Tom Walsh, founder of the Legacy of Wexford Opera Festival, lives on

One of the most surprising things about the early years of the Wexford Opera Festival, which began in 1951, is how the main founder of the Festival, Dr Tom Walsh, or Dr Tom as he was almost universally known, managed to combine his Opera Festival work with his career as a consultant anesthetist at what was then the County Hospital, now Wexford General Hospital. A few years before the start of the Festival, Dr Tom, who was already a general practitioner, also started to practice anaesthesia.

r. Tom, who had received little or no formal training in anesthesia, decided to take an anesthesia training program and traveled to Vienna. It was there that he completed his training as an anesthesiologist. Vienna was an unusual place as most Irish doctors completed their training in English-speaking countries, mainly Britain and the United States. There is no doubt that Dr. Tom chose to train in Vienna because of his strong operatic heritage. He completed this training in 1955, gaining the position of County Anesthesiologist at Wexford County Hospital.

In addition to his hospital and opera activities, Dr Tom also carried on his medical practice from his home on George’s Street in the town of Wexford, where a room was set aside as a consulting room. There are still people living in Wexford who have been delivered by Dr Tom. Medicine has become much more regulated since then and it would no longer be possible for a hospital consultant to also have a GP practice.

Not only was Dr Tom the artistic director of the Festival from 1951 to 1966, but he was also in fact the administrator of the Festival, helped by a large group of volunteers and co-founders, among whom were a few friends and fellow doctors – Dr Des Ffrench, GP in Rosslare and Dr Jim Liddy, GP in Coolgreaney. The other main founders of the Festival were Eugene McCarthy, the owner of White’s Hotel, and Seamus O’Dwyer, a local man who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of opera and was well liked by Dr. Tom.

Even though the festival only lasts about two weeks, Dr. Walsh’s operatic duties were year-round. Choosing the artistic program, selecting directors, singers and an orchestra and finding the money to pay for it all was a continual challenge, but Dr. Tom was also the only consultant anesthetist at the hospital in the 1950s and early 1950s. 1960 in a service that counts its members in double digits. So how did he manage to combine all these roles? In Dr. Tom’s time, the workload was quite different. There were no specialist services such as the provision of an epidural service in the labor room and there was a lower surgical workload. Intensive care units, which add a considerable load to the workload of a modern anaesthetist, were not present in most Irish hospitals at this time. A hospital staff member described how Dr Tom carried “Italian books” with him to the hospital. These were almost certainly opera scores that he would have studied during his breaks.

Dr Tom himself said he had driven to a dinner party in Dublin one evening to meet an opera contact, only to be told on arrival that Wexford Hospital had phoned and needed to return immediately, so he had to turn back. for Wexford a far more tedious journey then than it is now. Nowadays, on-call medical staff are forced to stay within a much smaller radius of the hospital. So, while the volume and pressure of the work were less intense at that time, Dr. Tom never had to have a free minute to carry out his two medical roles, his lyrical activity and of course his important role as the father of family, having a wife and a daughter, Victoria. Even when he had to go on vacation, often to opera centers in Europe to recruit singers for the following season, he feared that if the substitute who was to replace him during his absence did not show up, he would not be able to go or be recalled immediately from the Continent for his duties in the hospital.

Dr Tom’s legacy, 70 years later, lives on in both the Anesthesia Department at Wexford General Hospital and the Festival Opera, which still relies heavily on a group of local volunteers, including physicians, and enthusiastic community engagement.

Eamon Tierney is a former anesthesiologist at Wexford General Hospital and a volunteer with Wexford Festival Opera.


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