Eithne Conway-McGee obituary: Doctor who cared for Galway’s most marginal people

Born: March 2nd, 1928

Died: August 18th, 2018

Dr Eithne Conway-McGee was a medical doctor, president of the Irish College of General Practitioners, sportswoman and Gaeilgeoir who will be remembered for her care of Galway city’s most marginal people during her working life, especially the Travelling community.

She was born on March 2nd, 1928 in Ballivor, Co Meath, to Thomas and Margaret Conway, both national school principals involved in Conradh na Gaeilge.


Eithne was the third eldest of eight surviving children, four boys and four girls. They spoke Irish at home creating a one-household Gaeltacht in Ballivor – she and her siblings spoke Irish together throughout their lives.

“With such utter dedication on my parents’ parts, how could I have not followed Irish all my life?” she once said of her own enthusiasm for the language.

Her parents put huge emphasis on their daughters’ education on the basis it would be much harder for them to progress in Irish society than it would be for boys. All four daughters were sent as boarders to the all-Irish St Louis Secondary School in Monaghan and all won scholarships to UCD. Eithne studied medicine and qualified in 1951. Her older brother, Pádraig, was in the same class as her throughout college.

Eithne was also a keen camogie player and captained the UCD team for several years, when it had a particularly successful run in the Ashbourne Cup, winning the competition several times. She also played for Dublin, and won an All Ireland medal in 1951.

After qualifying as a GP, she worked in Nottinghamshire in England, where many of her patients were miners, and then in Cookstown, Co Tyrone. Her fluency in Irish stood her in good stead when she was appointed the dispensary doctor in An Spidéal in the Connemara Gaeltacht in the early 1960s.

Though only 15km from Galway city, Cois Fharraige was still a poor region in the 1960s, with some of its uplands (especially around Boluisce) inaccessible by car. She remembered having to be rowed across a lake in the early hours of a winter morning to reach a critically ill girl.

Throughout her life, she followed the 'high thinking and plain living' doctrine of the St Louis sisters

In 1963, because of the ban on married woman being public servants, she was forced to resign her position and she relocated to Galway, where she established a new practice split between the growing suburbs of Mervue on the east of the city, and Salthill in the west. With young children, it was a difficult time in the earlier days of her practice. When she locumed, she often found herself covering “on duty” areas that spanned from Kinvara in south Galway to Clifden in west Connemara.

As her own practice developed, she became the doctor for many Traveller families in Galway city and built up a close relationship with that community.

Conway-McGee's approach to her work and life was always functional, or "practical" as she herself described it. She seldom wore make-up and never dyed her hair. Talkative and energetic, she was a regular guest for medical expertise on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta and TG4. A documentary on her life and work Dochtúir na nDaoine was broadcast in 2002 on TG4.

A lifelong Pioneer (non-drinker) and a devout Catholic, she was for many years the medical director of the Diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes.

Colleagues and friends pointed to her selflessness and generous nature which drove her lifelong activism, though she would never have described it as such.

Plain living

Throughout her life, she followed the “high thinking and plain living” doctrine of the St Louis sisters. Alan Brouder, writer and academic, wrote that she was his GP in Salthill when he was growing up and it was through her he learned the meaning of compassion.

She was centrally involved with the Irish College of General Practitioners, which has been instrumental in having general practice recognised as a speciality. She was national president of the ICGP between 1994 and 1995, having been vice-president the previous year.

She was a founder and lifelong member of Acadamh na Lianna, the society of Irish-speaking doctors, in 1968.

She founded the camogie section of the Salthill-Knocknacarra club in the late 1970s and was the coach and manager of most of its teams for the first decade of its existence.

In retirement, she remained very actively involved in civil society and medical education. She became interested in archaeology, and involved with active retirement groups, and was secretary of the Galway branch of An Taisce until her 89th year.

She was predeceased by her husband Michael, and is survived by her four children: Isbéal, Harry, Dara, and Micheál Óg. She is also survived by two of her siblings: Loman and Aoife.