The life of the renowned surgeon Sylvester O’Halloran

Published in the Limerick Post, 20 December 2008 – Sharon Slater

Hundreds of people monthly cross the small pedestrian bridge over the Abbey River, some having left their cars in the Potato Market, others after visiting City Hall or St. Mary’s Cathedral, while a few will use it to escape the hustle and pollution on Mathew Bridge.

Standing on this foot bridge turning towards the Shannon they are met with the majestic view of this magnificent river, a fitting place indeed for a memorial bridge in honour of Limerick man, Dr. Sylvester O’Halloran, the pioneer of the modern cataract operation to be sited.

ohalloranSylvester was born in Caherdavin on 31st December 1728, to strong patriotic Catholic parents, Michael O’Halloran and Mary McDonnell. His brother Fr. Joseph Ignatius O’Halloran (1718-1800) a Jesuit priest, was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bordeaux.

After studying in Limerick with his mother’s cousin Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill, Gaelic poet, he had considered a career in the priesthood. But touched by those he saw afflicted by premature blindness and lack of medical personal in Limerick, that he set out to be educated in London, Leyden and Paris as a surgeon. At the time his Catholic faith had made it virtually impossible for him to take up his studies in Dublin.

His passionate commitment to education, research and surgical skills marked him out from his contemporaries. In 1750 he published A New Treatise on Glaucoma, or Cataract in Ireland. He also published in 1765 the valuable New Method of Amputation.

Never turning his back on his native city and he gave many years to St. John’s Hospital. In 1773, along with Dr. Patrick Unthank, he established lie-in hospital for pregnant women, to which he gave his time for free. He was one of the founders of the Limerick County Infirmary, which unfortunately was completed after his death in 1811 on Mulgrave Street. The foundation stone is now preserved in the Sylvester O’Halloran Post Graduate Centre at the Mid-Western Regional Hospital, Limerick.

He had been very impressed while in France with the Académie Royale de Chirurgie, which had been founded in Paris in 1731. Sylvester O’Halloran’s Proposals for the Advancement of Surgery in Ireland and his driving enthusiasm were directly responsible for the establishment of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1784. An annual meeting established in 1992 by Peter Delaney, the Sylvester O’Halloran Meeting is held at the Royal College of Surgeons in his honour.

Not only was he a master surgeon, but he was also an avid historian and patriot, writing A History of Ireland in 1774, this book however was not published until 1804, and was met with disdain from those who believed it details it contained on the Anglo-Irish ascendancy should have remained unrecorded.

He married Mary O’Casey and had five children only one of whom, Joseph, survived him. He died in his house near St. Mary’s Cathedral in 11 August 1807 and buried in his family vault in Killeely graveyard.

The inscription on his headstone reads, “His country’s honours and good name ever found him a ready and unflinching champion. Erected by the St Senan’s Historical Society.”