The following is a piece I originally posted some time ago on my old blog. It is a summary of the life and politics of Noel Browne and the main source is his excellent memoir Against the Tide. I make no claims for this piece to be ‘proper’ history. If you are interested in learning more about Browne his own memoir is a great starting point and John Horgan’s Passionate Outsider also provides interesting insights.
We are often led to believe that we in Ireland have no history of Socialism. That it is a foreign importation and indeed this has been the way for over a century. James Connolly stated in the introduction to Socialism Made Easy;
‘SOCIALISM IS A FOREIGN IMPORTATION!
I know it because I read it in the papers. I also know it to be the case because in every country I have graced with my presence up to the present time, or have heard from, the possessing classes through their organs in the press, and their spokesmen upon the platform have been vociferous and insistent in declaring the foreign origin of Socialism.
In Ireland Socialism is an English importation, in England they are convinced it was made in Germany, in Germany it is a scheme of traitors in alliance with the French to disrupt the Empire, in France it is an accursed conspiracy to discredit the army which is destined to reconquer Alsace and Lorraine, in Russia it is an English plot to prevent Russian extension towards Asia, in Asia it is known to have been set on foot by American enemies of Chinese and Japanese industrial progress, and in America it is one of the baneful fruits of unrestricted pauper and criminal immigration.’
Ironically those who went on the found the fledging Irish state were quick to hijack the legacy of Connolly and try to portray him as a nationalist of their ilk rather than the committed socialist and internationalist that he actually was. Indeed most people are probably not aware that Connolly was a Marxist and he is remembered by the elites of our state more for his role in the disastrous 1916 rising than his role in bringing militant trade unionism to Ireland and in attempting to create a class consciousness amongst the Irish people in their struggle against Imperialism.
In the same way Noel Browne, is if he is mentioned at all, usually has had his memory hijacked by those would consider themselves to be liberal reformers and who would rather concentrate on his secularism rather than his socialism. Best remembered, if at all, for the Mother and Child scheme Browne had a long and tumultuous career in Irish politics.
In his memoir Against the Tide, published in 1986 Browne details the circumstances of his early life which were to lead him into politics and the tumultuous career which followed. He was the perennial outsider and a rare conscience in Irish politics. The title of his memoir is highly fitting as he put forward left wing secular ideas at a time when the State was conservative and Catholic and was at every point in his career to find himself at odds with the establishment.
Browne came from humble beginnings. Born in Waterford to parents from Galway and Mayo he lived in Derry, Waterford, Athlone and Ballinrobe during his childhood, as his parents made their way about the country in order to find the means to take care of their eight children. His father died of Tuberculosis when Noel was just nine leaving his widowed mother to take care of a large family. She returned from Athlone to her home town of Ballinrobe where she was an outcast and a playmate once told Browne that his family ‘had come to Ballinrobe to be fed’. The only visitors to come to the family home came for the auction of their worldly possessions when Noel’s mother had to sell everything they had to take the family to England to stay with her eldest child when she herself contracted TB. She would die in a workhouse in England two weeks after bringing the family there.
The suffering of his mother made Browne a devout secularist. He saw from an early age the control which the church exercised over society and the way in which it was ultimately women and children who bore the brunt of this oppression. Receiving a catholic education taught him that the clergy were usually bullies and often paedophiles. He also saw how the Irish proletariat and peasantry never questioned the clergy and held themselves in servitude with their unquestioning faith in catholic teachings.
Browne However had a mixture of good and bad fortune which can only be described as bizarre. Having lost both parents by the age of twelve and facing into an uncertain future with only an impoverished sister to take care of the entire family, circumstances were to provide him with opportunities normally considered unattainable for someone of his class. When his sister found a job as a domestic help she was allowed to bring her siblings to stay with her. The owner of the house then managed to get Noel admitted to a Catholic preparatory school and this in turn led to him receiving a scholarship to a Jesuit grammar school where the English Catholic elites received their instruction (including military training) on how to serve the empire.
Having received a Christian Brothers’ education in Ireland Browne was quick to spot discrepancies in the roles of Catholic education in the two countries and came to realise that the role religion played in society was more social and political than anything else. While the Imperialist and racist poet Kipling may have referred to walking among Kings and never losing the common touch Browne was to find himself walking amongst the elites but never losing sight of his class origins. He was the only person at his school who was not form a background of wealth and power but as he excelled both academically and athletically he was popular and well liked.
Not having a family or a home (one sister had been sent to America and his other siblings had been scattered throughout England. His eldest brother Jodie was to die in a workhouse and his eldest sister Eileen also suffered an untimely death.) he was often invited to take holidays with classmates and it was during his last summer holidays he was to stay with the appropriately named Chance family, who offered to pay for his education as a Doctor at Trinity college.
Browne had never considered becoming a Doctor and never even considered that the opportunity would ever be available to him. He had no qualms in going against the Catholic church and entering the Protestant Trinity College although it was in may ways to play a role in further alienating him from the society he inhabited. As a Trinity Graduate many of the doors open to Catholics were closed to him and as a Catholic many of the doors open to Trinity graduates were closed to him. He recalls how one teaching doctor told the assembled students ‘I don’t lecture to Jews, niggers or papists. If there are any here they should leave now.’ Browne and a number of African and Jewish classmates had to leave the ward before the lecture could begin.
Most Trinity graduates went into private practise following their graduation. Browne however believed the connection between money and medical treatment was an aberration. In Against the Tide he is heavily critical of the mercenary attitudes of many in the medical profession. He points out that while Nursing is portrayed as a vocation and therefore nurses are subjected poor wages and conditions the role of Doctors and in particular consultants is not portrayed in the same way. Doctors expect to be paid for every patient they see while Nurses are not paid for every injection they administer or every bed they make.
His only attempt to enter private practise ended in a loss as he was unable to ask patients to pay for their treatment and instead set up a bowl in the waiting room where donations could be made. Unable to find work in Irish hospitals he returned to England where he gained experience in working in TB sanatoria and following world War II he returned to Ireland to work in what was essentially a voluntary capacity in the Sanatorium at Newcastle Co. Wicklow.
Browne’s belief in the need for the creation of a system of Socialised medicine was to lead to his being drawn to politics. However mainstream Irish politics was divided along civil war lines with the two main parties being conservative organisations. The Labour party who claimed to be a left wing party wouldn’t allow him to join and so he was to join Clann na Poblachta, a breakaway Republican party headed by Sean McBride.
Browne joined not because he was a Republican in the sense of the word used by his party Comrades but because in this party he saw a platform from which his quest for the establishment of a national health service could be advanced.
Browne won a Dail seat and overall the new party took ten seats in the 1948 elections. At this stage Fianna Fail had been in power for sixteen years and de Valera had set about creating a nation in his own image. All parties apart from FF decided to pool their resources and form what was on paper a left leaning government (the other parties were the arch conservative Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the National Labour Party and Clann na Talham (the farmer’s party)). It was to be the State’s first coalition government.
Despite his lack of political experience on his first day in government at the age of 33 Noel Browne was made minister for Health. It was a new department and it as seen as a safe place to put a potential upstart such as he. However Browne was to achieve more in three years than any other minister of health in the History of the State.
His personal mission was to eradicate TB and create a world class system of healthcare for all. In order to this more hospitals and clinics were needed and he was to find this task surprisingly easy. He was the only minister with control over his own budget. This was because funds were raised for health through the hospital sweepstakes. This money was being put into investments and previous ministers with responsibility for health had only been using the interest on this money to run the health service. Browne broke open the piggy bank and began a programme of building which has not been seen before or since.
This programme did not even need to held up by planning stages, it turned out that every county in the country had advanced plans for new hospitals and clinics and that land had already been acquired in many cases. This was as FF had made a habit out of promising new hospitals in every election and then then not building them so they could promise them again in the next election.
When it came to eradicating TB he did not need to appoint any experts or committees to decide how to proceed. As a TB doctor he knew which steps needed to be taken in the treatment of patients and progress in drastically reducing Ireland’s TB levels was swift. He is more than any other person responsible for its eradication in the State.
Perhaps the greatest irony of Browne’s career is that it was in attempting to implement a bill introduced by the former government that he was to make his most significant mark on history and to take on the might of the Catholic hierarchy and the medical profession. The Mother and Child scheme had been introduced by the FF government in 1947 and while objections had been received by the then Taoiseach de Valera he kept these secret from the incoming government and set Browne up for an ambush for which he was unprepared. The premise of the bill was simple. Free health care for all children under sixteen and free health care to all mothers.
While it may have fallen short of the sort of health care Browne himself may have wanted to introduce this level of non means tested health care to some of the most vulnerable in society was to eventually bring down the coalition.
The clergy gave numerous excuses for opposing it. They instigated a red scare. Claimed that it was against the family and that it would lead to the introduction of contraceptives and abortion and even that it would lead to a poorer quality of service. They claimed to be worried about taxes and said that it should be means tested so the rich would pay. However the over riding reason for their opposition was that Browne was crashing their party. They had a strangle hold over Irish society through their control of the education and health services. They didn’t want the state interfering.
In this they had the support of the Doctors and Consultants who were worried about a loss in earnings.
Ironically one reason given by all sides who opposed the Mother and Child scheme was the fact that it was not means tested. The was an excuse formulated by the fake socialist William Norton, leader of the fake socialist Labour party. He claimed that he didn’t see why he should have to pay for health care for the fur coated ladies of Foxrock and so was able to seem to give a valid reason for not supporting a bill which was designed to help the most vulnerable in society. He was able to side with the clergy and consultants and still make it seem to his supporters that he was doing it for the benefit of the people. It is the same excuse used by many today in relation to things such as third level fees. What they are not worried about however is that free services will be given to those who can afford to pay but rather that those how can afford to pay for themselves will have to pay taxes to provide services to the most disadvantaged in society.
The Mother and Child scheme had massive public support, in particular amongst the poorest sections of society and the church and doctors had to work extremely hard to terrify the population in order to make them less supportive. It was ultimately however not the people who lost faith in the proposed scheme but the politicians. The coalition partners failed to live up to the mandate they had and implement an extremely popular bill and instead sided with the clergy and medical professionals in order to subvert the democratic process. It was ultimately to lead to the collapse of the government. Browne was cast aside and the coalition collapsed. There was to be another coalition a couple of years later which was even more short lived and which collapsed to allow dev to rule for another sixteen years.
The first inter-party government is best remembered for three things. Being the first coalition government in the history of the State, the Mother and Child Scheme and declaring the Republic. It was ironic that it was not de Valera who declared Ireland a Republic as he had come very close in his ultra conservative, Catholic and Nationalist 1937 constitution. Fine Gael were generally seen as ‘soft’ on the national question and the minority Clann na Poblachta coalition partners were the only party in government who labelled themselves as Republican.
In the 1970s in an interview Browne revealed how exactly the Republic had come about. At a banquet in Ottawa the Taoiseach Costello had felt slighted and that Imperial triumphalism was being rubbed in his face by his hosts. In retaliation when he made his speech he announced that Ireland was to leave the Commonwealth and become a Republic. This was a shock not only to those present but also to his own cabinet colleagues. On his return he offered his resignation but it was refused by the cabinet and they decided to forge ahead and leave the Commonwealth.
Browne was the first to make this version of events public and he was quickly denounced as a liar by his former cabinet colleagues. It was not until the mid eighties (shortly before the publication of Against the Tide) that his story was corroborated and became the accepted version of events. Amongst those to condemn him for revealing the true events surrounding the leaving of the Commonwealth was his former party leader Mac Bride. Browne’s vindication in this was ultimately to cast a shadow over what was previously considered to be a glorious part of Irish history.
It was of course far from glorious. The reason de Valera had never taken Ireland out of the Commonwealth was not out of conviction but rather out of pragmatism. He saw a united Ireland inside the commonwealth as more attractive to the Unionists in Northern Ireland. Ironically in making what was portrayed as a bold Nationalist/Republican move Costello ultimately took Ireland further away from the Nationalist ambition of unity. However neither de Valera nor Costello, or Mac Bride for that matter had anything against Imperialist organisations provided it would lead to a united Ireland. All three were willing to take Ireland into NATO provided that Ireland would be unified. According to Browne envoys were sent by Mac Bride to sound out this prospect and the only reason Ireland did not join NATO was not because of issues of principal or neutrality but because no guarantees were forthcoming.
Browne was to ultimately find that the rest of his political career was to be spent on the backbenches. Following on auspicious beginning in government he was to learn that politics of those like him have no place inside the establishment. Clann na Phoblachta did not last long after his expulsion and he spent most of the rest of his career as an independent. He did however at a couple of points join mainstream parties (Both Fianna Fail and Labour) in order to find platforms for his politics but was expelled from both parties. His attempts to found new left wing parties (first the National Progressive Democrats and then the Socialist Labour Party) ended in failure due to faction fighting and lack of proper organisation.
His period on the backbenches (which lasted three decades until his retirement in 1981) saw him regarded as a lone voice in the wilderness (although often he had another independent left wing deputy named McQuillan as a sidekick) and he was idolised by his followers and demonised by his opponents. Often branded as a Communist and Atheist he suffered through what he ultimately regarded to be a sham electoral system where the state surrendered all power to the clergy in order to provide a voice on issues such as contraceptives, gay rights, secularism and health care amongst many others. He was attacked by the Gardai and savaged by police dogs when he and others attempted to march against the American Embassy in protest against American policy on Cuba and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was later informed that staff inside the embassy were armed and had been ready to open fire on protesters and that the Gardai were acting to protect the protesters but this may be a story concocted to cover the undemocratic actions of the Irish police, but then again it could be true.
He often found himself having the casting vote when it came to choosing governments and while he may have sometimes helped to bring far from ideal governments to power he claimed he always strove to pick the lesser of two evils and was willing to withdraw support when necessary. Perhaps his greatest impact on Irish history while in opposition was his role in finally ousting de Valera from power. Deputy McQuillan had been given a number of Irish Press shares and he signed one of these over to Browne. The Irish Press had been the newspaper created by de Valera when Fianna Fail were outside of the Dail in order to have a propaganda tool to counter the Irish Independent (Catholic Conservative and anti-Republican) and Irish Times (Protestant Conservative and anti-Republican). It had been funded by selling shares to ordinary Fianna Fail members who were mostly working class and small farmers.
As shareholders Browne and McQuillan were entitled to examine the books of Irish Press newspapers. They discovered that there was massive corruption and embezzlement in the Irish Press and that dev had surreptitiously procured a controlling interest in Irish Press newspapers for himself and his family at the expense of the shareholders, who were mostly grass roots Fianna Fail supporters. It took them over a year and a half to have debate on the issue brought up in the Dail but once it had been revealed that de Valera had swindled his own supporters his future was clear. The pope’s plaything had to step down and hand control of the party over to his young protege Sean Lemass who would take Ireland from a society that was solely controlled by the Catholic church to one that was jointly controlled by the Catholic Church and big business.
When Browne eventually left politics he moved to Baile na hAbhainn in Connemara with his wife Phyllis and there he wrote his memoirs and played the accordion. He died in 1997. But what is his legacy? Where do we put a man like Noel Browne in Irish history? Is there a place for him either in establishment History or Socialist history?
He was it seems a man who tried to make a difference. Who really did try to fight against the tide. He was undoubtedly a Socialist but his flirtations with the establishment parties and forays into government could turn Socialists off him. Likewise his Socialism could turn establishment reformers off him. He was ultimately an outsider yet for three years he did participate in government and did make a difference. He was successful in building hospitals and eradicating TB because he had a will and the courage of his convictions. Yet when he tried to bring about social change the full force of the church, state and medical profession bore down on him. He didn’t believe that we lived inside a true democracy but yet participated in elections and even supported governments he claimed not to agree with.
Perhaps when he came into government the establishment hadn’t been ready for him. Perhaps creatures like him were until that point unknown. However once the establishment came to grips with him he was quickly dispatched to the political wilderness. Ultimately what we can learn from Noel Browne is that real change can never come from inside the establishment. It was as an outsider on the backbenches that he really belonged. Perhaps it is to his merit that he tried to change the system form within but only as it ultimately proved to in vain.
As a Socialist he was never overly preoccupied with tackling business but rather religion. The Ireland he lived in was after all a different one to the one we now inhabit. Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s wasn’t a fully developed capitalist society. It was in some ways still a semi feudal State dominated by the clergy and civil war parties. Browne maintained that Ireland wasn’t a democratic country. That while there might on the surface have been an electoral process it was in reality the clergy who held the reigns of power. One thing is for sure the political system hasn’t changed much in Ireland in the past half century. So if the electoral system is still a sham we must ask then who now holds the reigns?