By Jim Rees
Loyalty in Irish politics usually means one thing: ‘my party right or wrong’. Anyone who fails to follow the party Whip is immediately branded a maverick, a loose cannon, someone not to be trusted.
There is some justification in this. After all, if an election candidate has had the benefit of a party machine, shouldn’t that candidate be in the party’s debt? Once in a lifetime, however, there comes along a man whose loyalty is bigger than partisan politics.
Noel Browne was such an individual. A TD and senator for over thirty years, a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, a campaigner for civil liberties, but most important of all, a champion of the needy.
December 20th last marked the centenary of his birth (20 December, 1915 – 21 May 1997). His early life was one of hardship and loss, leaving indelible psychological marks that led to a life of swimming against the tide.
The Browne family were living in Waterford when he was born. His father, Joseph, was unemployed. His mother, Mary Theresa, gave birth to eight children, Noel being fifth in line.
Soon after this, the family moved to Derry where Joseph found employment in one of the shirt factories. Despite the improved financial situation, it was not a happy time for the Brownes and Noel had no fond memories of the Maiden City.
Salvation came in 1920 when Joseph got a job as inspector with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which entailed moving to Athlone.
It was here that Noel received his first formal education with the Marist Brothers and later attended the CBS in Ballinrobe. He was very bright, eager to learn and quick on the up-take. He would later look back on this as the most settled period of his life.
It was not to last.
TB, or consumption as it was commonly known, was rampant in Ireland. It was spoken of in whispers, if mentioned at all, being associated with poverty and poor living conditions.
It was as if the sufferers were somehow complicit in their own misfortune.
One of his siblings, Annie, died in infancy of tuberculous meningitis. Joseph succumbed to tuberculosis in 1923, when Noel was still just eight years old. His mother followed suit four years later, aged forty-two.
The children, of course, were still young and had to be taken care of, which meant the family was broken up. The eldest, Eileen, was already working in England and through her efforts, Noel continued his education in a school in Eastbourne, from where he won a scholarship to Beaumont, a Jesuit public school.