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Posted 20 Dec 2012

UCD honours three medics for their historic role in Irish politics

President of UCD, Dr Hugh Brady, today officially named three lecture theatres in the UCD Health Sciences Centre in Belfield after Dr Kathleen Lynn (1874-1955), Dr James Ryan (1891 – 1970) and Dr Patrick Hillery (1923 – 2008).

Speaking at the ceremony, historian, Professor Mary E Daly said:  “The careers of these three distinguished UCD medical graduates have a common theme in public service and the contributions that they each made to the Irish State.  As such they reflect the central role that UCD has played in the achievement of an independent Ireland and its subsequent history.  These dedications are timely as we embark on events to commemorate the founding of the Irish State.” 

Pictured far right: Paddy Hillery and Jack Lynch sign the Treaty of Accession to the European Communities, Palais d'Egmont, Brussels, 22 January 1972

The UCD School of Medicine has an incredible legacy in the Irish political arena.” Dr Brady said “In naming the lecture theatres after Patrick Hillery, Kathleen Lynn and James Ryan we are keeping that legacy alive for current and future generations of students.”

The naming of the theatres took place as part of a symposium for medical academics and clinicians from UCD and its partner hospitals.  The symposium marks the contribution to medicine made by Professor Bill Powderly, Dean of Medicine and Chief Academic Officer of the Dublin Academic Medical Centre, which includes the UCD School of Medicine and Medical Sciences, the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital and St Vincent’s Hospital.  Professor Powderly leaves UCD to take up a new appointment in the United States.




Kathleen Lynn

Kathleen Lynn belongs to the first generation of Irish women medical graduates.  Graduating from UCD in 1899, she went to the US for ten years but returned to Ireland in 1909.  From 1910-1916 she held a position at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital – the first female resident doctor, combining this with a private practice in Rathmines.

This active medical career was combined with an equally active role in political affairs.  She was a strong suffragette.

During the 1913 Dublin lock-out, Kathleen Lynn worked in Liberty Hall with Constance Marckievicz, to provide food and care for destitute families.

Her involvement with Liberty Hall and James Connolly led her to join the Irish Citizen Army – which admitted women and men to the same organisation.  She also taught first aid to Cumann na mBan – the female wing of the Irish Volunteers.

Peter Wynne, relative of Kathleen Lynn and Prof Bill Powderly, UCD School of Medicine pictured at naming of the medical lecture theatres
Peter Wynne, relative of Kathleen Lynn and Prof Bill Powderly, UCD School of Medicine pictured at naming of the medical lecture theatres

During the 1916 Rising she was based in Dublin’s City Hall – as chief medical officer to the Citizen Army.  This resulted in her losing her job at the Eye and Ear Hospital, and a spell in Kilmainham jail; she spent a further spell in prison in 1918.  When Sinn Fein was reorganised its in 1917, she became a vice-president; in 1922, like most republican women she sided with the anti-Treaty side. 

Although Kathleen Lynn was elected to Dail Eireann in 1923, by this time she was concentrating on her medical life.  In 1919 she and a number of other politically-active medical women founded St. Ultan’s Hospital for Infants in Charlemont Street, Dublin. St Ultan’s was a hospital run by women – their space in Dublin’s medical community.   The initial focus was on treating syphilitic infants – Cumann na mBan was convinced that soldiers returning from the Front were killing Irish infants – in truth syphilis was endemic in sections of the Dublin working class.  St Ultan’s soon began to treat other illnesses.

Kathleen Lynn had diverse motives for founding St. Ultan’s – it provided medical care for sick children like those she had met in Liberty Hall, and a supportive environment for their mothers.  St Ultan’s offered Lynn and her fellow women doctors, a place where they could shape their own medical careers, and make a distinctive contribution.  Kathleen Lynn died in 1955 and was buried with full military honours.


James Ryan

James Ryan – one of twelve children of a county Wexford farming family, entered UCD to study medicine in 1909, the holder of a one of the first county council scholarships awarded for students to attend the new National University of Ireland. 

At UCD he joined the student branch of Sinn Fein.  In November 1913 he became a founding member of the Irish Volunteers, which was founded by UCD Professor Eoin MacNeill.  He was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood – the secret society, whose members plotted the 1916 Rising.

The Ryan family pictured at the naming of the medical lecture theatres
The Ryan family pictured at the naming of the medical lecture theatres

On Easter Sunday 1916 he delivered Eoin MacNeill’s orders countermanding the Rising to the Cork Volunteers; when he heard that a Rising had actually broken out, he reported to the GPO with his medical kit and was appointed as chief medical officer.  After the Rising he was interned, but he was among the first prisoners to be released, and he went back to complete his medical studies, qualifying in March 1917. 

He set up general practice in Wexford town where he treated many cases during the influenza pandemic of 1918-19.  He was elected as Sinn Fein TD in the 1918 general election and was among the 27 Sinn Fein TDs who took their seats in the Mansion House on 21 January 1919 - the first meeting of Dail Eireann.  He voted against the Treaty in 1922, and in the same year he was appointed to the staff of the City of Dublin Skin and Cancer Hospital – Hume Street – whose ultimate legacy is now represented by the Charles Institute – now located on the UCD Belfield campus. 

When the civil war broke out later that year, he picked up his medical kit once more and acted as medical officer in the Four Courts and O’Connell Street.  He was later interned and went on a 36-day hunger strike, which damaged his health and prompted him to abandon medicine in favour of farming and a business career – he founded the New Ireland Assurance Co. 
He was a founder member and treasurer of Fianna Fail and served as Minister for Agriculture, the first Minister for Health and Social Welfare, and Minister for Finance.

And, bringing this story back to UCD – it was James Ryan, who as Minister for Finance, approved the capital funding for UCD’s move to Belfield – the first capital funding provided by an Irish government for higher education.


Patrick Hillery

Patrick Hillery – the fifth President of Ireland – and much more, belongs to a younger generation than Lynn and Ryan.  He was born in 1923 in Spanish Point, county Clare, the son of a local general practitioner.  He registered as a UCD medical student in the autumn of 1939, but when it was discovered that he was only 16 years old – younger than the permitted matriculation age – he had to withdraw; he returned the following year.
He then embarked on quite a serious postgraduate training programme – as a junior doctor in the Mater and the National Maternity, and several years in hospital positions in Canada, including a residency in psychiatry.  In 1950, after he returned to Ireland, he took a post as an assistant medical officer in Peamont sanatorium – at a time when tackling Ireland epidemic of TB as a national priority. 

In 1951, while still based at Peamont, he was was elected as the second Fianna Fail TD in Clare next to Eamon De Valera.  He returned to Clare to assist in his father’s practice, combining this with being a TD. 

The Hillery Family pictured at the naming of the medical lecture theatres
The Hillery Family pictured at the naming of the medical lecture theatres

In the summer of 1959 he became Minister for Education in Sean Lemass’s first Cabinet.  When he became minister, many Irish children finished their schooling at primary level and half of all fifteen-year olds were not in school.  There was no entitlement to secondary schooling.   Access to university education was even more limited.

By the early 1960s however there was a growing awareness internationally that education was a critical factor in achieving economic growth.  Patrick Hillery introduced this concept to Irish political and public life, when he volunteered Ireland as a case study for a report on Investment in Education to be carried out by the OECD.   The report, which appeared in 1965, was produced by a committee chaired by UCD Economics Professor Patrick Lynch.  It highlighted the unequal access to education by socio-economic class, geography and gender.  This report set the framework for the expansion of access to second and third-level education in the 1960s and later decades.

In Feb 1960 he brought a proposal to Cabinet that the Government should approve and fund the construction a new UCD science building at Belfield; this was the first capital funding for Irish higher education since the foundation of the State.

Patrick Hillery served as Minister for Industry and Commerce, Minister for Labour,  and Minister for External Affairs / Foreign Affairs.  Under Hillery there was a significant shift in priorities from a focus on the UN to a focus on the EEC and Northern Ireland.

Jack Lynch gave Patrick Hillery responsibility for Ireland’s negotiations on EEC membership. It was under Hillery that the Northern Ireland section in Iveagh House was established – with the understanding that they would work closely with the Taoiseach’s office – this was the model that eventually delivered the Good Friday Agreement.

In 1973 he moved to Brussels as the first EEC Commissioner for Social Affairs.  His term as Commissioner was cut short in 1976, when Fianna Fail leader Jack Lynch asked him to agree to being nominated as President of Ireland.  The respect that he commanded is evident, in that he was unopposed then or in his second term.


(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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Pictured far right: Paddy Hillery and Jack Lynch sign the Treaty of Accession to the European Communities, Palais d'Egmont, Brussels, 22 January 1972
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