Dr John was in reality the hero he spent his life searching for

WHEN the late Dr John O’Connell TD contested the first European Parliament elections — against the wishes of his party, Labour — it was the first political campaign I ever experienced.

It was also a cross between the Twilight Zone and Haiti, mid-earthquake. A young American intern came up with ideas — like telephone canvassing — never previously tried in Ireland and Dr John wanted them all done yesterday, throwing spectacular tantrums if they weren’t. Veering between despair and manic elation, he stuck with it — as did I — and at the end of the campaign the candidate became Dr John O’Connell MEP.

That he had become a doctor, never mind a European parliamentarian, was astonishing, coming as he did from dire poverty, his mother illiterate, his father capable of writing but not of punctuation; any letter from him was one continuous breathless sentence. Three of O’Connell’s siblings died of TB in their teens. He put himself through medical school working as a bookies’ tout, mocked by wealthy fellow students for wearing plastic shoes that squeaked with every step.

Once qualified, his priority was to make money. Then a Jewish doctor who’d studied with him asked O’Connell to go out with him one night to see some unusual patients. The two young men walked until they reached a line of inner-city tenements, then climbed long staircases to an attic room, where, after repeated knocks evoked no response, they pushed open the door to find a big room, unfurnished and empty, but for a bundled figure on a bed.

John started to move forward. Catching his arm, his friend stopped him.

“No. He’s just died. Look.”

On the floor in front of the bed was a grey carpet. Moving. Moving.

“Lice,” the other doctor said. “They leave a human at the point of death.”

Sickened, John staggered out onto the landing and asked why he’d been made to witness what he’d just seen. “Because here is where you should be,” was the answer, quietly relentless in its insistence.

So O’Connell re-visited poverty, serving the Dublin slums and becoming “Dr John” in the tenements. Soon, he was “Deputy O’Connell” on the Labour benches in Leinster House.

And an entrepreneur the like of which Ireland had never seen, establishing the Irish Medical Times, turning it into a moneymaking machine, selling it for millions, buying it back for less and making even more money. He invented MIMS, a crucial reference guide to prescription medication now published worldwide. He ran stud farms for Arab sheikhs.

All the while, he looked for a hero to believe in. When he lost faith in the Labour Party, Charles Haughey briefly became that hero and O’Connell joined Fianna Fáil.

Having tapped rich friends to help pay for the US transplant surgery Lenihan needed, O’Connell met with Mr Haughey to show him the amount raised. As Haughey praised him, a call came through from the British prime minister and John was gestured into an ante-room.

When the call was over, the two men talked some more before he set off home, where he opened the briefcase. Several thousand pounds were missing. He believed the phonecall had been a device to ensure Haughey and the briefcase were left tog-ether, and was scandalised that, as he saw it, a man would steal from a dying friend.

The second disaffection trigger was more personal. Pressured to take an equity stake in Celtic Helicopters when it went through a rocky period, he happily did so, mentally writing off the money as a loan that would never be repaid. Later, however, Haughey unexpectedly called him in. Good news: Dr John’s shares could now be bought out, with a little extra on top. Because something about the proposed transaction didn’t ring true, Dr John shrugged and said he was quite happy to hang on to the shares. Suddenly, everything changed.

Haughey became very anxious to buy them back and ratty with Dr John for being so casually determined to keep them. O’Connell had no idea what was behind the urgency but resented not being levelled with, and named an outrageous price. Haughey was livid. O’Connell was unmoved: They could leave him with the equity, but if they wanted it back, that was his price.

It was paid.

Once he went off Haughey, he decided Albert Reynolds should succeed him. Nobody will ever know precisely what information allowed him to get from Haughey a letter promising to retire from the leadership by an agreed date, but get that letter he did, presenting it privately to Albert Reynolds. Which was why, when Seán Doherty confessed to sharing the product of illegal phone tapping with Haughey, Reynolds was furious, rather than pleased, fearing that Doherty’s intervention might scupper his secret plans. (In fact, it expedited his accession.) Just before the formation of the new cabinet, Dr John telephoned to ask how often I was in Leinster House. Never, I replied. Maybe twice in the previous 10 years.

“Well, I’d like you to go in next week,” he said, naming a day.

“What? Why?”

“I’d just like you to be there. Will you do that for me, will you?”

I agreed and put down the phone. My husband wanted to know why I was so confused. I told him about the conversation. After a minute, he smiled.

“Dr John’s going to be minister for health,” he said.

“How d’you know?”

“I don’t. But why else would he want you there?”

Sure enough, when Albert presented his cabinet, John was minister for health. The secret letter might have become redundant, but the debt was paid, nonetheless.

John went in with brilliant ideas and came out describing himself as the worst minister for health ever. His time in the department was not without achievement, but greatly hampered by hearing loss which enmeshed him in misunderstandings and caused a mistrust which tended to morph into paranoia. He left office suddenly, entering a half-life of isolation caused by deafness, poor health, and lack of a day job consequent on the sale of his publications.

His passionate commitment to groups like the Thalidomide victims faded from public memory, as did his astonishing rags- to-riches story. A handful of friends kept in touch with a fragile shadow of the marvellously unreasonable zealot he had been.

One Jew had shaped his devotion to the poor. Another Jew was the kindly constant of his later years: Ben Briscoe brought him regularly to lunch in the Dáil restaurant.

Most of the TDs and senators who saw him there had no clue that this was a ridiculously generous man who was acutely wary of any generosity from others, affectionate but discomfited by affection, childlike in his idealism, terrifying in his enmities. The man the Dublin poor lovingly called Dr John was in reality the hero he spent his life searching for.

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