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The medicine man of Cong

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Dr Tim and Bríd Regan at a recent family wedding.
Dr Tim and Bríd Regan at a recent family wedding.

Doctor Tim - the medicine man of Cong


Doctor Tim Regan’s life’s vocation was to his patients along the borderlines of Mayo and Galway

Willie McHugh

“Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
All it takes is a rake and a hoe
And a piece of fertile ground”


It’s the craving strand in his DNA that never lies dormant. “The Garden Song” by Makem and Clancy best echoes the backing track to Tim Regan’s rhyme of life.
Gardening is his enduring passion. His home in Dun Inver bears testament to this. A panoramic view of Lough Corrib and its plethora of islands unfold along the driveway. Bríd Regan says the vista has inherited some man-made obstacles over time. “A few years ago you could see every wave on Lough Corrib but Tim covered the place with shrubs and trees because he loves the garden.”
Doctor Tim Regan arrived in Cong in 1956. A few years previous John Ford trained his camera lens here to regale the fable of ‘The Quiet Man’ to the waiting world. Had Tim been around, chances are Michaeleen Flynn would have summoned him when Seán Thornton and Red Will Danaher knocked lumps off each other in a haggard over a bride’s dowry.
That’s how squabbles and disputes were settled back then.
On the football fields of Connacht, Sean Purcell and Frank Stockwell were wrestling the mantle of greatness from Paddy Prendergast and Padraig Carney. But Cong had their flying doctor now.
Born in Moycullen at the southern end of the lake, Tim took the scenic route to his eventual practice in Cong. Jim, his only brother and a great influence on the younger Tim, still lives in Moycullen. “My family were Old IRA and Republicans. But I had great admiration for Michael Collins and I think de Valera failed him. If Collins was left alone history might have turned out a lot different, and for the better too.”
Tim’s mother placed great reliance on education. Secondary school was St Mary’s College in Galway. Tim secured a seven year scholarship to UCG. “Gardening or something along that line would have been my first choice but, with the scholarship, I studied Romance Languages. I went from that to Greek and Latin and the classics. Then I did Engineering and after that studied Medicine and qualified as a doctor in 1949.”
His first appointment was in Galway Regional Hospital. Then to London for three years. First night in St John and St Elizabeth Hospital in Grove End Road, Tim worked alongside a young Donegal nurse. Bríd Martyn comes from Fanad where the Aurora Borealis teases the northern skyline betimes. In St John’s, Bríd was voted Nurse of the Year in 1956.
Cupid fired his arrow in a London ward that night. “For me anyway it was love at first night. We married in 1956 and she has been my companion and best friend ever since. She helped and supported me in my practice and made many sacrifices. She reared our family and allowed me the time and freedom to do this job.”
Tim returned and worked in various hospitals around Ireland. “I went back to England again for a few years and I was in Manchester when I got an interview for a job in Cong. I’ve been here ever since. I started off in a room in Ashford Castle before moving to the Dispensary in Lisloughrey. I love Cong but especially the people here. They’ve supported me and my family in everything we do and have always stood by me.”

Tim and Bríd Regan at Bríd’s nursing graduation in London in 1956.
Tim and Bríd Regan at Bríd’s nursing graduation in London in 1956.

A combination of that support and, more especially, Tim’s growing reputation as a brilliant doctor saw the practice he took over in 1956 from Doctor Murphy thrive beyond all expectations. It became too much work over time for one man. His son Michael was now a doctor in America and he returned home to assist him.
In 1989 they opened a state-of-the-art health facility on Cong’s periphery. Naming it, The Lynn Medical Centre, Tim was paying homage to one of the great pioneers of medicine. “I had huge admiration for Kathleen Lynn. She was a doctor from Mayo who went on to leave her mark in the political field also. Her father was a Rector here and, in order that her name and excellent achievements will always be kept alive in Cong, we dedicated the building to her memory.”
Michael runs the practice now. “I still have a keen interest and Michael always tells me what’s happening there and who was in. My former patients still inquire about my wellbeing and I get lovely cards and letters and I really appreciate that.”
In the 50’s the role of the local GP was different. The surgery was a precursor to Accident and Emergency. “Back then you had to do everything from stitching patient’s wounds, pulling teeth, fixing sprains, setting broken bones, birth deliveries and even some minor surgery. You also had to formulate most remedies you dispensed so there was variety and it was never-ending.”
There were infusions of humour. He encountered some wonderful characters. “It did me good to see them coming into the surgery and I loved their droll sayings and stories. I was the better for their visits because the doctor needs a gee-up too.”
The job also unveiled days of dark clouds. Of all the ailments, he cites suicide as the worst. “Other sickness or terminal illnesses have a sense of acceptance but suicide grieving always leaves too many ‘whys’ and unanswered questions in its wake. But it’s wonderful to see people’s faith at work and how they stuck by their religion.”
Communications methods were in the embryonic stage and summoning help was a testing logistical manoeuvre. Cars were scarce and roads were bad. His mother bought him his first car without a heater in case he’d doze off when driving. He worked mostly out of his case and when he returned from the surgery there was another group of patients waiting at his house.
He never turned down a patient’s call as Bríd can testify. “We rarely socialised but one night we were going to a function in Galway. I was coming downstairs in all my finery when the loud knock came. When I saw Tim getting his medicine case I knew I was going nowhere so I just went back upstairs and changed. That’s how it was because with Tim the sick person’s need always took precedent,” said Bríd.
By his unique gait you recognised him. Small in stature, an injection of pace to rival Usain Bolt, sleeves pinned up, tie slightly undone, case in one hand, blood pressure pouch in the other and Tim as ever the cavalry coming over the hill.
A holistic medicine man of the old school, he’s also counsellor, a philosopher, a confidante and a trusted advisor. As first impressions go, Tim Regan is always as good as it gets and you feel an instant easing in his company.  He’s blessed with the rare ability of knowing the right thing to say in any given situation. Communication courses don’t teach you that. It’s a rare and inherited gift bequeathed to a select handful. And there was never need for a second opinion either. Doctor Tim could make an accurate diagnosis on a patient as they walked in the door of his surgery.
Imbued with the common touch, he’s an unpretentious man of the people and for the people. One story best illustrates his humility. Let Tim tell it himself. “Down the Dalgan Road in Shrule was a popular camping site for tinkers in the old days. I got word one evening that a woman was in labour and I went over early. She wasn’t ready to give birth so, while we waited, the travelling man entertained me with yarns of his life on the road.
“He also prepared a bed of straw for me to rest. I had a great sleep and never woke until four in the morning when a car passing down the road splashed rainwater on the outside of the canvas. I remember thinking the challenge it would be for a child born into such circumstances to go on and become a doctor and how hard that would be. When I delivered the baby we all celebrated around the camp fire with mugs of tea and buttered slices of homemade bread.”   
A non-negotiable pro-life advocate he extols the virtue of home births. “I always thought it was more personal and intimate with all the family present to celebrate the arrival of a new member into the home. When you were with a woman giving birth she was yours forever more. She shared her life story and you became a trusted acquaintance. That trust garnered between doctor and patient is special and none more so than in childbirth and you never ever get that job satisfaction in any other profession.”
Tim’s house calls weren’t confined to patients. “I loved if there was a cow calving in the barn when I was there. I’d go out and give a hand with the delivery and when I’d be passing again after a few days I’d pop in to see how the cow and calf were faring. I’d check on the patient too of course.”
Stories of Tim breaking a journey and taking a scythe from the car to go into a random field and spend time cutting rushes or thistles are not the harvests of rural legend. The resonance of Makem and Clancy’s entrancing refrain beckoning him again.

“Grain for grain, sun and rain
Find my way in nature’s chain 
Tune my body and my brain
To the music from the land.”

“Oh yes I’d often do that because I always found it therapeutic and one is close to Mother Nature and all her marvels when they’re working with the earth in any form. I never played golf because it would impinge on my precious gardening time.”
Since he first turned a key in a room door in Ashford, no one person has made a greater practical contribution to this region. His thermometer read temperatures and his stethoscope checked pulses in almost every home from Shrule Bridge to Killary Fjord.
Tim visited compassion and care on every patient. Conversations were never governed by time constraints. Tim’s mantra was simple. “An hour spent talking is better to any patient than a bucket of tablets.”
Through the chimes of time he’s given this canton a stronger heartbeat and a vaccination of immunity. On life’s steep slope Tim Regan walked beside his patients on every challenging step. He accompanied them from the rocking of the cradle to the revving of the hearse.
“I loved every single minute of it” is Tim’s summing up of a life dedicated to medicine but above all to the people who placed their trust deep in him.
In the garden of flowering accolades, Doctor Tim’s reputation will bloom forever.

Do you know a Mayo person with a life-changing story to tell? 
If so, email an account of the person’s story, plus contact details, to lifestories@mayonews.ie