Fond farewell for former State pathologist John Harbison

‘Returning to stardust, he will be bathed in the light of Jupiter’s rare marriage with Saturn’

Former State pathologist John Harbison who died last Friday aged 84 was "warm, funny and humane " recalled his daughter Isobel at his funeral service this afternoon.

"Right now, on the shortest day of the year . . . we say goodbye to John, standing beneath what astronomers call 'the great conjunction' " she told mourners at the crematorium chapel, Glasnevin, Dublin.

“Returning to stardust, he will be bathed in the light of Jupiter’s rare marriage with Saturn. The stars will shine brightly over Dublin Bay tonight . . . another brilliant one among them.”

He had been "a magical father" whose work seemed odd as a backdrop to an incredibly happy family life. With "a profound sense of his Irish identity and allegiance to Europe", he was "a Francophile, a Germanophile, spoke both languages fluently and throughout his life loved travelling to France and Germany. "


Harbison “drove Citroens. It was meaningful to him that they were produced in France. He also found their particular suspension systems accommodating, when hauling large loads of wine home from France.”

He was incredibly proud to work at the service of the State and as a lecturer, said his daughter. “Students appreciated Dad. I remember one graduate sending him a record by the Grateful Dead through the post. And death metal too loved Dad. He was very amused at finding out that in the late 1990s there was a death metal band who had adopted his name and was touring around Dublin doing gigs.”

Harbison’s only sibling, Peter, described him as rounded and cultured who was possibly best summed up in a description from an Irish Times profile as “the doctor with a good slab-side manner”.

He recalled that his brother became State pathologist in 1974 when Fine Gael senator Billy Fox was murdered by the IRA close to the border in Co Cavan. "The then State pathologist Maurice Hickey refused to do the autopsy as he feared for his own life. So the government of the time called upon John . . . to start his career as State pathologist. It was a tough job, having to travel at a moment's notice."

Harbison went on to become “arguably the most famous doctor in the country, well known to television viewers . . . seen putting on his white overalls.” He was “sociable, mannerly, obliging, respected and tremendously popular”.

Both of them loved classical music and “in 1957, the day that Sibelius died, John and I got out a record of Finlandia, played it and stood up and honoured the great Finnish composer”.

The service was preceded by a recording of Finlandia and ended with another favourite, Edit Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien.

Chief mourners were Harbison’s wife Kathleen, children Isobel and Austin, grandchildren Jack and Edith, brother Peter, and son-in-law Conor

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times