Born with a ‘lucky caul’ on his head, Oliver St. John Gogarty grew up to be a brilliant athlete, writer, medic and politician who once escaped execution by the Anti-Treaty IRA writes Jenny Crossley


When the raconteur Oliver St. John Gogarty walked down the street in Dublin’s city centre, it was said he couldn’t get far before he met someone he knew. He was the typical hail-fellow-well met.

Gogarty was born on 17th August, 1878 with a caul on his head, a lucky portent. His father Henry was a society physician, at that time an unusual achievement for a Catholic.

He died early, aged 49 of congestion of the liver, when Gogarty was twelve.

Gogarty was a an exuberant and sometimes naughty child, putting whiskey into the cats’ milk to intoxicate them. He attended a number of boarding schools, which he hated, referring to Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, as “a religious jail”. Too young to attend medical school, he spent a year at Clongowes Wood College where he excelled at cycling, football and cricket.

More importantly, he saved a man from drowning in the Liffey at Clane and prevented a fellow student from choking to death by whipping a fishbone out of his throat with his fingers.

When he finally started at the Royal University, Dublin, he spent his days cycling and his nights carousing. It was no surprise that of the ten examinations he sat he passed just two. He switched to studying medicine at Trinity College.
It was at Trinity College that he met James Joyce. Despite their different backgrounds, Joyce’s’ family was financially constrained, the two became firm friends.

They shared a love of Elizabethan literature and bawdy verse.

Gogarty’s competitive cycling career came to an end in 1901 when he was suspended for using foul language. It gave him more time for his studies. He specialised in midwifery and gynaecology at the National Maternity hospital, Holles Street. In 1903 he was conferred Bachelor of Arts.

Gogarty won the Vice-Chancellor’s Prize for Verse at Trinity, a record three times, prompting him to transfer to Oxford University for two terms in 1904 to try for the prestigious Newdigate Prize. He came second and was awarded the Proxime Accessit.

Gogarty returned to Dublin. To aid Joyce, who was in financial straits and needed a year to complete his novel, Gogarty rented Martello Tower in Sandycove. Joyce briefly took up residence in the tower together with Gogarty and his Oxford friend Samuel Chenevix Trench. The set-up later provided inspiration for the opening chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Joyce left the tower after only six days due to the midnight antics of his friends with a loaded revolver. This was the end of the friendship between Gogarty and Joyce.

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