SHEDDING NEW LIGHT ON THE 'WAYWARD' DR NOEL BROWNE
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I had not intended to write anything else about Doctor Noel Browne. I then came across this remarkable review BY EMER O'KELLY of John Horgan's biography "Noel Browne, Passionate Outsider". Her review strangely echoes some points made by the late Bishop James Kavanagh when he reviewed "Against the Tide" in The Furrow magazine in February 1987.
17 November 2006
SHEDDING NEW LIGHT ON THE 'WAYWARD' DR NOEL BROWNE
Sunday Independent October 29th 2000
Noel Browne. Passionate Outsider
By John Horgan
Gill and Macmillan: Eur 19.99
HE WAS RESTLESS AND MELANCHOLY, WITH MESSIANIC TENDENCIES: EMER O'KELLY ON A POLITICAL ENIGMA.
[My Note: This is a remarkable article on Dr Noel Browne by Emer O'Kelly, especially given the fact that she herself shares Dr Browne's sterile and thuggish hatred of the Catholic Church.]
TOWARDS the end of his life, Noel Browne confessed to there being ``something Messianic about me.'' He had been unable to find ``any kind of emotional peace, any kind of emotional satisfaction.'' One can almost hear the sibilant, attractive voice enunciating it with off-hand intensity; because it is the overwhelming impression that emerges from John Horgan's biography, Noel Browne: Passionate Outsider.
The man who slips through the pages is not so much a passionate outsider, more a malcontent of melancholic tendencies, restless and unexpectedly ephemeral in the way his personal and political philosophies are re-fashioned to suit the changing climate of public opinion.
In 1982, as an Independent in the Dail and with social legislation finally coming to centre-stage, he told the new Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald that in matters of personal morality such as contraception and divorce he would be wise to take the views and concerns of the (Roman Catholic) Hierarchy into account; this after a lifetime of entrenched bitter opposition to everything that Hierarchy stood for.
Twelve years earlier, in 1970, Browne had initiated a debate on contraception in the parliamentary Labour Party (of which he was then a member), and was subjected to ``sustained abuse by all but a handful of members.'' His colleagues at that time, even in opposition, were ahead of him in appeasing the Hierarchy, and it was left to the then Mary Bourke (later Robinson) to initiate such a debate as a private member in the Seanad.
TWO YEARS later, Browne was to advocate, again in the Seanad, the provision of therapeutic legal abortion; he argued it as a matter of minority rights affecting Protestants, and also he said, because the Irish Catholic attitude was more rigid than that of its counterparts in countries like Austria.
Yet exactly 20 years before that, Noel Browne had readily supported the Health Bill introduced by Dr. Jim Ryan of Fianna Fail which effectively dumped all issues of reproductive morality. Birth control and abortion, Browne said, were ``against the natural law and objectionable.'' It was 1952, barely two years since his defeat in the Mother and Child Scheme, and Browne might have been expected to trumpet freedom in the light of his defeat. But on that occasion, Noel Browne had told the Dail in his resignation speech as Minister for Health that ``as a Catholic'' he accepted the Bishops' decision ``without hesitation.''
The issues of contraception and abortion are only two on which Noel Browne was to engage in a series of voltes-face, and as Horgan documents his turbulent career, it's easy to agree with the assessment made in the 1970s by his then colleague in Labour the late David Thornley, who described him as ``infuriatingly wayward'' although that description could equally fit Thornley himself).
IT'S ALSO possible to wonder at the immense affection and respect afforded Browne throughout his life and indeed after it, since we Irish are usually chronically ungrateful, reserving our long memory only for perceived hurts and insults. Yet Noel Browne is remembered (justly) as the champion of the poor and the sick at a time when the dispossessed of the Irish state had few champions. His serial abandonment of friends and allies, his arrogant determination to call all the shots, and his haplessly ineffective attempts to manipulate the political system to suit his own ever-changing agenda are dismissed by his countrymen and women, if they are ever remembered, as the foibles of the passionate humanitarian. [My emphasis].
Horgan documents them all meticulously insofar as they can be verified with documentary evidence. In other instances, he uses the memories of Browne's contemporaries, of which he was one as a young man. (Indeed, the book is most alive in the chapters where Horgan is writing from personal experience, while the chronology of Browne's early career and defeat at the hands of the Hierarchy and the medical profession has a leaden quality.
BUT Horgan's chronology of the Mother and Child Scheme is hugely valuable in presenting the case from a more objective point of view than is usual; and the medical profession, which has remained fairly unscathed in popular folklore (largely due, it's true, to Browne's own single-minded bitterness in later years against John Charles McQuaid) emerges as self-serving at best, and ethically unjustifiable in its ability to ignore the best interests of the women and children in its care.
(But then, Browne himself was later to vote in the Dail, and make a positive speech about the imposition of a means test; and it had been the single issue on which he had earlier claimed he was unwilling to compromise. That single issue was what had led to the hierarchical outcry against ``socialised medicine,'' not led, as Horgan points out, by McQuaid, but by Bishop Michael Browne of Galway).
Equally, folk memory of Noel Browne assumes the often bitter and irrational posturing of his mature career to have been caused by the mangling experience of his defeat as Minister for Health. Certainly, that is the picture which emerged from Browne's autobiography, Against the Tide. Also, the trap of Irish sentimentality loves a victim, and Noel Browne's tragic early childhood, living in emigrant displacement after his father's death from TB, and watching his mother and three of his siblings die of the same terrible disease has assisted in his canonisation, while the negative side of his character has been largely dismissed by all except those who suffered from it.
Horgan's book, however, shows us another side: it's possible to believe that Noel Browne was almost genetically incapable of happiness. He mistrusted intimacy, Horgan says in his epilogue, fearing that its benefits would be snatched away. But by rejecting intimacy, save with a very few people, Noel Browne seems to have cut himself off from the necessary compromises of human inter-action. And the shining highs of a mercurial temperament are often less rewarding than the rubbed edges of affectionate understanding.
There are some contradictions that Horgan fails to explain: Browne's often repeated complaints of dire poverty is one. (The bank forced the sale of his house in the early 1970s). But for most of his life he was in receipt of some kind of salary, either from the Dail or from a medical appointment, and other people with larger families managed on such incomes.
Another contradiction is his slowness to recognise the essential incompatibility of Republican nationalism with social progress. Even when Browne was converted to the concept of internationalism it seems to have had more to do with his hatred of Sean MacBride than with objective political philosophy. John Horgan's book sets out to correct some of the subjectivities of Browne's own memoir, and it succeeds in doing so; but for that reason it needs to be read in conjunction with Against the Tide by anyone not already reasonably familiar with the life and work of Noel Browne.
However, he concludes that Noel Browne believed the defeat of the Mother and Child Scheme, and the increasingly malign influence, as he saw it, of the Catholic Church in Ireland were prime examples of the root and branch problems which would have to be solved if the country's political needs were ever to be met. And that analysis, Horgan says, should now be seen as the part of his legacy that we can best do without. I doubt if Noel Browne would agree.
[COMMENT: It seems to me that Emer O'Kelly does not agree either!! Her own attitude to the Catholic Church - one of sterile and useless hatred- seems to be unchanged since she wrote the above article 6 years ago. It is quite remarkable really.
However this illustrates a point made by Bishop James Kavanagh in his review of Dr Browne's autobiography "Against The Tide" in The Furrow magazine in February 1987; a Christian cannot write off another human being as worthless, no matter how bitter and vindictive that person may appear to be. (See "DOCTOR NOEL BROWNE AND THE BISHOPS" on www.alliancesupport.org in September 2006, and also "DOCTOR NOEL BROWNE AND HIS ENEMIES".)