America at Large: Hurling fan Dowling leading the fight against Covid-19

Limerick native and boss of a major healthcare provider drafted in to help New York's response

Northwell Health chief executive Michael Dowling talks to New York governor Andrew Cuomo during a news conference at the Jacob Javits Convention Center  in New York City. Photograph: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Northwell Health chief executive Michael Dowling talks to New York governor Andrew Cuomo during a news conference at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City. Photograph: Noam Galai/Getty Images

 

Just over two months ago, shortly before the world was tilted askew, Michael Dowling gave a public interview in Manhattan in which he was asked to discuss a person, a place and a thing that influenced his life.

Having spoken eloquently about former New York governor Mario Cuomo giving him his first big break and St Ita’s secondary school in Newcastle West fostering a teenager’s belief he might go to college, he produced a hurley and started to explain to bemused Americans how hurling, with all its reckless physicality, inherent danger and innate skill, is part of the Irish DNA.

“I would love to get him in a game,” said Dowling when the interviewer suggested the sport night be a little too rough for president Trump.

“My guess is that at the very thought of looking at this he’d run for the hills. I don’t think there’s much courage in that personality.”

As Trump’s daily press conferences offer fresh reminders that he remains disconnected from reality, science and facts, Dowling is involved at the sharp end of the fight against Covid-19.

President and CEO of Northwell Health, a healthcare provider that has 23 hospitals, over 800 outpatient facilities and 72,000 employees, he was drafted in by Cuomo’s son Andrew, the current governor, to help co-ordinate New York’s response to the virus.

That Northwell went on emergency footing six weeks before the president finally admitted the pandemic was real may be because the boss came from an earthier world where pragmatism was always essential to survival.

Dowling grew up in the maw of poverty in a thatched cottage in Knockaderry, Co Limerick where the floor was mud, fresh water had to be ferried from a well and the only toilet was outside.

Michael Dowling: “The physical aspect [of hurling], the tolerance for discomfort, this is one of the greatest loves of my life . . . . The type of games you play say something about the character of the individual.” Photograph: Ron Adar/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Michael Dowling: “The physical aspect [of hurling], the tolerance for discomfort, this is one of the greatest loves of my life . . . . The type of games you play say something about the character of the individual.” Photograph: Ron Adar/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Born in 1949, his father Patrick was a labourer whose earning power was stymied by crippling arthritis and a young Dowling was earning money working in neighbouring milking parlours before he was 10. Some way, he is still not sure how, his mother Meg filled that house with books and he devoured the western novels of Zane Grey, the speeches of Winston Churchill and the collected Shakespeare. A library to fire an imagination and a thirst for discovering the wider world.

At 15, he began spending summers in England, working in a steel mill in Crawley to help the family out of its parlous financial situation. By age 17 he was in UCC where he arrived so ignorant of third-level education and suffering such a severe case of impostor syndrome that he was seriously concerned an Arts student needed to be good at drawing.

Phone box

Eventually, he found his tribe, falling in with the college hurlers, winning a Fitzgibbon and a Cork county championship with the skull and crossbones on his chest, and breaking through to the Limerick team that won the 1971 National League.

“If your head gets in the way of my stick,” said Dowling once when describing how he hurled, “that’s your problem”.

By the time Eamon Cregan and the rest of that vaunted squad were winning the All-Ireland two years later, Dowling had already emigrated to New York.

He had spent every summer there while he was at UCC, working several jobs (from the engine room of the Circle Line Ferry to cleaning pubs in the early hours of the morning), eschewing the usual J-1er’s commitment to socialising in order to save every cent to pay for his studies and to send a weekly cheque home.

In those letters, he also told the family the exact time each fortnight he’d call the phone box by the church in the village for a chat.

Once he was full-time in America, he did a Masters in Social Policy at Fordham University and was a rising star on the faculty there when Cuomo invited him to join his administration.

The journalist Jimmy Breslin used to say the governor’s inner circle was so small that it wasn’t even a circle and Dowling became one of his most trusted lieutenants as 1980s New York dealt with the AIDs and crack epidemics.

A decade on the public health frontlines, trying and sometimes failing to find solutions for society’s problems, earned him experience and a reputation that led him to his current job, drawing down an annual salary estimated to be $8 million.

Some years back, Dowling built a small-scale replica of the cottage where he grew up, using the thistles from a broom stick to thatch the roof and create something to always remind himself how far he’s come.

He is involved with the Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School at UCD, has established programmes linking his corporation with the University of Limerick, and put his name to a GAA scholarship at UCC. Decades in America have not loosened the bonds with home or diminished his capacity for testifying about how hurling shaped him and his outlook.

“I look down at other sports,” he said. “The physical aspect, the tolerance for discomfort, this is one of the greatest loves of my life. The idea of being on a team with team-mates going into battle and proving how good you are, being pushed to the limit, it’s an extraordinary feeling and when you experience it at a high level, it’s an unbelievable feeling of satisfaction and self-worth. The type of games you play say something about the character of the individual.”

Still hurling after all these years.

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