INTERVIEW: Offaly doctor and keen cyclist reflects on a life on the road

Hugh O'Donoghue


Hugh O'Donoghue


INTERVIEW: Offaly doctor and keen cyclist reflects on a life on the road

INTERVIEW: Offaly doctor and keen cyclist reflects on a life on the road

Team905 President, Dr Philip Brady, will once again act as official starter for the 2020 running of the Pat Jones Memorial Cycle on Saturday, April 11.

Philip has been a family GP in Edenderry for almost forty years and has always been a committed advocate of cycling as a healthy and rewarding exercise. He was instrumental in the establishment of Team905CC ten years ago and we thought now might be a good time to feature at least some elements of his intriguing story in our club notes.

I’ve been speaking to him over the last couple of weeks and discovered some very interesting aspects to the character of this most civil and courteous of men.

Philip was born in Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford at a time when the Irish midlands was a different place to what it is now. “My background was a family farm, where everyone had a part to play and everyone played that part. It was a very happy environment in which to grow up. There were four in our family, two and two, the same as now in my own family, the makings of a half-set.” – a reference to his lifelong interest in Set Dancing more of which later.

He recalls his school days, boarding at St. Mel’s College in Longford as “spartan but fair.”

“We went in there every September and reappeared again at Christmas, without contact with the outside world, either through phone or newspaper but with the odd letter from home. We survived, appreciated what was done and the sacrifices that our parents made for us.”

He speaks of his love of English and remembers an excellent English teacher at St.Mel’s who fostered his interest in the subject. Later, while studying initially for a BA, with English as one of his subjects, he often regretted that having to do shift work at the same time limited the opportunity to read and study more. His childhood background in the home place of Maria Edgeworth of ‘Castle Rackrent’ fame and his natural flair for the subject would surely influence his later poetic compositions.

Philip’s interest in cycling stems from his childhood. “It was our school transport system from the start and when I first went to Dublin I cycled home every weekend – 70 miles each way, a nice comfortable three-hour spin or a bit less if the wind was at your back.”

His first ever holiday turned out to be a one thousand mile cycling trip around Ireland in nine days and following this he took to the roads of continental Europe over the next few years. “I went through Checkpoint Charlie in East Berlin on my own in the ‘60s and was amazed to see so many buildings blackened and burnt out and not recovered from the effects of the war. My cycling companion was Bobby Shaw who was that year’s Irish Road Race Champion.

"We went through France, Germany and Switzerland, crossing the Vosges and Blackforest mountains, and the next year he put my name down to ride the Rás Tailteann. I never told anyone, as I hadn’t raced before, but took everybody by surprise at home when the race passed by our front door on the way from Monaghan to Ballinasloe with me in a small breakaway group at the front. It wasn’t tactical. I knew one of the riders in the break and l knew the road very well. The Ras was a huge learning experience and I learned.”

A meeting he had on that Rás with a fellow cyclist who, like himself, came from a non-cycling football county, was to influence his life many years later when he became a GP in Edenderry. The comrade in arms was the late Sean McGuinness, then a prominent competitor on the amateur cycling scene.

“Having come to Edenderry as a doctor, I again met the McGuinness family. They were starting the Memorial Race for Sean, who had sadly died in the interim. I was delighted to be involved in the committee to organise that race in his memory.”

The Sean McGuinness Memorial Race ran for a number of years and was a very prestigious event on the cycling calendar throughout the 1980s.

Coincidentally other riders from the Rás of a decade before were now organizing the main event and came to Edenderry to see the Sean McGuinness Memorial. Hearing that their former competitor was now a doctor, the Rás Director, Dermot Dignam, approached Philip to take on the medical duties at Ireland’s main cycling event.

“For the next twenty years, for one week in May, I was the volunteer hanging out the door of the race car, encouraging
riders, looking after them, picking up the casualties from the roads and ditches, all the time remembering that I knew what it was like to crash too.” Philip’s skills and professional empathy were highly valued in this role as Race Doctor.

Among his proudest moments on the Rás came when one of the Great Britain teams presented him with the Mountains Classification Jersey which they had won. They felt he should be recognized for his attention to their riders when they were in difficulties over the years in the race.

He remembers the setting up of the Edenderry Cycling Club in the 1980s as being principally to promote the Sean McGuinness Memorial, but it also facilitated and encouraged local riders to take part in the Co-Operation North Maracycle from Dublin to Belfast and back during the years of the Northern Troubles. Many cyclists from Edenderry and surrounding areas took part in the event, organized to promote a peaceful co-operation North and South and between all factions. A number of these early pioneers are still cycling today with Team905.

Moving to his medical career, I asked Philip about his original interest in the profession and how he came to Edenderry. He recalled spending one winter at a Mission Hospital and School in Zimbabwe as a volunteer in the 1960s. “At the time I was working with Aer Lingus on shift work. When I got home from Zimbabwe I went back to University to do a BA at night but I maintained contact with the Mission. When I finished the degree I continued on to Pre-Med, influenced by the conditions that I had witnessed in Africa.”

As part of his rotational medical training Philip spent two terms of duty at Tullamore General Hospital and while there was introduced to Edenderry when working as a Locum for Dr. Brian Emerson in the town. Within a short time he would be back in town working as a GP. Philip also met his wife, Patricia, while working at Holles Street hospital during his medical studies.

“She was nursing and giving tutorials at the National Maternity Hospital at the time. I was obviously impressed and still am. She introduced me to Lourdes when she was part of the staff volunteering on the Franciscan National Pilgrimage each year and so for the next forty years I was with them as their Medical Officer each September.”

What does he feel are the rewards of a career in such a demanding profession? “The greatest rewards come from being in a position to help others when they are in need or to help direct them through difficulties, however serious or trivial. If it is someone’s difficulty, it’s important to them.”

We talked about advances in medical treatment in his time and he particularly referenced the Vaccination Programmes, where many infectious diseases, once a source of real dread, have now become a rarity.

“Another is the skill in intervention medicine, particularly in the Cardiovascular area, where many including yours truly, are forever grateful” he added.

Having spent so long in the profession would he now encourage young people to enter it? He answers with a resounding yes citing the satisfaction it can bring and the fact that you can help and benefit others. He does add though “This might come with a warning note to develop a preservation strategy against the ever-increasing stress demands of a modern world. The bike is not a bad option!”

Not too many local GPs around the country are also published poets and perhaps Philip has derived inspiration from his many experiences, medical and social. In any event, he has published several books of poetry over the years.

“Patricia and I committed to do a fundraising cycle in America for the Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, so I put the first collection together and raised money through sales and readings. They were mainly nature poems or drawn from human experience dealing with themes of life and living. I often felt that, having a theme, a poem could help someone understand a particular difficulty and, if there was a tragedy or concern, to come to terms with knowing they were not alone. It is a way to share joy too and, if well enough written, could be revisited as a type of prayer for reassurance.”

As we discussed his love of poetry he speaks of his admiration for Keats and Wordsworth and how Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’ would be close to the top of his desert island list. Philip doesn’t mention Goldsmith’s significant Longford links but I can’t help thinking that here is a man strongly influenced by his own home place.

He also speaks of his interest in the writings of John McGahern and Emily Bronte “as their prose is poetic”. When I ask him the age-old question of whether Science or the Arts bear the greatest influence on mankind he, having practised both throughout his life, is diplomatic, but informative in his answer.

“I don’t think that life is either/or, or that we would be the poorer without one or the other, for man is body and soul and both are inextricable. We did not have science at secondary school in my time but for medicine it is essential. You need science to know and art to communicate and translate that into everyday life. After all a pilot could be a great communicator but we’re in trouble if he can’t land the plane.”

He also finds local history fascinating and has a particular interest in how place names describe the topography of where we live. “Modern communications,” he says, “though powerful, can be superficial and trivial as they are anonymous, but history tells us, for good or ill, who we are and gives us a sense of identity and belonging.”

Philip’s other great passion is Set Dancing and he and Patricia are well known for their prowess on the boards. He has never attended dancing classes and has only once danced in competition, representing a Dublin club at Scór. Interestingly his group won the Leinster title but Philip had to opt out of the All Ireland due to medical commitments.

“There was always traditional music in our house. Both my parents played as did their parents before them. My father played fiddle, melodeon and tambourine, though not at the same time! My mother inherited a traditional music manuscript that came down through generations of the family to her and in timepieces were added to it.

Our house always had dancing too – the Half Set where the music and dancing are interwoven as one. There were always visitors and I remember, once as a youngster, seeing the big swing going out of control and crashing into my mother’s new washing machine. There was great hilarity until they realized that the leg of the new machine was broken.”

He describes his long time involvement with Comhaltas in Dublin with the Clontarf and Sean Treacy branches. He is a member of the Edenderry branch and was part of the committee that ran the very successful Offaly Fleadh last year.

“These dances,” he says, “are very enjoyable. They have great social and aerobic benefits and preserve a great tradition. Have you ever seen a Set in full swing where all the dancers are not laughing?”

As we near the conclusion of our chat I ask him about his interest in Team905CC, a club that he was instrumental in setting up ten years ago. “Establishing a club is important to provide a framework to support cyclists and cycling. The brand name 905, I think, is a touch of genius, as it transcends all regional and local boundaries and it appeals to cyclists. Very importantly it’s not too early in the morning.

"On a general level, cycling is a perfect aerobic exercise, easier on the joints than the impact sports and it gives a sense of well-being and achievement. I’m not sure if it lengthens your days but it certainly makes them happier, more contented and stress-free. One of my own favourite cyclists was Raymond Poulidor, a great French sportsman, the eternal second in the Tour de France for years, who died recently in his 90s, and of course Sean Kelly, with his practical no-nonsense approach to just
getting out there and doing it.”

To my knowledge, Philip is the only Longford man to have been named Offaly Person of the Year, an honour bestowed on him in 2001. He describes it as a surprise and humbling experience and his pleasure that it came in the year of the volunteer.

“There is a sense of gratitude when people acknowledge that you do your best at whatever you are supposed to do and in such circumstances what can you say but Thank You?”

With all his varied interests he has contributed to the social, cultural and healthy life of Edenderry over the years, as indeed has Patricia, who served as an elected councillor on Edenderry Town Council for several years. In Team905cc we are always grateful for his wisdom and guidance and will leave the last word to himself when I ask him to sum up all his parallel lives.

“Yes, we all have parallel lives. They used to say at the dancing that I was a very good cyclist and at the cycling that I was good at the poetry and at the poetry that I was a doctor. And as a doctor, well I did my best.”