The founder of Irish Medical Times – is remembered by ex-employee

Dawn O’Shea recalls her time working with Irish Medical Times publisher and editor, Dr John O’Connell

In every university and teaching hospital in the world, there is that one educator who strikes fear into the hearts of students and junior doctors. It turns out these people are not just limited to medical education, as I discovered when I joined the Irish Medical Times as a young cub-reporter.

It used to be said that if you could work for IMT founder Dr John O’Connell, any other editor would be a walk in the park. It was no coincidence that he was given the nickname Baby Doc in some journalistic circles, a reference to the notorious Haitian dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Dawn O’Shea

He was infamous for his temper, his eccentricities and his demand for excellence. It is why so many IMT journalists went on to become prominent figures in the national media, including Irish Times correspondent Martin Wall, Irish Independent news editor Fiona Dillon, and Margaret Curley, producer of Drivetime on RTÉ Radio 1.

O’Connell clawed his way out of abject poverty to become a doctor, a politician, a successful businessman, and a trailblazer. He was born in a tenement flat in Dublin’s Liberties, the fifth of six children. His eldest brother died young from heart failure caused by rheumatic fever, a sister died of tuberculosis aged 15, and another brother died fighting in the Second World War.

He attended the Christian Brothers’ secondary school in Glasnevin, thanks to an arrangement brokered by his mother that he be allowed to attend the school free of charge provided he consistently came first in his class – which he did.

He put himself through medical school, working a variety of part-time jobs, including as a bookie’s clerk and a fluorescent light installer. As a registrar at the Mater Hospital in the late 1950s, he operated a private practice on South Circular Road at night. That energy and drive was evident throughout his life. The problem was, he expected that same level of dedication and ambition from those who surrounded him.

He liked to share stories from the early days of IMT when he acted as both editor and journalist, while also operating a busy medical practice. In particular he would tell rookie journalists about the time he interviewed a consultant while he was mowing his lawn, matching the interviewee stride for stride, scribbling in a notebook as he went. And all of this after spending a full day treating patients. I suspect this was not just a leisurely stroll down memory lane, but was designed to illustrate to novices what would be required of them.

IMT journalists were not just expected to report the news, we were expected to find the news before any other journalists in the country did. He once told me that ‘IMT doesn’t follow the news agenda; it sets the news agenda’. Each journalist had a number of beats and woe betide if any other news outlet broke a story from your beat.

I remember an incident where the Rotunda Hospital issued its annual report. The maternity hospitals were one of my beats. When I got to my desk that morning, there was a ripped-out page from the Irish Times with a story about the report angrily circled in red pen. I was told himself wanted to speak to me as soon as I got in.

I had heard about his outbursts but nothing could have prepared me for the real event. He was apoplectic.

He was a man of small stature but when the rage took over him he was a force to be reckoned with. I was told loudly that if I were any good at my job I would have had that report two weeks ago, that I was a poor excuse for a journalist, and that if I missed any other story from my beats I would find myself looking for another job.

IMT had historically broken the first story each year on the new health budget. The fact that the publisher was a former Minister of Health may have been of assistance here. There was one Health Minister though, who shall remain nameless, who was unwilling to part with any information on the budget before it was announced in the Dáil.

Dr O’Connell was not impressed when he got word. He used his connections in the Department of Health to get said minister’s phone number. His numerous calls and messages went unanswered, and with each missed call, his anger grew. He would not be dissuaded. He called on his former ministerial driver to track down the uncooperative minister’s driver, called him and insisted on being handed to his charge. It was then that I learned that his fury was not just reserved for his underlings.

Nothing enraged him more than the mention of the union. Back in the 1990s, technology was transforming publishing in ways that didn’t always bode well for journalists. When he received a letter from the National Union of Journalists requesting a meeting to discuss the implications of some planned changes at IMT, he burst through the door of the newsroom and launched into a tirade. We were called a pack of Luddites and were summarily disinvited from the office Christmas party.

But at the end of the day, it was impossible not to respect and admire O’Connell. He was passionate about IMT, as he was about many things. He could be incredibly charming when he wanted to be, and he was always generous. In a throwback to his days as a bookie’s clerk, every time there was a big horseracing event he paid for everyone in the office to place a bet. The journalists were paid on a par or better than our colleagues in the national papers, and there were never any qualms about funding to attend conferences or wine and dine contacts.

When my now husband and I bought our first home during my days at IMT, he insisted on buying us a housewarming gift. I was expecting a potted plant or a set of steak knives. But no. Instead we moved into the apartment with a kettle; a mattress that served as a bed, couch and dining table; and a top-of-the-range washer-dryer.

I look back on those days with Dr O’Connell in IMT with great fondness. It was an interesting time – made all the more interesting by the man himself.

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