It was 80 years ago this summer that Dr Anthony McBride, truly an unsung hero of public health in Mayo, passed away in Dublin. Acknowledged by his peers as ‘a towering figure in Irish medical history’, Anthony McBride is a name which deserves a wider recognition than that which time has accorded him.
Brother of the executed Major John McBride, he served for 33 years as Mayo County Surgeon, the greater part of which was spent at the Old Infirmary, now the headquarters of Mayo County Council on the Green in Castlebar.
His commitment to that institution, and to the people of Mayo, was legendary, exceeding by far the narrow confines of his professional duties, and to an extent which, most would agree, eventually damaged his own health.
Anthony McBride had practised medicine in London with the celebrated Fenian, Dr Mark Ryan, before returning to Mayo to become dispensary doctor in Newport in 1905, then being appointed assistant to Dr Knott at the County Infirmary and, on the latter’s retirement in 1907, becoming County Surgeon.
Dr McBride immediately set about the daunting task of raising the standards at the institution to the highest possible level. And the condition of the decrepit building would challenge the ambition of even the most enthusiastic innovator. There was no operating theatre, hygiene and sanitary facilities consisted of two dry toilets and two baths for the complement of 60 patients, there were no trained nurses and, during the night hours, the working staff consisted of the surgeon himself and the hall porter. Operations were conducted on the patient’s bed, often with family members in attendance to provide assistance.
The most pressing need was the provision of an operating theatre, but there was no central funding to call on. The infirmary was expected to raise its own funds and pay its own way. And so Dr McBride initiated the Infirmary Guild, consisting mainly of well-to-do local ladies, who undertook a range of fundraising activities to finance a new operating theatre. When their best efforts fell short of the target required, Dr McBride encashed and contributed his own life-assurance policy, to the value of £500, and the first operation in the new theatre was conducted in May 1910.
A man of Spartan habits, his day would start at 5.30am, when he would serve breakfast to his wife, Lelia, before personally rousing the domestic staff. Theatre began at 9am and continued, when necessary, long into the night.
A committed Republican, he would leave his hospital to travel over bogs and mountain to some remote cottage to tend to injured IRA men during the War of Independence. The infirmary was regularly searched by the Crown forces, resulting on one occasion in a demand that he hand over to the authorities a wounded IRA patient.
When he refused, he was warned that he could be shot. “In that case,” came the reply, “I would request that the execution not take place before 5.30am, since Mrs McBride takes her breakfast at that hour.”
Old friendships, however, were not to survive the bitter divisions of Civil War. Elected to Castlebar UDC for Sinn Féin in 1920, Dr McBride subsequently joined Cumann na nGael, putting him at odds for the rest of his life with those with whom he had once stood shoulder to shoulder. When he retired in 1940, the usual valedictory remarks were less generous than his record of service deserved.
But he at least had the satisfaction of having successfully guided the creation of a new County Hospital on the Westport Road. Two years later, he died at his home in Rathfarnham. He is buried in Aughavale Cemetery.