Beyond the Call of Duty – An Irishman’s Diary about Dr George Mahony and the 1916 Rising

Events in the GPO during Easter 1916 have often been described as the "birth of the Irish republic". That's even the title of a painting by Walter Paget, which depicts the rebels – including a stretcher-bound James Connolly – in the building's ruins, with flames rising around them.

But it is a remarkably little-known fact that the birth was attended by an obstetrician, or at least by an obstetrician-in-the-making. His role, heroic in its own way, was quickly forgotten. It would be more than 100 years later – this week, to be exact – before he was at last formally honoured.

We’ll return to that shortly.

First, the question of how George Mahony happened to find himself in Mother Ireland's maternity ward during the fateful week. He was not, it must be said, a willing participant, at least initially.

Born in Cork in 1888, he had studied medicine at UCC, graduating in 1913. Then he joined the British colonial medical service in India, as a lieutenant. So he would have been stationed a very safe distance from Dublin in 1916, had an accident not sent him home to recuperate.

He visited the capital that Easter only to meet his sister.

Unfortunately for him, he was recognised as a British officer and became one of 16 “guests of the nation” in the post office. A grateful Connolly would later declare him “the best thing we’ve captured all week”. Voluntary or not, Mahony was easily the most qualified medic there. As such, bowing to his responsibilities under the Hippocratic Oath, he became the garrison’s de facto senior medical officer. Connolly was soon one of his more urgent responsibilities.

Warm as it seems to have been, their relationship could have honourably ended when, late in the week, Mahony left the burning GPO in the company of wounded prisoners. But upon hearing that Connolly’s condition had deteriorated, he returned to the war zone, alone and risking death from the bullets of his own troops, to attend his charge. He was certainly a volunteer by then, if only in the medical sense.

After the rebellion, unsung by either side, he resumed his life in India, and went on to great distinction there, as a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology. His time as professor, dean, and principal of a medical college in Patna is now commemorated by the annual George Mahony Award, which enables budding obstetricians and gynaecologists to advance their education.

In one sense, the GPO followed him to India.

Fourteen years later, inspired by Pearse and Connolly, Bengali rebels calling themselves the IRA (Indian Republican Army) staged an uprising, also timed for Easter, even though they weren’t Christians.

Like the Dublin rebellion, it was a short-term failure. But unlike Dublin, it didn’t have much effect long-term either.

Today, it’s only a footnote to Indian independence.

As for George Mahony, he died in Belfast in 1964, barely a footnote to the events of half a century earlier. In a programme on the Rising’s 50th anniversary, the BBC even made the mistake of calling him “English”.

His widow corrected them to the effect that he had been “born and bred in Cork...was very proud of being an Irishman and would have been most distressed to hear himself called an English doctor”.

Mahony has a grandson, however, one Patrick Walker, who is indeed an English doctor (an obstetrician and gynaecologist to boot), now retired. And it's through him that Ireland has belatedly recognised the captive physician's heroism in 1916.

Last March, Walker was invited to address the spring meeting of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Dublin, speaking on the theme: “A different kind of patriotism – in recognition of George Mahony, 100 years later.”

Yesterday, six months later, he was back in Dublin to receive a special gold medal from the institute on behalf of his grandfather – an award unusual, if not unique, in Anglo-Irish history.

As noted by Prof Chris Fitzpatrick, Mahony was a complex product of that history. A Corkman, Presbyterian, British army officer, and physician, he was not easily categorised.

But he was true to himself and his calling, hence the citation: “in recognition of the exceptional dedication to patient care in circumstances of extreme personal danger that was demonstrated by Lieutenant George Mahony during his time as a prisoner-of-war in Dublin during the Easter 1916 Rising.”

Among those attending the tribute, by the way, was James Connolly Heron, grandson of the man on the stretcher.