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Dr James Vincent "Jim" O'Brien (2022)


Originally published by Saltwire, 5 July 2022.

Jim O'Brien

Athlete, environmentalist, psychiatrist, voracious reader, writer, story-teller, carpenter, windsurfer, kayaker, skier, father, grandpa, husband, friend, devotee of Leatherman multi-tools and duct tape.

Jim and his two brothers spent their childhood on the old family farm in Ireland. His adventures and observations of life in County Cork in the 1940s were the material for many of his stories. Both parents were doctors in London during the Second World War, so the boys were brought up by two aunts, a cohort of much-admired farm workers, and a nanny who could never find them, let alone get them to put their shoes on. As a result, Jim had a lifelong aversion to socks and couldn’t read until he went to boarding school at age 10. The first book he came across was Caesar’s Gallic Wars. He never looked back.

At Trinity College Dublin, Jim captained the rowing team while studying medicine. He may have graduated sooner had sports and pubs not taken precedence over his anatomy exams. It was also at university that he met Heather Laskey, his future wife.

If vehicles were an indicator of immigrant success, Jim was on a downward trajectory. The couple’s first move to Canada in 1965 was accompanied by their vintage Rolls Bentley which provided a stately drive across the continent to Watson Lake, Yukon where Jim worked as a general practitioner. Settling in Halifax in 1976, Jim purchased a series of vehicles, each one, as far as his children were concerned, more embarrassing than the previous (for heaven’s sake, he was now a psychiatrist!). The decline culminated with the purchase of a Soviet-era Skoda in the mid-80's which for weeks included a loudly flapping piece of plastic for a window.

Jim moved his practice to Cape Breton so that he could more easily enjoy nature and outdoor pursuits like kayaking and cross-country skiing. He was a founding member of the Bras d’Or Stewardship Society, serving as a board member for 20 years, and generously supported other environmental organizations. He was also well-known for sharing his disapproval of recreational vehicles. After vehemently voicing his annoyance about a near miss with a snowmobiler, a local humourist sign-posted the trail “O'Brien's Lament”.

A sartorial trendsetter and the envy of many a man, Jim set the bar high. He wore his old Irish sweaters (more holes, patches and duct tape than wool) with panache. Nevertheless, he always looked stylish at social events, and according to CBC radio host Steve Sutherland, may have been the only person on Cape Breton Island who could pull off wearing a cravat.

As a psychiatrist Jim took pride in serving far-flung communities in Cape Breton – few winter blizzards prevented "Dr. Tune-Up" from seeing his patients. Although he extolled the advancements of anti-depressants, he did not hesitate to call out the manipulations of “Big Pharma”. This was a bummer for his less scrupulous children, who pined to go on holidays to exotic locales on the company dime.

Possessing a powerful intellect and curiosity, Jim was known for his story-telling and wit. He wrote two memoirs: Willowbrook, a Flawed Eden and He’s Around Here Somewhere.

A skilled carpenter, he crafted beautiful salad bowls, plates, chairs and intricate dollhouses as well as sometimes aesthetically dubious household ‘improvements’. He was very proud that the Wren's Nest Pub in Dublin, Ireland (est. 1588!) still bears a sign he carved in the early 1970’s.

In his mid-60's after undergoing quadruple by-pass surgery, he set himself three major goals: kayak from Halifax to his Cape Breton home, swim a mile across the Bras d'Or Lakes and cross-country ski across the Cape Breton highlands. All successfully completed.

The great sadness of Jim’s life was the death of his first-born child, Harry. Like many of his generation, his grief was private though ever-present; he rarely spoke of it, a burden he kept with him to the end of his life.

Jim died surrounded by family in Cape Breton Regional Hospital. He leaves his wife Heather, who has lost her best companion; their children, Finn (Sachiko), Rebecca (Lars) and Minga (Chris); grandchildren, Olivia and Freddy; his older brother, Dick (Catherine), and many nieces, nephews, and friends. A full life: well lived, much loved. He and his stories will be missed terribly.

Donations in his memory can be made to Nature Nova Scotia or Scotia Festival of Music.