January 30, 2012
Every practice should have a triage specialist like her
Doctor Fingal Flaherty O’Reilly wasn’t the only character in the practice. Mrs. Kincaid, widow, native of County Kerry, known to one and all as “Kinky,” functioned as his housekeeper-cum-receptionist-cum-nurse. She was a big woman, middle-aged, with big hands and blue eyes that could twinkle like the dew on the grass in the morning sun when she was in an expansive mood — or flash like lightning when she was enraged. She treated Doctor O’Reilly with due deference when he behaved himself and sub-Arctic frigidity when he didn’t. She was the only person I knew who could bring him to heel. In her native county she would have been known as “a powerful woman.”
When she was acting in her nursing role, Kinky’s speciality was triage. Cerberus at the gates to Hades might have done a fair to middling job keeping the unworthy in the underworld, but when it came to protecting her doctors’ time from the malingerers of the town, Kinky made the fabled dog look like an edentulous pussy cat. Not only did she get rid of them, she did so with diplomatic skills that would have been the envy of the American ambassador to the Court of St. James.
I began to appreciate her talents one January evening. It had been a tough week. We were in the middle of a ’flu epidemic and O’Reilly, who’d been without much sleep for about four days, had prevailed upon me to come and help him out. By the week’s end both of us were knackered. We were sitting in the surgery, me on the examination couch, O’Reilly slumped in the swivel chair. The last patient had left and as far as I knew no emergency calls had come in. O’Reilly’s usually ruddy complexion was pallid and his eyes red-rimmed, the whole face looking like two tomatoes in a snowbank. I didn’t like to think about my own appearance. He massaged his right shoulder with his left hand. “God,” he said, “I hope that’s the last of it for tonight.” As he spoke the front door bell rang. “Bugger!” said O’Reilly.
I started to rise but he shook his head. “Leave it. Kinky will see who it is.”
The door to the surgery was ajar. I could hear the conversation quite clearly, Kinky’s soft Kerry brogue contrasting sharply with harsher, female tones. I thought I recognized the second speaker, and when I heard Kinky refer to her as “Maggie,” I realized that the caller was the woman who’d come to see O’Reilly complaining of headaches that were located about two inches above the crown of her head. She was in and out of the surgery on a weekly basis. The prospect of having to see her was not pleasant. I needn’t have worried.
“The back is it, Maggie?” Kinky’s inquiry was dulcet.
“Something chronic,” came the reply.
“Oh dear. And how long has it been bothering you?”
“Weeks is it?” The concern never wavered. “Well, we’ll have to get you seen as soon as we can.”
I shuddered, for it was my turn to see the next patient, but O’Reilly simply smiled, shook his head and held one index finger in front of his lips.
“Pity you’ll have to wait. The young doctor’s out on an emergency. He shouldn’t be more than two or three hours. You will wait, won’t you?”
I heard the sibilant indrawing of breath and could picture Maggie’s frustration. I heard her harrumph. “It’s the proper doctor that I want to see, not that young lad.”
So much for the undying respect of the citizens for their medical advisors. I glanced at O’Reilly and was rewarded with a smug grin.
“Ah,” said Kinky, “Ah, well now, that’s the difficulty of it. Doctor O’Reilly’s giving a pint of his own blood this very minute, the darling man.”
“Mrs. Kincaid” — Maggie didn’t sound as if she was going to be taken in — “that has to be the fifth pint of blood you’ve told me about him giving this month.”
I waited to see how Kinky would wriggle out of that one. I needn’t have worried, as I heard her say with completely convincing sincerity, “And is that not what you’d expect from Doctor O’Reilly, him the biggest-hearted man in the town. Goodnight. Maggie. I heard the door close. As I told you, O’Reilly wasn’t the only character in the practice.
January 20, 2012
“That man Galvin’s a bloody idiot!” Thus spake Doctor Fingal Flaherty O’Reilly. He was standing in his favourite corner of the bar of the Black Swan Inn, or, as it was known to the locals, The Mucky Duck. O’Reilly’s normally florid cheeks glowed crimson and the tip of his bent nose paled. Somehow rage seemed to divert the blood flow from his hooter to his face. I thought it politic to remain silent. I’d seen the redoubtable Doctor O’Reilly like this before.
He hadn’t seemed to be his usual self when we’d repaired to the hostelry after evening surgery, and now, after his fourth pint, whatever had been bothering him was beginning to surface. “Raving bloody idiot,” he muttered, taking a generous swallow of his drink and slamming the empty glass on the counter.
After six months as his weekend locum and part-time assistant, I’d learned my place in O’Reilly’s universe. I nodded to Brendan the barman, who rapidly replaced O’Reilly’s empty glass with another full of the velvet liquid product of Mr. Arthur Guinness and Sons, St. James’s Gate, Dublin.
“Ta,” said O’Reilly, the straight glass almost hidden by his big hand. “I could kill Seamus Galvin.” He rummaged in the pocket of his rumpled jacket, produced a briar, stoked it with the enthusiasm of Beëlzebub preparing the coals for an unrepentant sinner, and fired up the tobacco, making a smokescreen that would have hidden the entire British North Sea fleet from the attentions of the Panzerschiff Bismark.
I sipped my shandy and waited, trying to remember if I’d seen the patient in question.
“Do you know what that benighted apology for a man has done?”
From the tone of O’Reilly’s voice, I assumed it must have been some petty misdemeanour — like mass murder perhaps. “No,” I said, helpfully.
O’Reilly sighed. “He has Mary’s heart broken.”
Now I remembered. Seamus Galvin and his wife Mary lived in a cottage at the end of one of the lanes just outside the small Ulster town where O’Reilly practised. Galvin was a carpenter by trade and a would-be entrepreneur. I’d seen him once or twice, usually because he’d managed to hit his thumb with one of his hammers. I said the man was a carpenter; I didn’t say he was a good carpenter.
“Broken,” said O’Reilly mournfully, “utterly smashed.”
This intelligence came as no great surprise. Mary Galvin was the sheet anchor of the marriage, bringing in extra money by selling her baking, eggs from her hens, and the produce of her vegetable garden. Galvin himself was a complete waster.
O’Reilly prodded my chest with the end of his pipe. “I should have known a few weeks ago when I saw him and he was telling me about his latest get-rich scheme.” The big man grunted derisively. “That one couldn’t make money in the Royal Mint.”
I could only agree, remembering Galvin’s previous failed endeavours. His “Happy Nappy Diaper Service” had folded. No one in a small town could afford the luxury of having someone else wash their babies’ diapers. Only the most sublime optimist could have thought that a landscaping company would have much custom in a predominantly agricultural community. Galvin had soon been banished from his “Garden of Eden” lawncare business — presumably because his encounters with the fruit of the tree of knowledge had been limited. I wondered what fresh catastrophe had befallen him.
O’Reilly beat carelessly at an ember that had fallen from the bowl of his pipe onto the lapel of his tweed jacket. “Mary’s the one with sense. She was in to see me a couple of weeks ago. She’s pregnant.” He inspected the charred cloth. “I’ve known her since she was a wee girl. I’ve never seen her so happy.” His craggy features softened for a moment. “She told me her secret. She’d been saving her money and had enough for Seamus and herself to emigrate to California.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Aye,” said O’Reilly, “she has a brother out there. He was going to find Seamus a job with a construction company.”
I’d read somewhere that California was prone to earthquakes and for a moment thought that this unfortunate geological propensity had been transmitted to Ulster before I realized that the pub’s attempt to shimmy like my sister Kate was due to O’Reilly banging his fist on the bar top.
“That bloody idiot and his bright ideas.” O’Reilly’s nose tip was ashen. “He’s gone into toy making. He thinks he can sell rocking ducks — rocking ducks.” He shook his head ponderously. “Mary was in tonight. The wee lass was in tears. He’d taken the money she’d saved and went and bought the lumber to make his damn ducks. That man Galvin’s a bloody idiot.”
O’Reilly finished his pint, set the glass on the counter, shrugged and said just one more word, “Home.”
About a month later, I met Mary Galvin in the High St. She stopped me and I could see she was bubbling with excitement.
“How are you, Mary?”
“Doctor, you’ll never believe it!” She had wonderfully green eyes and they were sparkling. “A big company in Belfast has bought all of Seamus’ rocking ducks, lock stock and barrel.” She patted her expanding waistline. “The three of us are off to California next week.”
I wished her well, genuinely pleased for her good fortune. It wasn’t until I’d returned to O’Reilly’s house that I began to wonder. He was out making a house call. For the last week he’d taken to parking his car on the street. No. No, he wouldn’t have …?
When I opened the garage door, a bizarre creature toppled out from a heap of its fellows. The entire space was filled to the rafters with garishly painted ducks — rocking ducks. It only took a moment to stow the one that had made a bid for freedom and close the door.
When I introduced Doctor O’Reilly, I described him as, among other things, a crypto-philanthropist. Now you know why.
January 4, 2012
The Lazarus Manoeuvre
How the young Doctor O’Reilly earned the
respect of his community
We were sitting
in the upstairs lounge of Doctor O’Reilly’s house at the end of the day.
Himself was tucking contentedly into his second large whiskey. “So,” he
demanded, “how do you like it?”
Being a little uncertain whether he was asking about the spectacular view through the
bay window to Belfast Lough, the small sherry I was sipping or the general
status of the universe, I countered with an erudite, “What?”
He fished in the external auditory canal of one thickened, pugilist’s ear with the
tip of his right little finger and echoed my sentiments: “What?”
I thought this conversation could become mildly repetitive and decided to broaden
the horizons. “How do I like what, Doctor O’Reilly?”
He extracted his digit and examined the end with all the concentration and
knitting of brows of a gorilla evaluating a choice morsel. “Practice here, you
idiot. How do you like it?”
My lights went on. “Fine,” I said, as convincingly as possible. “Just fine.”
My reply seemed to satisfy him. He grinned, grunted, hauled his 20 stone erect,
wandered over to the sideboard and returned carrying the sherry decanter. He
topped up my glass. “A bird can’t fly on one wing,” he remarked.
I refrained from observing that if he kept putting away the whiskey at his usual
rate he’d soon be giving a pretty fair imitation of a mono-winged albatross in
a high gale, accepted my fresh drink and waited.
He returned the decanter, ambled to the window and took in the scenery with one
all-encompassing wave of his arm. “I’d not want to live anywhere else,” he
said. “Mind you, it was touch and go at the start.”
He was losing me again. “What was, Doctor O’Reilly?”
“Fingal, my boy. Fingal. For Oscar.” He gave me one of his most avuncular smiles.
I couldn’t for the life of me see him having been named for a small, gilded
statuette given annually to movie stars. “Oscar, er, Fingal?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No. Not Oscar Fingal. Wilde.”
He did this to me. Every time I thought I was following him he’d change tack,
leaving me in a state of confusion bordering on that usually felt by people
recovering from an overdose of chloroform. “Oscar Fingal Wilde, Fingal?”
I should have stuck with, “Doctor O’Reilly.” I could tell by the way the tip of
his bent nose was beginning to whiten that he was becoming exasperated. He
shook his head. “Oscar … Fingal … O’Flahertie … Wills … Wilde.”
I stifled the urge to remark that if you put an air to it you could sing it.
He must have seen my look of bewilderment. The ischaemia left his nose. “I was
named for him. For Oscar Wilde.”
The scales fell from my eyes. “I see.”
“Good. Now where was I?”
“You said, ‘It was touch and go at the start.’”
“Oh yes. Getting the practice going. Touch and go.” He sat again in the big
comfortable armchair, picked up his glass of whiskey and looked at me over the
brim. “Did I ever tell you how I got started?”
“No,” I said, settling back in my own chair, preparing myself for another of his
reminiscences, for another meander down the byways of O’Reilly’s life.
“I came here in the early forties.
Took over from Doctor Finnegan.”
I hoped fervently that we weren’t about to embark on the genealogy of James Joyce, and was relieved to hear O’Reilly continue, “He was a funny old bird.”
Never, I thought, but kept the thought to myself.
O’Reilly was warming up now. “Just before he left, Finnegan warned me about a local
condition of cold groin abscesses. He didn’t understand them.” O’Reilly took a
mouthful of Irish, savoured it and swallowed. “He explained to me that when he
lanced them he either got wind or shit, but the patient invariably died.”
I was horrified. My mentor’s predecessor had been incising inguinal hernia.
“That’s why it was touch and go,” said O’Reilly. “My first patient had the biggest
hernia I’ve ever seen. When I refused to lance it, like good old Doctor
Finnegan, the patient spread the word that I didn’t know my business.” He sat
back and crossed one leg over the other. “Did you ever hear of Lazarus?”
“Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Lazarus?” I asked.
“Don’t be impertinent.” He grabbed my, by-now-empty, glass and headed back to the sideboard. The delivery of a fresh libation, and one for himself, signalled that he hadn’t been offended. “No, the Biblical fellow that Jesus raised from the dead.” He sat.
“That’s how I got my start.”
Was it the sherry or was I really losing my mind? Whatever his skills, I doubted
that Doctor O’Reilly had actually effected a resurrection. “Go on,” I asked for
“I was in church one Sunday, hoping that if the citizens saw that I was a good
Christian they might look upon me more favourably.”
The thought of a pious O’Reilly seemed a trifle incongruous.
“There I was when a farmer in the front pew let out a yell like a banshee, grabbed his
chest and keeled over.” To add drama to his words O’Reilly stood, arms wide. “I
took out of my pew like a whippet. Examined him. Mutton. Dead as mutton.”
I knew that CPR hadn’t been invented in the forties. “What did you do?”
O’Reilly lowered his arms and winked. “I got my bag, told everyone to stand back, and
gave the poor corpse an injection of whatever came handy. I listened to his
heart. ‘He’s back,’ says I. You should have heard the gasp from the
He sat down. “I listened again. ‘God,’ says I, ‘He’s going again,’ and gave the poor bugger another shot.” O’Reilly sipped his drink. “I brought him back three times
before I finally confessed defeat.”
Innocence is a remarkable thing. “Did you really get his heart started?”
O’Reilly guffawed. “Not at all, but the poor benighted audience didn’t know that. Do you know I actually heard one woman say to her neighbour, ‘The Lord only brought
Lazarus back once and the new doctor did it three times.’” He headed for the sideboard again. “I told you it was touch and go at the start, but the customers started rolling in after that — will you have another?”