Obituary: Dr John O’Connell
Colourful politician with strong commitment to the poor
A jubilant Dr John O'Connell, after he was elected in Dublin South Central
John O’Connell. Born: January 20th, 1927. Died: March 8th, 2013.
Dr John O’Connell, who died last week aged 86 years, had a varied career as a medical doctor, politician and businessman.
He was colourful, controversial, driven, mercurial and frequently intolerant of those who stood in his way. An Irish Times editorial once described him as active almost to the point of hazard, vocal almost to the point of indiscretion.
But even his sternest critics would not deny his commitment to the poor. He was an able and compassionate GP who argued for the availability of contraception from early in his medical and political careers. He remarked in the 1960s that he did not know whether to prescribe tranquillisers or the pill to west Dublin women who came to his surgery ground down by poverty and excessive childbirth.
He was a member of two political parties, Labour and Fianna Fail, and his big ambition was to be minister for health. When he finally achieved it, a lack of time and a shortage of resources frustrated him, and he left the department a disappointed man ready to quit politics when he failed to be reappointed after the 1992 general election.
O’Connell was born in Dublins Liberties and grew up in Drumcondra in grinding poverty. His father was a First World War veteran who lost an eye; his mother was in poor health, unable to read, one leg distended by illness.
Determined to become a doctor, his local GP refused him a college application reference because medicine was not a career for the poor. O’Connell funded his education through a succession of menial jobs.
After qualifying as a doctor in 1955, he worked in the United States for a number of years before returning to set up a highly successful medical practice in Dublins South Circular Road.
Elected as a Labour TD for Dublin South West in 1965, he had a tense relationship with the party hierarchy, unhappy with his volatility and strong nationalist outlook.
He was bitterly disappointed when party leader Brendan Corish omitted him from the Cabinet when the party joined Fine Gael in power in 1973. Corish, who had been furious with O’Connell a year earlier for organising a meeting in his Dublin home with the then British Labour leader Harold Wilson and Provisional IRA leaders, Daithi O Conaill and Sean MacStiofain, allocated the Department of Health brief to himself.
O’Connell never forgave Corish, ridiculing him in his engaging but inevitably self-serving autobiography, Doctor John , in 1989. O’Connell was elected to the European parliament in 1979 when the dual mandate still existed.