By Patrick Rowan
For the chosen few, life in Dublin in the early years of the 20th century was very pleasant. As well as earning an easy living, they could indulge in literary or other enjoyable pursuits without having to worry about their income.
Dr. Oliver St. John Gogarty, surgeon, poet, writer and politician was one of these lucky individuals. He was at times a friend of James Joyce and was to become immortalised as Buck Mulligan in Joyce’s Ulysses.
St. John Gogarty was born in Rutland Square, Dublin, on August 17, 1878. He was the eldest son of a fashionable and prosperous medical practitioner who was to die young from a burst appendix. Oliver found it difficult to discover a school that suited him. He didn’t like Mungret College in Limerick. He then went to Stonyhurst College in England which was no better in his estimation.
Finally he settled in Clongowes Wood College while studying for examinations at the Royal University in Dublin. At that time he was more successful at sport than academically. He was a good athlete and played soccer for various teams.
Gogarty did not make much progress at the Royal University so he decided to enter the medical school in Trinity College. In TCD Gogarty became a great conversationalist and had as his mentor Professor John Pentland Mahaffy the man who when asked what is the difference between a man and a woman replied, ‘I can’t conceive.’
In 1904 Gogarty rented the famous Martello Tower in Sandycove to allow the impecunious Joyce to live there for a year ‘to finish his novel’ but they often quarrelled and Joyce didn’t spend much time there. The Tower was to remain in Gogarty’s possession for twenty years and was used by him as a quiet place to write and an isolated place to throw parties.
When Gogarty married Martha Duane in 1906 he decided that he needed a secure source of income so he settled into finalising his medical education. The following year his first child was born and then he left Ireland to further his medical education. He decided to specialise in ear, nose and throat diseases and spent a year in Vienna which was a leading centre for the study of these diseases at that time.
On his return to Dublin he was appointed to the staff of the Richmond Hospital, but later moved to the Meath Hospital where he was to spend the rest of his medical career. He became well-known for his antics in the operating theatre and for his witty conversation while operating.
His consulting rooms were in his home in Ely Place and for those who couldn’t afford his fee he didn’t charge. Meanwhile two more children arrived into the Gogarty family while they also acquired a large country house, Renvyle, in Connemara, where his wife came from. His Rolls Royce became a familiar sight around Dublin and his next acquisition was a pilot’s licence.
When Arthur Griffith founded Sinn Fein in 1905, Gogarty was a co-founder. During the War of Independence he allowed his home to be used as a ‘safe’ house and after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty he followed his great friend Griffith on the pro-treaty side. When Arthur Griffith died in August 1922 Gogarty was very upset. He carried out the autopsy and embalmment of his friend as he would for another of his friends, Michael Collins.
As a member of the Free State Senate, Gogarty was kidnapped by anti-treaty IRA members and brought to a house at Chapelizard outside Dublin. On the pretext of wanting to go to an outside toilet, he absconded, threw himself into the nearby Liffey and escaped.
Years later he would release two swans into the Liffey as a token of its help in saving his life. He remained a senator until the Senate was abolished in 1936 and often entertained his fellow members with his comments on various subjects.
As time went on Gogarty spent more and more time writing and less on his medical career. He published a number of volumes of poetry and had three of his plays staged in the Abbey Theatre. His semi-fictional ‘As I Was Going Down Sackville Street’ was very popular but resulted in a libel action. He lost in court and had to pay £900 damages.
In 1939 at the onset of WWll He tried to join the RAF but was considered to be too old so he took himself off to the United States on a lecture tour. He left his family in Ireland, including his wife, who ran Renvyle House as a hotel. It had been burned down during the Civil War but was re-built. In the US he supported himself by writing and only made infrequent visits to Ireland.
On September 22, 1957, Oliver St. John Gogarty suffered a fatal collapse on a street in New York. His body was brought back to Ireland to be buried near Renvyle in Connemara.