Tánaiste Leo Varadkar delivers Trinity Monday Discourse honouring Dr Noel Browne
Posted on: 28 April 2021
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar T.D. delivered the Trinity Monday Discourse on Monday, April 29th, 2021 commemorating Dr Noel Browne, Deputy and Minister for Health, 1948-1951.
Dr Noel Browne (1915 – 1997) was made an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College in May 1994, at the age of 74. The Tánaiste described this as “the greatest public honour of his long and often controversial career in public life, and it was one he treasured enormously.”
The Tánaiste spoke of his admiration for Dr Browne’s idealism, passion, and determination to stand up for the causes and the people he believed in. He remarked that the Trinity Monday Discourse was “an opportunity to explore his remarkable contribution to Irish life in a respectful, but not uncritical way, and to assess his legacy.”
The discourse made many references to the sense of pride that Dr Browne held for Trinity and how following his death in 1997, Dr Browne’s papers were gifted to Trinity by his widow, Phyllis, which contain 37 boxes of manuscripts, with drafts of speeches and articles, as well as early versions of his memoir Against the Tide.
The Tánaiste said:
Trinity meant a lot to Noel Browne, it educated and trained him to be a doctor, it was where he met his beloved wife, Phyllis, it was the constituency that elected him to the Seanad. It was the place that honoured him so publicly when he was otherwise forgotten and ignored. When Trinity’s autonomy and governance came under threat in the 1990s he rushed into print to condemn the proposed universities legislation.”
The Tánaiste spoke of Dr Browne’s early life, the sadness of his childhood and the forces which drove him throughout his life to fight against prejudice, poverty, and injustice.
He was a member of five different political parties over the course of his career, but as the Tánaiste noted, he was never a member of Fine Gael. He became the youngest minister in the Government, when he was made Minister for Health at age of thirty-two and notably, the first TD since independence to be made a Minister on their first day in office.
The Tánaiste highlighted that both Browne and his wife Phyllis contracted TB, and their experiences coupled with his own mother’s death from the disease made him determined to fight the spread of TB and help those suffering from it. His research into the disease as a medical student at Trinity became the basis of the medical doctorate, he was awarded in 1946, ‘for original research into the blood sedimentation rate of tuberculosis sufferers’. Later as Minister for Health and as part of his war against TB he established the national blood transfusion service in August 1948, something, the Tánaiste remarked “that has left a lasting legacy.”
Another key aspect of Browne’s legacy was the Mother and Baby Scheme in which all mothers and children were given free healthcare.
The Tánaiste said:
It was the Mother and Child Scheme that created the legend of Browne standing up on his own against the world, the fearless opponent of clerical power. The reality, as many historians have shown, was more complicated. The scheme to ‘provide a free medical service for women before, during and after childbirth, and for every child from birth up to the age of six’ predated the Inter Party Government, and it fell to Browne to try and implement it.
Unfortunately, his political inexperience undermined his efforts, and he fell victim to various vested interests, including the powerful Irish Medical Association, which viewed it as the socialisation of medicine and a threat to their income and position in society. The Catholic hierarchy was also deeply opposed, seeing the legislation as ‘anti-family’ and wrote to the Taoiseach, John A. Costello, who delayed passing the bishops’ memorandum on to Browne, amisjudgment and a mistake.
Browne was forced to tender his resignation as Minister for Health in 1951. His political career continued for many years and later in 1973 he decided to stand for the Seanad for the University of Dublin constituency.
Browne found a home in the Seanad and he was free to speak on issues he felt strongly about, including contraception and divorce and he became the first member of the Oireachtas to advocate for therapeutic legal abortion. In so many ways Browne was ahead of his time, including when it came to the treatment of women and children.
In his conclusion, the Tánaiste said:
Browne died on 22 May 1997. The obituary in the Economist described him simply as ‘the doctor who tried to cure Ireland’ and it is a fitting epitaph. Throughout his career he was fearless in fighting for what he believed was right and he should rightly be considered one of Trinity’s greatest graduates. The obituary writer in the Economist noted that Browne was 20 always praised for his fearlessness in the pursuit of his objectives and thought this was ‘an ingenious way of saying he was usually wrong, and obstinate with it’.
Browne was certainly not always right, and he could be harsh and unflinching, even to friends and those close to him, but he was someone who had a transformational effect on Irish politics and society and his contribution in so many areas was positive and profound.
The Tánaiste also acknowledged that this was the final Trinity Monday Discourse in the Provost, Dr Patrick Prendergast’s provostship and congratulated him on his term in office.
You can read the full transcript of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s speech HERE.