An Irishman’s Diary on Bethel Solomons, a pioneering doctor and rugby international

A pillar of Ireland’s Jewish community

Portrait bust of Bethel Solomons by Jacob Epstein. Photograph: Courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland

Portrait bust of Bethel Solomons by Jacob Epstein. Photograph: Courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland

 

Bethel Solomons, the eminent Irish gynaecologist and distinguished Master of the Rotunda Hospital, who supported the Irish independence struggle and played rugby for Ireland, died 50 years ago on September 11th, 1965. He was born in 1885 into a prominent Dublin Jewish family, one of the oldest continuous Jewish families in Ireland, the Solomons having come here from England in 1824.

His father, Maurice Solomons, was an optician whose practice at 19 Nassau Street is mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses: “Striding past Finn’s Hotel, Cashel Boyle O’Connor Fitmaurice Tisdall Farrell stared through a fierce eyeglass across the carriages at the head of Mr M. E. Solomons in the window of the Austro-Hungarian viceconsulate.” (In 1902, Maurice Solomons became an honorary consul to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)

His mother, Rosa Jacobs, from Hull in England was a teacher, was fluent in French and German, an accomplished pianist and chose the site for the Adelaide Road synagogue in Dublin.

His sister Estella was one of the foremost Irish artists of her day. She joined Cumann na mBan around 1918 and was politically active before and during the War of Independence. She married the poet and publisher Seumas O’Sullivan, who was a close friend of Arthur Griffith.

Bethel Solomons attended St Andrew’s School in Dublin, where he developed a keen interest in rugby.

He went on to play international rugby as a forward for Ireland 10 times between 1908 and 1910. In the latter year, he was one of a group of people who contributed to the purchase of a house in Clontarf for the newly married Arthur Griffith.

He studied medicine in Trinity College Dublin, where he became the third Jew to qualify in medicine from that college and the first Irish Jew to specialise, choosing to become an obstetrician and gynaecologist. He became a consultant at Mercer’s Hospital and in 1911 was appointed an assistant master at the Rotunda. From 1926 to 1933 he was Master of the Rotunda.

Specialist

Jewish Ireland: A Social History

He served as president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland for three years from 1946, “another Jewish first”, according to Rivlin. He practised from number 30, Lower Baggot Street. He wrote standard textbooks on midwifery and gynaecology and was appointed inspector of examinations to the medical schools of Britain and Ireland in both those subjects.

He had married Gertrude Levy in the Liberal Synagogue in London in 1916, and in 1946 he was a founder member and first president of the Dublin Jewish Liberal Congregation.

His art collection included works by Jean Cooke. In an article on Cooke in the Independent in August 2008, he is described as an early patron of her works and as a “discerning collector”.

Ray Rivlin referred to him as a man of many interests, one of which was membership of the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland, “where he lit cigarettes for a companionable chimp who smoked while they strolled the grounds together”. He was also an accomplished horseman and master of the Kildare Hunt, sometimes appearing at a patient’s bedside in riding gear, for which he was amusingly referred to as master of the Rotunda harriers.

His sense of humour may be seen from the anecdote he told in his memoir, One Doctor in His Time (1956). He was due to play rugby for Ireland and he took a taxi to Lansdowne Road. On inquiring from the the driver how he thought Ireland would do, he received the disdainful reply: “Ireland – 14 Protestants and a Jewman!”

Sculptor Jacob Epstein did a portrait bust of him (circa 1955) which may be seen in the National Gallery of Ireland. If his father is referred to in Ulyssess, his own long association with the Rotunda Hospital is marked in Finnegans Wake: “in my bethel of Solyman’s, I accouched their rotundaties”.