Oliver St John Gogarty was a poet, author, otolaryngologist, athlete, politician, and well-known conversationalist.
As a Sinn Féiner during the Irish War of Independence, Gogarty participated in a variety of anti-Black and Tan schemes, allowing his home to be used as a safe house and transporting disguised IRA volunteers in his car. Following the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Gogarty sided with the pro-Treaty government (headed by his close friend Arthur Griffith) and was made a Free State Senator. When Griffith fell ill during the summer of 1922, Gogarty frequently attended his bedside. His death on 12 August 1922 had a profound effect on Gogarty; W.T. Cosgrave later observed that “he was almost mortally wounded when Griffith died, he was so very, very much attached to him.” Gogarty carried out Griffith’s official autopsy and embalmment, and went on to perform the same offices for Michael Collins, another close friend whom Gogarty had often sheltered in his Ely Place home prior to his assassination. It was rumoured that Griffith had been planning to make Gogarty the new Governor-General of the Irish Free State, but in his absence the post went to Tim Healy.
In November 1922, anti-Treaty IRA commander Liam Lynch issued a general order to his forces to shoot Free State Senators. Two months later, Gogarty was kidnapped by a group of anti-Treaty militants, who lured him out of his house and into a waiting car under the pretext of bringing him to visit a sick patient. Gogarty was subsequently driven to an empty house near Chapelizod and held under armed guard. Aware that he might be in imminent danger of execution, Gogarty contrived to have himself led out into the garden (purportedly by claiming to be suffering from diarrhoea), where he broke free from his captors and flung himself into the Liffey; he then swam to shore and delivered himself to the protection of the police barracks in Phoenix Park. In February of that same year, Renvyle was burnt to the ground by anti-Treaty forces. Following these incidents, Gogarty relocated his family and practice to London, where he resided until February 1924. Upon returning to Ireland, he famously released two swans into the River Liffey in gratitude for his life.
Gogarty remained a senator until the abolition of the Seanad in 1936, during which time he identified with none of the existing political parties and voted according to his own whims. He believed that Ireland should retain its dominion status in the British Commonwealth so as to “keep with nations who understand that the first principle of freedom is a freedom that does not permit interference with the personal liberties of the citizen.” He supported rural electrification schemes, road improvement, reforestation and conservation, prevention of livestock cruelty, and educational reform. His views on controversial issues such as censorship and birth control were ambiguous; after expressing initial support for the Censorship Bill, he eventually went on to denounce it in scathing terms (“I think it is high time the men of this country found some other way of loving God than by hating women”), and while generally professing to oppose the sale of prophylactics, he voiced support for their usage in certain cases. He was most passionate on the subject of sanitation in schools and in urban and rural housing, about which he spoke frequently. His speeches frequently contained puns, wordplays, and extended poetic quotations, and were sometimes given in favour of facetious schemes, such as his attempt to have the phoenix statue in Phoenix Park included in the 1929 Wild Birds Protection Bill. He was notoriously scornful of the government’s attempts to reinstate the Irish language (which he referred to as “Woolworth’s Irish”), proposing that funding be used instead for housing and school health services, and remained perpetually suspicious of Éamon de Valera, against whose economic policies, character, and personal appearance he often hurled invectives during Seanad proceedings. De Valera eventually dissolved the Seanad when it persisted in obstructing Government proposals, effectively ending Gogarty’s political career.
Gogarty maintained close friendships with W. B. Yeats, AE, George Moore, Lord Dunsany, James Stephens, Seamus O’Sullivan, and other Dublin literati, and continued to write poetry in the midst of his political and professional duties. Three small books of poetry (Hyperthuleana, Secret Springs of Dublin Song, and The Ship and Other Poems) were published between 1916 and 1918. Gogarty also tried his hand at playwriting, producing a slum drama (Blight) in 1917 under the pseudonym “Alpha and Omega”, and two comedies (A Serious Thing and The Enchanted Trousers) in 1919 under the pseudonym “Gideon Ouseley”, all three of which were performed at the Abbey Theatre.
Gogarty suffered from heart complaints during the last few years of his life in New York City, and in September 1957 he collapsed in the street on his way to dinner. He died on 22 September 1957; his body was flown home to Ireland and buried in Cartron Church, Moyard, near Renvyle.
A pub in the Temple Bar district of Dublin is named after him, and an annual Oliver St. John Gogarty Literary Festival is held in the author’s family home, now the Renvyle House Hotel in Connemara. A surgical ward in the descendant hospital of his workplace, the AMNCH, now also bears his name.
Image | Oliver St John Gogarty as painted in 1911 by William Orpen