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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of William Ireland de Courcy Wheeler, Surgeon

William Ireland de Courcy Wheeler, surgeon, is born on May 9, 1879 in Dublin, fourth son among six sons and four daughters of William Ireland de Courcy Wheeler, a distinguished doctor, and Frances Victoria Wheeler (née Shaw), cousin of George Bernard Shaw.

Wheeler is educated at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and loses an eye as a result of an accident but overcomes the disability. He wins a moderatorship, a medal, and prizes and graduates BA (1899) in anatomy, natural science, and experimental science and, following postgraduate study in Berne, an MB, B.Ch., and MD (1902). The following year he receives the Dublin University Biological Association’s medal for his paper Deaths under chloroform. He is appointed demonstrator and assistant to the professor of the TCD anatomy department before becoming honorary surgeon (1904–32) to Mercer’s Hospital, Dublin. He is also attached to several other institutions including the Rotunda Hospital and the National Children’s Hospital. An outstanding teacher, he attracts large numbers to his clinical classes and lectures in surgery to postgraduates at TCD.

Ambitious and abounding in self confidence, Wheeler dedicates all his indomitable energy and time to his work, is a frequent visitor to foreign clinics, becomes a skilled general surgeon and a specialist in orthopaedics, and earns an international reputation. During World War I he serves in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and from 1915 converts his private hospital, 33 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, into the Dublin Hospital for Wounded Officers and makes it available to the St. John’s Ambulance brigade and the British Red Cross. He acts as honorary officer in charge and is also surgeon to the Duke of Connaught‘s Hospital for Limbless Soldiers, and honorary surgeon to the forces in Ireland.

In 1916 Wheeler visits the western front, tours the hospitals in Boulogne, and is attached to a casualty clearing station at Remy Siding near Ypres. Returning to Dublin on the request of Robert Jones, he organises the Dublin Military Orthopaedic Centre, Blackrock, where he serves as surgeon (1916–21). His advice is widely sought and he serves on several committees, including the War Office Council of Consulting Surgeons (1917) and the Ministry of Pensions Medical Advisory Council on Artificial Limbs. Promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1918, he receives the General Service Medal and is twice mentioned in dispatches, having courageously treated wounded soldiers under fire during the 1916 Easter Rising. Appointed surgeon-in-ordinary to the lord-lieutenant, he is knighted in 1919.

Principal founder of the Dublin Hospitals’ Club (1922), Wheeler publishes two textbooks, A Handbook of Operative Surgery (1906) and Selected Papers on Injuries and Diseases of Bone (1928). He contributes numerous authoritative papers on a variety of surgical subjects to professional journals and edits the chapter on general surgery in the Medical Annual from 1916 to 1936. Inspector of examinations for the Medical Research Council of Ireland, he is external examiner to universities in Ireland and Scotland. Interested in hospital policy and nursing, he advocates the federation of the smaller hospitals and is chairman of the City of Dublin Nursing Institute. Fellow (1905) and council member (1906), he follows in his father’s footsteps and is elected president (1922–24) of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. He is also president of the Dublin University Biological Association and of the surgical section of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland, and is awarded an honorary ChM from Cairo University in 1928.

Troubled and bewildered by the political situation in Ireland, Wheeler is persuaded by Rupert Guinness, 2nd Earl of Iveagh, to accept the position of visiting surgeon (1932) to the new hospital at Southend-on-Sea, Essex, to which Iveagh had donated £200,000. The departure of such a leading figure in Irish medical circles is widely regretted. His posts in London include surgeoncies to All Saints Hospital for Genito-Urinary Diseases and to the Metropolitan Ear, Nose, and Throat Hospital. The diversity of his interests and his general competence make him a valued member of the editorial staff of several journals including the British Journal of Surgery, the British Journal of Urology, and the American Journal of Surgery, Gynaecology, and Obstetrics. He is also a member of the American Editors Association. He enjoys many affiliations with America, where he is well known and honoured by being elected honorable fellow of the American College of Surgeons and selected as their John B. Murphy orator (1932), and by election as honorary member and president of the Post Graduate Assembly of North America. An active member of the British Medical Association, he is president of the Leinster branch (1925–26) and of the Orthopaedic section (1933), vice-president of the Surgical section (1930, 1932), and chairman of the council and president of the Metropolitan Counties Branch (1938). President of the Irish Medical Schools and Graduates Association, he is awarded their Arnott gold medal in 1935.

During World War II Wheeler serves as consultant surgeon to the Royal Navy in Scotland, with the rank of rear admiral (1939–43), and is posted to Aberdeen. Strong-minded, unconventional, and often controversial, he has a gift for friendship, is charming and good-humoured, and excels in the art of the after-dinner speech. Immensely proud of Dublin’s medical and surgical traditions, he always eagerly returned to Ireland, where he planned to retire and write his memoirs.

Wheeler dies suddenly on September 11, 1943 at his home in Aberdeen and is cremated at the Aberdeen crematorium. As a memorial to his father, he bequeaths his library and that of his father to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and also leaves a fund for the Sir William Wheeler memorial medal in surgery.


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The Battle of Brunswick Street

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The Battle of Brunswick Street occurs in Dublin on March 14, 1921 during the Irish War of Independence.

British authorities hang six Irish Republican Army (IRA) Volunteers in Mountjoy Gaol for crimes of high treason and murder on the morning of March 14, 1921. The Volunteers, including Francis Xavier Flood, Thomas Bryan, Patrick Doyle, Bernard Ryan and Dermot O’Sullivan, had been captured in an ambush at Drumcondra two months earlier.

The gates of Mountjoy Gaol are opened at 8:25 AM and news of the executions is read out to the distraught relatives of the dead. As many as 40,000 people gather outside the prison and many mournfully say the Rosary for the executed men.

By evening, the streets clear rapidly as the British-imposed curfew comes into effect at 9:00 PM each night. During this period, the city is a fearful place, patrolled by regular British troops and the much-feared paramilitary police, the Auxiliary Division, as people scurry home and await IRA retaliation for the hangings, which is not long in coming.

That very evening, IRA captain Peadar O’Meara sends as many as thirty-four IRA men out to attack police or military targets. They are armed with the standard urban guerrilla arms of easily hidden handguns and grenades. One young Volunteer, Sean Dolan, throws a grenade at a police station on nearby Merrion Square, which bounces back before it explodes, blowing off his own leg.

At around 8:00 PM, with the curfew fast approaching, a company of Auxiliaries based in Dublin Castle is sent to the area to investigate the explosion. It consists of one Rolls Royce armoured car and two trucks holding about sixteen men. Apparently the Auxiliaries have some inside information as they head straight for the local IRA headquarters at 144 Great Brunswick Street, now Pearse Street. One later testifies in court that “I had been notified there were a certain number of gunmen there.”

The IRA is expecting the Auxiliaries. As soon as the Auxiliaries approach the building, fire is opened on them from three sides. What is described in newspapers as a “hail of fire” tears into the Auxiliaries’ vehicles. Five of the eight Auxiliaries in the first truck are hit in the opening fusillade, two of them fatally injured. The IRA fighters, however, are seriously outgunned. The Rolls Royce armoured car is impervious to small arms fire (except its tires, which are shot out) but mounts a Vickers heavy machine gun which sprays the surrounding houses with bullets. The uninjured Auxiliaries also clamber out of their trucks and return fire at the gun flashes from street corners and rooftops.

Civilian passersby fling themselves to the ground to avoid the bullets but four are hit, by which side it is impossible to tell. The British military court of inquiry into the incident finds that the civilians had been killed by persons unknown, if by the IRA then they were “murdered,” if hit by Auxiliaries the shootings were “accidental.”

The gunfire lasts only five minutes but in that time seven people, including the two Auxiliaries, are killed or fatally wounded and at least six more wounded. Three civilians lay dead on the street – Thomas Asquith is a 68-year-old caretaker, David Kelly is a prominent Sinn Féin member and head of the Sinn Féin bank, and Stephen Clarke, aged 22, is an ex-soldier and may have been the individual who tipped off the Auxiliaries about the whereabouts of the IRA meeting house. An internal IRA report notes that he is “under observation, as he was a tout for the enemy.” The wounded are spirited away by sympathetic fire brigade members and members of Cumann na mBan and treated at nearby Mercer’s Hospital.

Two IRA men are captured as they flee the scene. Thomas Traynor, a 40-year-old veteran of the Easter Rising, is carrying an automatic pistol, but claims to have had no part in the ambush itself. He had, he maintains, simply been asked to bring in the weapon to 144 Great Brunswick Street. The other is Joseph Donnelly a youth of just 17 years of age.

As most of the IRA fighters get away through houses, over walls and into backstreets, the Auxiliaries ransack St. Andrew’s Catholic Hall at 144 Great Brunswick Street but find little of value. Regular British Army troops quickly arrive from nearby Beggars Bush Barracks and cordon off the area, but no further arrests are made. Desultory sniping carries on in the city for several hours into the night.

(From: “The Pearse Street Ambush, Dublin, March 14, 1921” by John Dorney, The Irish Story (theirishstory.com), January 26, 2015)


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First Performance of Handel’s Messiah

george-friedrich-handelGeorge Friedrich Handel’s Messiah is performed for the first time at Mr. Neale’s Great Musick Hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin on April 13, 1742. It receives its London premiere nearly a year later. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gains in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.

Handel decides to give a season of concerts in Dublin in the winter of 1741–42 arising from an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire, then serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. After arriving in Dublin on November 18, 1741, Handel arranges a subscription series of six concerts, to be held between December 1741 and February 1742 at the Great Musick Hall on Fishamble Street. These concerts are so popular that a second series is quickly arranged. Messiah figures in neither series.

In early March, Handel begins discussions with the appropriate committees for a charity concert, to be given in April, at which he intends to present Messiah. He seeks and is given permission from St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral to use their choirs for this occasion. The women soloists are Christina Maria Avoglio, who sang the main soprano roles in the two subscription series, and Susannah Cibber, an established stage actress and contralto who sang in the second series. The performance, also in the Fishamble Street hall, is originally announced for April 12, but is deferred for one day “at the request of persons of Distinction.” The orchestra in Dublin, the exact size of which is unknown, is comprised of strings, two trumpets, and timpani. Handel has his own organ shipped to Ireland for the performances.

The three charities benefit from the performance – the prisoners’ debt relief, the Mercer’s Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary. In its report on a public rehearsal, the Dublin News-Letter describes the oratorio as “… far surpassing anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom.” Seven hundred people attend the premiere on April 13. In order to accommodate the largest possible audience, gentlemen are requested to remove their swords and ladies are asked not to wear hoops in their dresses. The performance earns unanimous praise from the assembled press: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring and crowded Audience.” A Dublin clergyman, Rev. Delaney, is so overcome by Susanna Cibber’s rendering of “He was despised” that he reportedly leaps to his feet and cries, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!” The takings amount to around £400, providing about £127 to each of the three nominated charities and securing the release of 142 indebted prisoners.

Handel remains in Dublin for four months after the premiere. He organises a second performance of Messiah on June 3, which is announced as “the last Performance of Mr. Handel’s during his Stay in this Kingdom.” In this second Messiah, which is for Handel’s private financial benefit, Cibber reprises her role from the first performance, although details of other performers are not recorded.