Declan Meagher obituary: childbirth pioneer who championed Irish family planning

Offaly-born gynaecologist who was master of National Maternity Hospital has died at 98

Dr Declan Meagher with his portrait by Thomas Ryan,  presented to him on the completion of his term as master of the National Maternity Hospital in December 1976. With him is the matron of the hospital, Una Murphy.  
Photograph: Kevin McMahon/The Irish Times

Dr Declan Meagher with his portrait by Thomas Ryan, presented to him on the completion of his term as master of the National Maternity Hospital in December 1976. With him is the matron of the hospital, Una Murphy. Photograph: Kevin McMahon/The Irish Times

 

Declan Meagher
Born: March 21st, 1921
Died: November 3rd, 2019

Declan Meagher co-founded one of Ireland’s first family planning clinics and went on to be master of the National Maternity Hospital. He has died at the age of 98.

Motivated to improve the health and welfare of Dublin women – many of whom were living in poverty and having up to 10 babies – Dr Meagher and his colleague Dr Kieran O’Driscoll established a family planning clinic at the National Maternity Hospital in 1963, soon after a similar family planning clinic was set up in Dr Steevens Hospital by Dr Michael Solomons, consultant gynaecologist at the Rotunda Hospital.

Although defiant of Catholic teaching at the time, these early family planning services targeted women with very large families or complex medical conditions which would be further compromised by pregnancy and childbirth. Dr Meagher was a firm believer in giving women choice at a time when the Catholic Church was promoting the unreliable natural approaches to contraception such as the Billings method. Although the contraceptive pill arrived in Ireland in 1963, contraception was not legalised until 1980 following the 1979 Health (Family Planning) Act.

Also troubled by the high level of maternal mortality in Dublin in the 1960s, Meagher and O’Driscoll pioneered an approach to childbirth which offered one-to-one midwife support to women in labour whilst closely monitoring the progress of labour so as to prevent long labours which put women’s health at risk.

This so-called “active management of labour” later became the standard care in many maternity hospitals throughout the world. Meagher and O’Driscoll’s textbook The Active Management of Labour was published in 1969 and is currently in its fourth edition.

Clongowes

Declan Meagher was born the youngest of four children to Dr William Meagher, a dispensary doctor, and his wife, Mary (nee Adams) in Ferbane, Co Offaly. Following a year in the Christian Brothers school in Tullamore, he attended Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare. He studied medicine at University College Dublin (UCD), graduating in 1944. He spent a year as an intern in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, with a short stint at the National Maternity Hospital, at which time he decided to pursue a career in obstetrics.

He married Emer McMullin in 1949 and the couple moved to London, where Meagher trained in obstetrics in Hammersmith Hospital. He returned to Dublin to take up a post in the National Maternity Hospital in 1953.

Meagher introduced maternity care practices from the National Maternity Hospital to Palestinian women at the Holy Family Hospital in the West Bank

Meagher was a big man with a self-deprecating style. He had a strong handshake, warm smile, sharp listening skills and a superb memory, especially for the families whose babies he delivered. An avid sports fan, he played rugby for UCD as a student and enjoyed many matches in Lansdowne Road stadium, a stone’s throw from the family home where their eight children grew up.

As Master of the National Maternity Hospital from 1970 to 1976, he was a strong, charismatic leader, always willing to give advice to junior doctors and a keen supporter of midwives. He continued to work at the hospital and as a consultant gynaecologist at St Vincent’s Hospital until his retirement in 1991.

Bethlehem

Following his retirement at 70, Meagher and his wife Emer – who ably managed the family’s domestic life and was tremendous support to him throughout his career – left their comfortable home in Dublin 4 to spend three years in Bethlehem. While there, Meagher introduced maternity care practices from the National Maternity Hospital to Palestinian women at the Holy Family Hospital in the West Bank. Energised by working with people from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, he also set up training programmes for doctors and nurses to study at the National Maternity Hospital. The first meeting of the Irish Palestinian Obstetrics Society in September 2019 is part of his legacy.

Upon their return to Dublin, the couple embraced family life to the full, staying connected to their adult children – five of whom had become medical doctors in Australia, Canada, the United States, Malaysia as well as Ireland. He was also a great supporter of his daughter Mary, who set up the Rose Project to fund a new maternity hospital in Malawi.

His mastery of Facetime, Skype and email in his elder years allowed him to continue to have a strong presence in the lives of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Appreciated by each generation for his good counsel, he was mentally alert and engaged with family life right up until his death.

Dr Meagher is survived by his children Frances, Tim, Mary, Declan, Paul, Simon, Peter and Emma, 23 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His wife Emer (née McMullin) pre-deceased him in 2018.