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Authors: Noël Browne

Against the Tide

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Preface

Being neither a diarist nor a historian, I cannot claim that this book is a definitive history. It was written with some reluctance, and only after long consideration, in order
to correct the inaccuracies of other accounts about a number of important incidents. The events recorded in these pages are the recollected memories of an eventful and at times a controversial
life, throughout ‘the seven ages’, from childhood to old age, both in England and in Ireland.

Circumstances ordained that I should lead a nomadic, itinerant existence. I have collected no library, nor have I kept any records. For this reason, for occasional verification, I have had to
call on the generosity and memories of my friends, for their recollection of shared events. Equally invaluable were the records of the relevant period in the State Paper Office in Dublin Castle. As
so many students have found, I had the willing help at all times of Dr MacGiolla Coille, together with his painstaking staff. Jack McQuillan and his wife, Angela, were characteristically patient
and helpfully critical. Jack, a one-time Clann na Poblachta deputy, generously put at my disposal all his memories of our joint experiences, as well as any papers he had kept. George Lawlor, my
first Director of Elections, my good friend during all the years, and a onetime member of Clann na Poblachta, happily for both of us possesses a computer-like memory. He could not do too much for
me. Fortunately, in his valuable library of books and papers, he had also carefully retained much of the literature put out by Clann na Poblachta at that time. All of this he allowed me to use. The
dates, personalities, and events, so meticulously researched and collated by Katie Burns of Cork in her excellent thesis on the Mother and Child controversies, were an enormous help, for which I am
very grateful.

In spite of the evidence of bulging libraries and the tens of thousands of authors, I found that, for me, it was not easy to write a book. The memories, so many of them, flood into one’s
mind, events long forgotten, prised out of the unconscious, are pieced together to complete the resultant jigsaw. At the same time, order, sequence, chronology, need professional skills, so as to
add shape and discipline to the story. That there is order, I am grateful to Ciaran Carty, a professional journalist who edited the script. To Deirdre Rennison, editorial secretary at Gill and
Macmillan I offer my profound thanks for keeping the peace between myself, Michael Gill, and others. My lack of writing experience to such polished professionals, needed everyone’s
understanding patience. I am grateful to the original publishers’ ‘reader’ of the manuscript, who, in its very early stage, gave it critical approval, and recommended that it be
published.

To the O Fahertha family, our near neighbours on that isolated yet lovely Cloughmore peninsula on the Atlantic, both Phyllis and I would wish to acknowledge in gratitude their acceptance of the
wanderers returned at last to their roots in the West and for the peace which made our work on the books and our life there so pleasurable.

In the end, to myself and to that truly remarkable woman Phyllis my wife, remained the task of preparing the text. My manuscript was typed and re-typed repeatedly by Phyllis with, where needed,
valuable critical suggestions. With consistent encouragement of my occasionally flagging energies, she was infinitely more than typist.

In the story of a life, of which over fifty years has been lived together, does my wife not become the joint author? In a just world, beneath its title, this book should have subscribed two
names, Noël and Phyllis Browne.

Contents

Cover

Title page

Preface

 

Chapter 1: Childhood in Athlone

Chapter 2: Growing up in Ballinrobe

Chapter 3: Education in England

Chapter 4: Student Days

Chapter 5: Medical Practice

Chapter 6: Into Politics

Chapter 7: In Government

Chapter 8: Gathering Clouds

Chapter 9: The Mother and Child Scheme

Chapter 10: Crisis

Chapter 11: Resignation

Chapter 12: Cabinet Portraits

Chapter 13: Independent

Chapter 14: In Fianna Fáil

Chapter 15: Psychiatric Practice

Chapter 16: The Left in Ireland

Chapter 17: Leaving Labour

Chapter 18: Reflection

 

Copyright

About the Author

About Gill & Macmillan

List of Illustrations

1

 

Childhood in Athlone

C
AGED, a sense of claustrophobic entrapment, surrounded by the vertical lines of bar-like legs. Table legs, legs of chairs and
stools, legs of grownups, no way out; these are my earliest recollections, crouching under a table in the yellow darkness of an oil-lamp lighted room, entombed among the legs of those grownups who
were at work around the table. I was forgotten by them, occupied as they were with their own frenetic manipulations, coiling in circles six blindingly white starched Irish linen collars into boxes,
then closing over the pure white paper flaps, slipping on the precisely-fitting lid, adding that filled box to the pile already by the table. This work was done in addition to an already long hard
day’s work at one of Derry’s treadmill shirt factories; keeping collar boxes filled improved baby’s chances of being fed.

The boxes I well remember, since I was given what I suppose was a damaged one to play with. They were virgin white inside, with two speckless flaps of white paper at the top. As befits a product
of the Emerald Isle, even in the yellow oil-lamp light the outside was a shiny, grass green, a blindingly gay plaything for baby. But for the grownups it was the pretentious, brashly shining
cardboard symbol of working class life over eastern and western Europe at that time, soon to be challenged by a socialist revolution.

My earliest daytime memory is of being held in the arms of a frightened woman, behind a half door which looked out into a stony yard. Holding on to me so hard that her arms pained me, she tried
to throw a long flat stone — it could have been a whetstone — at the black rats which appeared to be threatening us.

We had moved from Waterford, where I was born on 20 December 1915. My father, unemployed and the unskilled son of a small farming family in Co. Galway, brought us shortly after my birth to
Derry, where we lived for a time in the Bogside. He obtained work in one of the shirt factories.

Because my mother was a daily Communicant, and a devout Catholic, I attended daily Mass from an early age. I have come to believe that the notable intensity of religion and devotion to the
Sacraments, by Irish and indeed all Catholic peasant women, as opposed to the relative indifference of the men, must have fear among its origins. There is a forlorn hope that the magic miracle of
the Mass, or other Sacrament, will fend off that greatest single fear so many working class mothers know, the fear of the next pregnancy.

While I had no choice as a very small child in attending the Mass, I feared the departure of my mother when she left me to go to the Communion rails. Insecure as always, I would then cry my
heart out, until fascinated into silence by the rich golden rays of light, which I learned to create with the altar candles seen through my tears. The frivolous futility of these, my private exotic
visions, made crying seem to me neither to suit nor to answer my immediate needs, the loss of my mother.

My overt personal scars from Derry are an unreasonable fear of rats together with one permanently deaf ear and one damaged eye, the result of uncared-for measles. I did not return to the Bogside
again until 1969, when I formed part of a Labour Party delegation sent to study the emergent violence. There are no happy memories of Derry for me.

In 1920, my father was offered the job of Inspector with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. With no regrets whatsoever we left Derry and arrived in Athlone, where a
good-sized house came with the job and where, until the death of my father in 1923, we lived our lives of precarious survival.

In terms of emotional and physical development we grew up in a one-parent family; our father was virtually never at home. Our mother, a lovely, slight-figured country girl, took on the heavy
burden of child-bearing and rearing which contributed to her early death at the age of forty-two. The family consisted of Eileen, Jody, Martha, Kitty, myself, Una and Ruth. There was also Annie,
who died in infancy of tuberculous meningitis.

My father, Joseph Browne, was, as his marriage picture shows, a tall moustached handsome man. He was a well-known middle distance runner, and the shelves on our old Victorian whatnot were
covered with silver and gold medals, cups and other trophies.

The formal marriage portrait shows my parents as an elegant pair of happy young innocents eager for the years ahead together. They enjoyed amateur acting and ballroom dancing; he was
particularly popular for his songs at the piano, and his extrovert personality. He is proud, elaborately coiffed, in a dress suit with a gold chain, wearing the gold medals he had won. My mother
Mary Therese wears a circular fur hat framing her lovely face, and a tiny gold and pink enamel watch, a gift from the groom, on its slim gold muff chain. That watch still bears the dents of a
teething child. There was, however, a second, later, picture, also taken in Athlone, which shows my father separately, with seven of his children. My mother was probably pregnant with my last
sister, Ruth, to be born shortly after his death. Here he is, physically, a completely different man, in the last destructive phase of tuberculosis. Part Spanish on his father’s side, he is a
dark, bonyfaced, black-eyed, shrunken man. He was to die soon afterwards. My inconsolable mother died some two years later. We children were then left homeless and penniless, as were and are so
many unwanted children of primitive peasant societies such as ours was.

Even though the slow destruction of my family took place during our years in Athlone, my experiences there became the most settled and contented part of my young life. Athlone is set in the dead
centre of Ireland with the river Shannon running through it. We spent our days playing just below the weir, on the small stony beach. The fluctuant river with its floods and its droughts and the
noise of the weir became a constant heartbeat, conditioning my later adult obsession with the sea, its sounds, its tides, its pleasures and its dangers.

For the most part we played down by the Shannon, sailing unmanageable boats made by ourselves. In wet weather we were fortunate to have access to a builder’s yard belonging to a friend of
ours named Duffy, who lived opposite our house in Irishtown. This became an idyllic world of fantasy within our other world. There were long, low, dark lofts, garrets, workshops, outhouses and what
seemed to us children to be great mountains of sand and gravel, which we converted into strong points during our battles. Our play had unlimited scope for our imaginings. When we were tired, we
listened to the stylised music of Mr Duffy’s old music box. I still recall those times whenever I hear the melody ‘La Barcarolle’.

It became the practice for us children to mimic the Civil War then being fought in all its real ferocity around us. We used catapults and pea-shooters, or simply threw pebbles at one another,
‘Shinners’ on one side and ‘Staters’ (the Duffys were a Free State family) on the other, from sand heap to gravel pit. I recall being in my special uniform, which included a
protective steel white knobbed platecover, and receiving a direct hit on my luckily protected head — killed stone dead, no doubt, in real life — even though I was dug into a deep hole
in the centre of a great mound of sand.

Athlone was an important garrison town with a substantial force of soldiers, originally British, now Irish, permanently stationed there. The sides taken up by us in our mock civil war —
Staters, Republicans, or Irregulars — reflected the divisions of parental loyalties in the struggles all around us. It was the practice for the Irregulars to invade and harass the town,
burning down an enemy property or carrying out a hit- and-run assassination. I watched with no understanding the exhilarating sight of the grocery store owned by the Brodericks, some fifty or sixty
yards from our house, burning wildly during a winter’s night, sparks and smoke curling away on the wind into the night sky. Fear was transmitted to me from the grownups around because of the
danger that the fire would spread along the row of tiny houses and include our own in the holocaust.

BOOK: Against the Tide
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