ALMA MATER Dr Michael Ryan addressing pupils, staff and parents at the official opening of a new extension to Charlestown’s St Joseph’s Secondary School back in 2010. Pic: Henry Wills
WHO Executive Director Dr Mike Ryan always stood out as a man with a bright future
Charlestown native Dr Mike Ryan is one of the foremost authorities in the world on Covid-19. As Executive Director of the World Health Organisation with responsibility for their Health Emergencies Programme, he is leading the charge against the deadly virus.
His plain speaking, on-point WHO briefings during such a worldwide crisis have made Dr Ryan renowned worldwide. Google ‘Dr Mike Ryan WHO’ and you will get 134 million results.
He has led a fascinating career which has included leading the charge in the fight against viruses like Ebola and SARS.
It’s no wonder he is a source of immense pride to people in Charlestown and over the border in Curry, Co Sligo, places where Dr Ryan has his roots. Those who know him testify he was always destined for big things.
Kilkelly man Austin Egan, former principal at St Joseph’s Community College in Charlestown was fresh out of college when he started his teaching career in 1978 at the then Marist Convent in the town, his own alma mater.
There was no Google back then but he had the next best thing in his classroom – a young Michael Ryan.
“He was my source. He was keeping abreast of worldwide developments whereas I was caught at the coalface teaching. He was looking at new developments be it in nuclear energy and so on. He was my Google in them days! He used to tell me ‘do you know sir about this or that’. He’d tell me and explain it,” Austin told The Mayo News.
Austin taught Michael biology, chemistry and maths but often found him more of a teaching assistant than a student.
“Michael was a lovely guy. What I found was he was very generous with his time in terms of other kids who might not grasp certain concepts, he would often explain to them a way better than I would.
“He did very, very well in the Leaving Cert, I think he got A1s in everything. He was exceptionally talented and a guy who was so thirsty for knowledge. He was so much on the ball and everything came very easy to him. He was so informed,” recalls Austin.
Michael Ryan’s father Harry died at a young age in the 1970s. Michael was 12 and his younger brothers Colman and Henry were ten and six respectively. Austin Egan describes their mother, Meta Ryan-Scott, as a ‘great woman’, saying all three sons had done very well for themselves in life and how she had ‘worked very hard’ to give them every opportunity to succeed.
“His mother was raising himself and his two brothers on her own. She was a great woman. I would have to pay tribute to her. His mother would have ensured they were reading magazines like National Geographic, Scientific American and Time magazine when other lads would be watching Dallas and the things that would be on at the time.
“So not alone was he so aware of the narrow world that was his Leaving Cert, he was very much aware of a broader picture in terms of countries and how the world operated, essentially, economically and so on. He had that ability to take everything on board,” said Austin.
Sense of duty
It was clear Michael Ryan had the world at his feet. Austin Egan quizzed him about his career plans in Leaving Cert and the answer spoke to not just his ability but a sense of duty.
“Coming near the Leaving Cert I just said ‘Mike, what are you going to do’? I was figuring he would go down the medical world. He said: ‘Sir I want to do medicine even if I have to work for nothing’. That was a statement in itself.
“I remember him sending me a beautiful card when he went to UCG to study medicine. He did very well there,” he said. In fact he addressed medical graduates at NUI Galway during a recent ceremony broadcast via Facebook.
Charlestown-based Cllr Gerry Murray is a family friend and knows all three Ryan brothers, often staying with Coleman ‘Coley Ryan’ when in Boston, where Coley runs a number of pubs and restaurants. He describes Henry Ryan as a ‘big wheel in IT’ and was central to getting Michael to speak at the John Healy summer school in Charlestown some years ago.
“After the SARS virus I invited Michael to do a talk at the John Healy weekend and a lot of what’s happening now, he flagged it up at that particular stage.
“He was ahead of the posse. Not alone was he on top of the brief but he was ahead of the curve. I’m not surprised with this at all because he told us it was coming unless we changed our ways with sustainability and so on,” he said.
By the time 2010 came along, the now St Joseph’s, Charlestown had underwent a major refurbishment and Austin Egan, then Deputy Principal, asked his one time star pupil, then Director of Global Alert and Response at the WHO, if he might be able to attend as a special guest. Though living in Galway with his wife and children, Dr Ryan is frequently based out of Geneva in Switzerland, the WHO’s headquarters.
“He always kept in touch. I would meet his mother regularly in Charlestown and I would exchange emails with him now and again.
“I have his business card and I do be blackguarding some of the men around here saying ‘I know one of the top men in the WHO, I’ve a direct line to him’!
“When I contacted him I said we were having an official reopening and would he be around because I said ‘I am conscious of your very busy schedule’. He said: ‘You tell me the day and I’ll be there’. I was going to do it the other way, let him pick the day and I’d work around his schedule.
“He paid great tribute to the role of teachers and it was a great shot in our arm to have a guy of his calibre saying that. We’d a great day anyway and he spoke so well and eloquently about the school and what it had done for him, the importance of education, teachers and the influence they exert on people’s lives. It was lovely and it was a great moment for his mother because she had difficult years on her own. To see her there and smiling, it meant an awful lot to us all actually,” recalls Austin.
His former teacher is also quick to praise his protege’s humility.
“If you met him out, he’d go in and have a pint and is just an ordinary man. He wouldn’t brag about his achievements at all.”
Yet few would be more entitled to boast than Dr Mike Ryan. There’s very few now who don’t know who this son of Charlestown is.