Donal Browne: A shipwright who triumphed over polio and doctor’s advice


Date: 05.03.2018

“Well I was never going to take that lying down,” was Donal Browne’s reaction to doctors who told him he would never walk again.

Browne, who died in his 90th year, was 27 years old and working as a shipwright in Baltimore, Co Cork when he contracted polio.

He was taken to St Finbarr’s Hospital in Cork. In an unpublished memoir he describes a doctor who “examined” him through a ward window. Later he was moved to a more modern hospital at Gurranebraher. Browne was to spend 3½ years in hospital, a tough challenge for a big, physically fit man who loved dancing.

But a larger polio outbreak was about to happen in Cork in 1956, and it could no longer be swept under the carpet. Eventually he was fitted with a heavy plastic upper body jacket to hold him upright as he tried to get his legs working. Browne knew the weight of the jacket was making him fall over and asked the medical director for permission to cut some of it away. Dr St John O’Connell, famous for treating double amputee and second World War pilot Douglas Bader, replied: “I’ll give you no permission to cut anything. Wear that jacket or sit in a wheelchair for the rest of your life.”

But Browne cut the jacket, and his recovery began. That was the last time he asked a doctor for permission for anything. The 1956 polio outbreak in Cork had prompted the sending of physiotherapists from Dublin. From them he learned of modern treatments and with the help of Dr Harry Flanagan, a family friend, he was transferred to the Central Remedial Clinic in Dublin. There he learned to walk again using arm crutches.

Browne was the fourth son of Timothy Browne and Mary O’Driscoll who lived on a small farm in west Cork. Age 14, he was apprenticed to Skinner’s boatyard in Baltimore. In 1947 he went to Dublin to work in shipyards in Dún Laoghaire and Malahide. In 1953 Donal’s brother Teddy took charge of the State-owned boatyard in Baltimore and Donal returned to help him.

He managed football pools, worked for the Irish Wheelchair Association, did woodturning, worked as a hospital telephonist and was a taxi dispatcher. He gained 25 years of independent walking supported only by arm crutches before diabetes and other ailments put him back in a wheelchair. He could live with that.

Donal Browne is survived by his widow Pat, his daughters Angela, Regina and Theresa, sons Daniel and Denis, and his sister Mary McCarthy.

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