a wealthy Dublin medical family, led to Browne's quasi-adoption by Neville's parents, who were to pay for his university education at TCD, where he qualified in medicine in December 1940. Even before his graduation, however, he had been diagnosed as tubercular, and underwent many months of hospitalisation in England before taking up a hospital appointment at the TB sanatorium in Newcastle, Co. Wicklow (April 1942). He moved to another post at the Cheshire Joint Sanatorium in Shropshire the following year, and then returned to Newcastle at the end of 1944. He was awarded the MD by TCD in 1946.

Minister for health, 1948–51 

In his latter period at Newcastle, he made the acquaintance – through Harry Kennedy (1906–46), an Irish Times journalist who was a patient there – of Noel Hartnett, a barrister and former Fianna Fáil loyalist who had abandoned Éamon de Valera and was in the process of establishing, with his friend and mentor Seán MacBride, the Clann na Poblachta party. Browne's passionate commitment to the eradication of TB, and his admiration for Hartnett and MacBride, led him into the party, for which he successfully stood as a candidate in the general election of January 1948. Elected for the constituency of Dublin South-East, he was immediately appointed minister for health in the inter-party government which then took office under John A. Costello as taoiseach, and given access to the accumulated capital in the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes fund to launch a campaign aimed at the eradication of TB nationally.

Browne's energy and application in the prosecution of this task immediately made him a national figure; still tubercular, he anticipated that his own life might be cut short by the illness at any time. As he spent lavishly on the erection of sanatoria, at that time the standard approach to the treatment of TB, he also turned his attention to another critical public health issue: neo-natal care. In June 1950, partly influenced by the establishment of a national health service in the United Kingdom, he sent the draft of a scheme to provide free medical care for all mothers and children to the cabinet and to the Irish Medical Association. Medical opinion had already been aroused by the 1947 health act, and the doctors, many of whom relied on fees relating to mothers and children for a substantial proportion of their income, became immediately hostile. Not long afterwards, and partly at the urging of key members of the medical profession, the catholic hierarchy also met the taoiseach to express their objections. There ensued a long and unsuccessful series of attempts at mediation, complicated by misunderstandings on all sides, by Browne's increasing tendency not to involve his cabinet colleagues unless it became unavoidable, and by his own intermittent ill-health. Faced with the categorical and uncompromising opposition of both the medical profession and the bishops, Browne was abandoned, in succession, by the taoiseach, by other members of the cabinet, and ultimately by his own party leader, Seán MacBride, who requested Browne's resignation on 10 April 1951. Browne resigned with effect from 11 April – he had no option – and controversially issued to the newspapers the full correspondence between himself, his cabinet colleagues, and members of the hierarchy on the issue.

Politics and medicine, 1951–70 

He was reelected in the resultant general election as an independent, for the same constituency. He rejoined Newcastle sanatorium as assistant medical superintendent in June 1951. By 1952 he was engaged in attempts to found a new political party, in conjunction with his friend and ally Dr Michael ffrench-O'Carroll, another refugee from Clann na Poblachta. These attempts foundered, however, and in October 1953, with ffrench-O'Carroll and a third independent deputy, he successfully applied to join the Fianna Fáil party, which was then in government. At the 1954 general election he was a Fianna Fáil candidate in Dublin South-East, but failed to get reelected, partly because of the deep unpopularity of his running-mate, Seán MacEntee, who in 1952 as minister for finance had introduced the severest budget that the state had ever experienced in peacetime. He remained a member of Fianna Fáil, where he became extremely popular with the rank and file, his oratorical skill at the party's ard-fheiseanna winning him easy election to the party's inner councils. By 1957, however, he was being seen by senior party figures as disruptive and possibly even threatening. He was denied a place on the party ticket for the 1957 election, and his letter of resignation was accepted by the Fianna Fáil national executive on 11 March 1957. This did not obviate his triumphant reelection as an independent, in Dublin South-East, at the March 1957 election.

The defeat of the second inter-party government, and the association of the Labour party with that government, led to a reawakening of interest in parliamentary politics among disparate left-wing groups. This interest coalesced first in the 1913 Club, a socialist discussion group, and ultimately, on 16 May 1958, in the formation by Browne and his dáil comrade-in-arms, the independent (and also former Clann na Poblachta) deputy from Roscommon, Jack McQuillan, of a new party to be called the National Progressive Democrats. Although the new party, as such, never garnered widespread public support, Browne and McQuillan established themselves in the dáil as effective critics of the government at a time when parliamentary opposition generally was undistinguished and flaccid. They succeeded in embarrassing de Valera as he headed into the 1959 presidential election by forcing a debate on his role in the Irish Press newspaper, and Browne in particular was a lone voice on social issues such as corporal punishment in schools, capital punishment, and mental health. In the two years 1961 and 1962, Browne and McQuillan between them tabled 17 per cent of the total number of dáil questions: Fine Gael and Labour then engineered a change in the dáil standing orders which limited their role as the sponsors of private motions.

He was reelected in 1961, but a fresh bout of ill-health and concerns about his long-term employment (Newcastle was becoming redundant with the general success of the anti-TB drugs now available) prompted a reassessment of his political direction, after the departure of his nemesis, William Norton, from the leadership of the Labour party. Browne – along with McQuillan – was accepted as a Labour party member on 27 November 1963, and was to remain a member until 1977 – the longest period by far that he was to be a member of any political organisation. Two months later, after the closure of Newcastle, he took up a junior medical position at St Brendan's psychiatric hospital, Grangegorman. The work, however, was not congenial – although he had been awarded the diploma in psychological medicine from Dublin University in 1966, his work now often took him to the social wasteland of Ballymun, where he encountered mental health problems he felt had their causes in economic and social, rather than in personal, factors. He was appointed as a senior consultant psychiatrist to the Eastern Health Board in 1970, and was based at his old hospital, Newcastle, which had now been reopened for psychiatric patients.

His period as a Labour party member was to be divided politically into two segments. The first seven years (1963–70) saw him as a lodestone for the nascent left-wing enthusiasm in sections of the electorate, and among younger members of Labour in particular. Although he lost his dáil seat in 1965, and failed to win a seanad seat immediately afterwards, he continued to be involved in Dublin South-East. At the 1969 general election, characterised on the part of Labour by a heady optimism which saw its tally of votes increase but its share of dáil seats – paradoxically – reduce, he won his dáil seat back in that constituency.

Dissident 1970–82 

Labour, however, was coming to the conclusion that an indefinite sojourn in opposition, as a party unwilling to take part in coalition governments at any price, was no longer a tenable policy. As it changed its policy at the party conference in 1970, Browne moved into internal opposition. For the next seven years he was to be one of the key figures in the anti-coalition movement within the party, although, unlike many other supporters of that movement who were opposed to coalition in principle, he argued that coalition was not necessarily wrong, but was too dangerous a tactic to be adopted if Labour were to be consigned to a junior role in government.

The inevitable upshot of this was that when Labour went into the 1973 election on the basis of a pre-election pact with Fine Gael, Noel Browne refused to sign the party pledge and was accordingly deselected as a party candidate for Dublin South-East. Immediately afterwards, however, he stood as an independent in the Dublin University constituency in the seanad election, and was successful. For the next four years he spoke, often eloquently, on a range of issues which principally included matters like the role of the catholic church, contraception, divorce and – on one occasion – therapeutic abortion, none of which endeared him greatly to his fellow party members, with whom he was now in an increasingly distant relationship.

The nucleus of supporters that had gathered around him now focused on his return to the dáil, and in December 1976 he was formally nominated as the Labour party candidate for the forthcoming general election in the north Dublin working-class constituency of Artane. Although he signed the party pledge, the party's national executive rejected his nomination on 31 March 1977. Undeterred, he ran as an independent, and was comfortably elected with twice as many votes as the official Labour candidate. He retired from his position as a psychiatrist on 30 June 1977, and in 1978 withdrew his name from the medical register.

In the meantime, the Labour party's administrative council had, on 29 September 1977, declared him to be ineligible for membership of the party. In October of the same year, he and his allies formed a new party – the Socialist Labour party. As political organisations go, however, it was in many respects anomalous. Browne, although its only TD, declined to be its leader or even its parliamentary representative; and the centrifugal tendencies in the party were exacerbated by a number of policy disagreements, most notably on Northern Ireland. Browne himself was vocal in the dáil, notably on divorce and contraception, but was uninterested in strategic alliances of any sort, least of all with his former comrades in the Labour party. He retained his seat in 1981, and voted for the Fine Gael–Labour government in the budget of January 1982 which led to the government's collapse, not least because of the prompt action it had taken on one of his preferred issues, corporal punishment in schools. His parliamentary career ended with the general election of February 1982, in which – despite the blandishments of both Fine Gael and Labour – he declined to stand.

Retirement 1982–97 

His retirement from politics lasted fifteen years, most of it spent in a cottage in Baile na hAbhann, Connemara, which was one of the few properties he had ever owned, having preferred to engage in a nomadic existence, moving from one rented house to another almost on a whim. He had previously owned a house in Bray, Co. Wicklow, which he had to sell when his employment at Newcastle was terminated. Although his income was erratic, it was generally comfortable, although frequently eroded by an impulsively generous streak which prompted many personal disbursements in cash and kind to needy cases. He died 22 May 1997 in the Regional Hospital, Galway, and was buried in a small graveyard near Baile na hAbhann.

He married (14 January 1944) in Uxbridge, Middlesex, England, Phyllis Harrison (last child and second daughter among six children of a clerical worker in a railway company in Dublin), whom he had first met as a student in 1936. They had two daughters: Ruth (b. January 1945) and Susan (b. April 1947). His papers are in the Library, TCD. A painting of him by Seán Keating, RHA, is in private hands.

Assessment 

Browne's political career was characterised not only by frequent changes of party, but by other – less frequently commented on – changes of policy. He was opposed to contraception as minister for health in the late 1940s, but a passionate advocate of it from the 1960s onwards. He had, partly under the influence of Noel Hartnett, adopted a pro-republican stance in the 1950s and again, in different circumstances, in the 1970s; at other times his anti-republicanism was as passionate as that of his party colleague, Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien. He was publicly anti-communist in the late 1950s, but equally publicly pro-Soviet after visits to the Soviet Union in 1988 and 1990. At times he maintained a passionate belief in the role of parliament; at others argued that real change could come only through extra-parliamentary action. The paradox was that, whichever position he happened to espouse at any particular point in time, he continued to act as a political magnet for Irish people of all generations and social classes who saw him as the apostle of urgently needed social change.

Sources: NAI, RIC records, MFA 24/10, record no. 54738; NAI, census returns 1911; NSPCC archives, London; NAI, Department of Finance file S72/5/49; Noel Browne papers, TCD; Niall Greene, Labour Party papers; Dublin diocesan archives, AB8/B/XVlll, ‘Mother and child scheme’ folders; Gerry Gregg, ‘Dr Noel Browne: political maverick 1948–1977’ (MA thesis, NUI (UCD), 1981); Noel Browne, Against the tide (1986); Phyllis Browne, Thanks for the tea, Mrs Browne (1998); John Horgan, Noel Browne: passionate outsider (2000)

Image: Irish Election Literature website

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