A grand passion


Until I became acquainted with Phyllis Browne (77), the widow of healthcare visionary Noel Browne who died in May last year at the age of 80, it hadn't occurred to me that a recipe for scones could be defiant, embracing and hungry all at once. It is defiant, because a scone recipe is not the politically correct way for a woman in the 1990s to begin a book about how she - gently and behind the scenes - influenced the shape of Irish society.

It is embracing, because that is how Phyllis has tried to be throughout her 77 years, although after her own cold, scarred, neglected childhood she has always found it difficult being with people, other than her beloved Noel and her two daughters. It is hungry, because Phyllis yearns for certain things: for Noel, for the warm and unexpected human contact that a hastily mixed and eagerly devoured batch of scones represents and, less obviously, for recognition of the enormous sacrifices she and her husband made because they were committed to contributing something to Irish society.

Those are my words, not hers. Phyllis is a melancholy, stoical person who is not emotionally expressive, although she is friendly and kind. She says that she has little need to communicate with the outside world, preferring isolation and silence. Her memoirs, Thanks for the Tea, Mrs Browne, which are being published this week, began as a therapeutic bundle of papers on her desk. Then they were noticed by a visitor to her Connemara house in Ballinahawn, Bill Long, who suggested that she show it to his editor, Edwin Higel of New Island Books. Phyllis's life began when she met Noel; before that she merely survived. Phyllis's mother was cold and uncaring, making no secret of the fact that of her six children, the final batch of three, which included Phyllis, was a mistake, and she ran the family home like an institution. Things were made even worse for Phyllis when she was sexually abused by a trusted family friend.

Phyllis left school at 15 and, by now an accomplished pianist, she continued musical studies and socialised, walking Grafton Street as teenagers still do today. At the same time, as a Protestant she felt stigmatised, and she was the only one of her siblings to remain in the Republic, since it was almost impossible for Protestant young people to find employment here. Two of her brothers were forced to travel to the Far East for work, where they eventually became prisoners of war.

On the night she met Noel, the 17-year-old Phyllis had been invited by a handsome neighbour to a dance at the Trinity College Boat Club, but within minutes she had met, "on the third stair outside the bar", 21-year-old Noel, and she never saw her handsome neighbour again. Noel practically carried her to the dance floor and "instinctively, a life commitment was silently understood between us. It was as although we had already lived a life together in the past, lost touch, and were happy now to meet up again."

Noel was a penniless survivor whose parents and several siblings had been killed by TB while he was still a child. His father died first, leaving his mother so poor that as she lay dying, no doctor or priest would attend her because the attitude was "your money or your life - or even your after-life". The Chance family took pity on Noel and paid for his education, enabling him to become a doctor. Noel's poverty - and his Catholicism - made him a poor choice of a husband as far as Phyllis's parents were concerned, and they conspired to discourage the relationship. TB also intervened, and it would be eight years before the couple were married in a bleak, war-time ceremony in England. The current generation, reared on a fear of AIDS, has no idea of the terror and misery which the much more pervasive TB epidemic created, splintering families by killing parents and leaving behind sick children. Phyllis was the first to develop the disease, which deposited itself in her bones. In hospital, in 1938, she was strapped inside a cage-like metal contraption and forced to lie absolutely still for one year to rest the bone. She was "turned" once a week. At night on the ward, she heard young mothers screaming for their children and people moaning as they died. Only daily visits from Noel stopped Phyllis losing her mind.

She recovered completely and for a while the couple appeared, once again, to be blessed with a kind of love which Phyllis describes, simply, as "ecstasy". They were like children together, walking in the Wicklow Hills, constantly talking and sorting out the problems of the world. Noel's concerns were Phyllis's and even before they were married, they had become "we". Today, husbands and wives are supposed to be independent and self-sufficient, but then it felt completely natural for a couple like Noel and Phyllis to feel and act as one: the feminine half caring, nurturing and bearing children, the masculine half active in the world. Today, Phyllis still believes that children need their mothers to rear them full-time in the home, although if Noel had not been so sick all his life, she would, after her children had grown up, have gone to university and perhaps had a career of her own.

That was not to be and instead, Noel's career was Phyllis's. Running parellel with his medical work, he was first elected to the Dail in 1948 for Clann na Poblachta in Wicklow. Having campaigned on the TB issue, he was immediately made Minister for Health in the first inter-party government at the age of 32. Noel and Phyllis planned everything together - particularly the Mother and Child Scheme, which would shake society and loosen the grip of the Catholic Church on the Republic.

But first, Noel had to survive TB. No sooner was Phyllis back on her feet than Noel developed TB in the lungs, an affliction from which he never fully recovered.

Over the next 50 years, keeping Noel alive would be Phyllis's main task. He nearly died from TB five times and had three heart attacks. Because he had to rest, she served him three meals a day in bed for most of his life. He would leave the house and work, then return to spend an hour at a time as an invalid - a lifestyle which Phyllis believes his political colleagues, and the public, never appreciated.

"This misunderstanding of what Noel had to go through to do the things he did is one reason I wrote the book," says Phyllis. "Another reason is that it has always annoyed me that people think Noel was difficult to get on with. Those `people' who believed that were the politicians. Of course he made things difficult for them by insisting on what he believed in. He couldn't stand their double-standards and hypocrisy. I would love for him to be alive now to see the scandals that are being exposed. "I wanted to show that Noel was not difficult, that he was an ordinary, decent person, very easy to get on with, very humorous and great fun at home. We had a wonderfully even life together and no rows, ever. The children never heard him or me raise our voices."

The couple were hippies before hippies were invented, living a bohemian lifestyle in a series of tumbledown houses in the countryside, because the banks kept calling in their mortgages and because Noel hated walls and petrol fumes. They lived stylishly with very little money because Phyllis had a creative streak. Despite Noel's 30 years in the Dail - variously as an Independent, National Progressive Democratic Party, Labour and Socialist Labour deputy - he couldn't afford to send his own daughters to university.

Over the years, Phyllis reared hens, pigs and rabbits, baked cakes to sell in local shops and made dresses to sell in a Bray boutique. As the wife of the Minister for Health, she attended many public functions, for which she would run up inexpensive evening gowns at the last minute, sometimes hemming them in the car.

In his attack on the TB plague, Noel supervised the provision of 3,000 hospital beds along with the necessary support services, including an X-ray service to diagnose the disease early, more medical and nursing staff, payments to help families whose wage-earners had to stay in bed, and BCG inoculation. "I was so pleased, so glad that we had taken the risks we did, to see Noel's desire to get rid of tuberculosis become reality," she writes. Noel's next campaign was to improve the lot of deprived and ill mothers and their children through the Mother and Child Scheme of 1950-51. John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin, insisted that it was "contrary to Catholic moral teaching" - conveniently ignoring any obligation to social teaching, Phyllis points out - for the State to interfere in family matters. The Church-State machine won, with the support of the Taoiseach, Sean McBride, who asked for Noel's resignation, and from that point on, Noel and Phyllis felt cast out by society. The voters, however, were disgusted with the behaviour of the politicians and the Catholic Church and returned Noel to his seat. Since then, the Catholic Church has never been quite so powerful in Ireland.

While Noel fought for what he believed on behalf of the people, Phyllis constantly struggled on a practical level to keep the family afloat. "They [the establishment] wanted to get rid of us," Phyllis says now with conviction.

She has little respect for today's political process and senses a lack of passion to improve society, to simply, as she and Noel did, "go about the business of making some contribution". There are people waiting years for operations and people with cancer waiting on hospital beds, she observes. The passion to change society is needed more than ever - if only it could be found.

Thanks for the Tea, Mrs Browne by Phyllis Browne will be published by New Island Books on Thursday, price £6.99