Tory island doctoring

A while back I featured Elizabeth Shane’s poem  “The Doctor” with its heroic depiction of a doctor bravely taking to the waves to bring succor to a Tory Islander. From Jim Hunter’s “The Waves Of Tory / Tonnta Thoraí“, a rather less flattering portrayal:

 

“For long period in Tory’s history there was not even a nurse on the island. In an emergency a boat would have to go to mainland to fetch a doctor. Many doctors refused to venture across the seas to Tory and often quoted an exaggerated fee to make their services prohibitive to the island community. One doctor demanded a a fee of £2 in advance before travelling to Tory; after he had performed his duties the islanders refused to take him back until he had paid £5 for the return boat trip. More frequently doctors required sick persons to travel to the mainland for attention. Such trips, often in raging seas, did little to improve the condition of patients.”

Hunter describes a more positive experience of nursing:

“Island nurses were held in greater esteem by the islanders. A whole series of Public Health nurses such as Nurse McVeagh, Nurse Savage and Nurse Rodgers are remembered with great affection. Nurse McVeagh, who served on the island from 1936 to 1953, seems to have placed more emphasis on local cures and remedies than on orthodox medication. She would arrive for the delivery of a child with a black bag in which she carried a pair of shoes and a pair of rubber gloves; the gloves were placed aside, but the shoes were thrown under the bed for luck.”

Hunter later informs us (the book was published in 2006):

“A helicopter service now brings a doctor from Falcarragh at regular intervals to check on the health of the islanders. The helicopter service can also be called in an emergency to bring a doctor to the island or transport a sick person to hospital. The islanders are conscious of their dependence on the good medical services provied by the Letterkenny Hospital, and they have been most generous in raising funds for the purchase of medical equipment. It is not unknown for cheques amounting to £10,000 to be handed over the medical authorities by the Tory community.”

“The Doctor” – Elizabeth Shane

Elizabeth Shane (1877-1951) was a Belfast-born poet who lived most of her life in Donegal. “Tales of the Donegal Coast and Islands” is a volume of poetry initially published in 1921, though this edition is a 1927 reprint.

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Shane contributes a foreword:

These little tales of the west coast and islands of Donegal were begun without any idea of publication. They were simply written for my own and my ‘Mate’s’ pleasure, record of happy days in the place we love best, and of the simple everyday doings of a warm-hearted people among whom we count many friends.
Dialect in verse is apt to become burdensome; I have therefore not attempted to do more than suggest the speech of the district by occasional spelling, and by a characteristic turn of the sentences. The brogue is somewhat elusive, and much slighter than that which one hears further south.

I am inclined to wish Shane took her own strictures about dialect in verse being “apt to become burdensome” a little more to heart. Orwell wrote that Kipling’s verse is much improved by being read without the various dropped aitches and “an'”s and “th'”s that characterise him.

It would be curious to know how much the island doctor has changed – aside from being brought in by helicopter of course.

 

The Doctor

 

The doctor’s called to Tory now

An’ his boat is at the pier.

Och! his is not an aisy job

At any time o’year

For he’d need be half a sailor-man

That would be doctor here.

 

There’s many a day he’ll be to start

An’ face a winter gale,

An’ himself would make no fuss at all,

But tell the boys to sail;

Wi’ the thought o’ one in pain beyond,

He’s not the man to fail.

 

There’s Neal down workin’ at the boat,

And the rest is with him too,

‘Tis the four o’ them do always go

To make the doctor’s crew;

For ’tis Tory is long miles away,

An’ no less o’ them would do.

 

‘Have ye tackle there?’ the doctor sez,

‘For the mackerel’s in,’ sez he:

‘We can trawl a bit as we go for luck.

Sure, we might get two or three’

But sez Neal, ‘The speed’ll be rayther much

Wi’ this wind in the open sea.’

 

Sez the doctor, ‘Tis a soldier’s wind,

We’ll be home ere night,’ he cried,

So they’re slippin’ from the harbour now

Down channel wi’ the tide,

An’ the swell is aisy on the bar

Though the wind is fresh outside.

 

‘Tis lonesome out on the wide, grey sea,

An’ the boat she does be small,

Yet where sickness is, be it calm or storm,

They will answer to the call.

Och! there’s brave things done an’ little said

On the shores o’ Donegal.

Here is a rather badly taken image of the poem as originally set:

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Operation Ouch! Medical Milestones and Crazy Cures, Inis Childrens Magazine/Childrens Books Ireland, November 2014

From Childrens Books Ireland, a capsule review of a childrens book about medicine. The van Tulleken brothers strike me as quite admirable in their enthusiastic multimedia presence. Again, perhaps a wry scepticism about history-from-below is evident. I didn’t have space to note that while the entries on Fleming, Nightingale and most other figures in the book are irreverent, that on Seacole is very sober and straight-laced:

Operation Ouch! Medical Milestones and Crazy Cures
by
Chris van Tulleken and Xand van Tulleken

History traditionally focused on what were deemed great events – sometimes caricatured as the ‘maps and chaps’ approach. In recent decades, ‘history from below’ has gained in academic prestige, with everyday life and consideration of marginalised, under-documented groups being the focus. The huge popularity of the Horrible Histories series has shown the appeal of history-from-below in a perhaps more literal sense – their focus on bodily functions and gross-out humour may not be to everyone’s taste, but they do provide a gateway into reading about the everyday life of the past.

The van Tulleken twins are Oxford medical graduates who have carved a niche for themselves as presenters of the CBBC series Operation Ouch! This book is the second tie-in volume; the first, Your Brilliant Body, won the 9-11 Best Fact Book award at the Booktrust Best Book Awards in 2014. Medical Milestones and Crazy Cures is formatted as a series of dialogues between the brothers on various parts of the body, interspersed with short profiles of medical notables and some quirky activities that will get the target readership’s attention.

The history-from-below emphasis is even apparent in the vignettes on pioneers of healthcare, with the Jamacian-born Mary Seacole, about whom very little is reliably known, given equal prominence with Florence Nightingale, Alexander Fleming and the rest. The brothers’ dialogues don’t entirely work on the printed page, but that aside this is a handsomely produced tie-in that combines medical history with bodily functions in a way that will appeal to the target readership.