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Dr. Peter O’Reilly.

In rural Ireland in the 19th and for much of the 20th century, medical aid was not readily available to all.  The private doctor was available where means was not an issue.  However for the poor the dispensary doctor was their only option.  The dispensary clinic was open on certain days otherwise more usually he would have been ‘sent for’ to come and attend on the sick person in their home or in the local workhouse when they were in urgent need of attention.  As he had a large area to cover much of his time was spent travelling to attend the sick either by foot or by horse and cart.  The workload of a dispensary doctor was heavy in addition to attending to the sick, he had to make up and dispense medicine, organise vaccinations as required, keep exact accounts for The Board of Guardians, act as registrar for births, deaths and marriages and in critical cases he carried out the duties of a midwife.[1]

Peter O’Reilly was born in Corlattylannon, Knockbride, Co. Cavan circa 1851 to John Laurence O’Reilly and Frances Agnes Callan.[2]  According to his niece Mary Agnes O’Reilly (1896-1986), his family had intended him for the priesthood.  However he did not have the vocation for it and studied medicine instead.  

On 4th May 1876, Peter completed his studies, passed his exam and received his licence.  His qualification was recorded in the RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) Roll of Licentiates.  On receiving his licence to practice as a newly qualified graduate he signed his name on this Roll along with the other graduates and he gave his current address as Corlattylannon, Co. Cavan, a practise that continues today.[3]  He was licenced to practice as a physician, surgeon and in midwifery.

Dr. Peter was appointed and employed by the Board of Guardians of Mohill Poor Law Union as the dispensary doctor in Carrigallen having replaced Dr. O’Donohoe (Killahurk).[4]  This board met weekly and any issues with regard to his practise were discussed and these decisions including those regarding his salary, expenses and leave was reported in the Leitrim Observer, the local newspaper, these exchanges explain some of the restraints that dispensary doctors were under.

Some of these exchanges were reported as follows:

In 1904, the Mohill Guardians were suffering from Indignation when Dr. O’Reilly submitted a bill for £101 for vaccinations he carried out as an outbreak of smallpox had occurred in Killeshandra.  They queried as to how many secondary vaccinations were on the list and declined to pay him as they believed he had acted outside his remit.[5]  However this dispute continued as other doctors submitted their expenses.  The guardians were hoping to settle all these desputes without law as one of the guardians Mr. Meehan said ‘His belief was that the doctor who obliged the poor people by the wayside was as much entitled to be paid as in the other instances.  What he objected to was where "snobs" got re-vaccinated and the union will have to pay for the work.[6]

In 1905, he applied for a fortnight’s holidays, which he said was the first he had in 27 years, the leave was granted.[7]

In 1905, Dr. Peter had to defend his reputation and take a liable case against a local man who wrote letters to the Board of Guardians alledging certain insinuations against him regarding a smallpox epidemic.  He won his case after the defendant withdrew the allegations, but both parties had to cover their own costs.[8]  Dr. O’Reilly eventually recouped these costs from the Board of Guardians.[9]

In 1907, Dr. O’Reilly had to report to the Board that there was an outbreak of scarlatina in the neighbourhood as a result he ordered isolation and disinfection as far as possible.[10]

In 1909 he applied for a month's holidays, and nominated Dr Edward O'Reilly as his substitute, Mr Maguire asked did “The substitute reside in the district?" The Clerk replied, “Yes”, Mr Woods asked “Was this the first time he applied for leave?  The leave was granted, the usual remuneration being allowed the substitute.”[11]  Dr. Edward O’Reilly was Dr. Peter’s son.

In 1920 the Local Government Board for Ireland wrote to the Mohill Guardians advising them that ‘an Order under Seal was fixing and increasing the salaries of the 4 Medical Officers of the Union as follows: - Dr. P. O’Reilly, Carrigallen from  £100 to £200; Dr. Redahan, Mohill, from £100 to £200; Dr. C. Pentland, Rowan, from £100 to £176; and Dr. P. Muldoon, Rynn from £120 to  £160.’  Some of the guardians wanted to contest this order in law, but as a Sealed Order had as binding an effect as an Act of Parliament, they realised that they could not amend it.[12]

Personal Life:

On 11 July 1880 in Carrigallen, Dr. Peter married Ellen Duffy (his first cousin, as their two mothers were sisters).  Their witnesses were John Murray and Sarah O’Reilly.[13]  They had nine children of them John Joe, Edward and William Laurence became doctors.  They lived in Church Street, Carrigallen.

In May 1895, he was appointed to the Commission of Peace in Co. Leitrim.[14]

In December 1909, he was elected treasurer of Carrigallen’s branch of the United Irish League.[15]

He died on 15 March 1929 at the age of 78.  He was still working as a medical practitioner.  He died after suffering pneumonia for twelve days.  When he died, his son Rev. J. A. O’Reilly was with him and his son Peter acted as interim registrar when his death was registered.[16]  Three of his children had predeceased him.

This notice was published in the Anglo Celt:‘The death of Dr. Peter O'Reilly, Carrigallen, has removed an able practitioner, a sterling Nationalist, who played a prominent part in Irish politics from the days of Parnell and a man generally beloved by the people over a wide area in Leitrim & Cavan.  At the funeral on Monday there was a very large attendance of mourners of all creeds and classes.  To his sons, Dr J. J. O'Reilly, T.D; Dr. O'Reilly, Stradone, Dr. O'Reilly, Arva, Rev. J. A. O'Reilly, O.P. Priory, Galway and the other members of the family we offer very sincere condolence in their bereavement.’[17] 

His son Dr. Edward had to write to the Board of Guardians formally advising them of his father’s death and they appointed Dr. Creamer as local tenens until such time as the vacancy was filled.[18]  In due course this position was permanently filled by Dr. Matthew Cusack.

Carmel O’Callaghan


[1] “A Report On The Poor-Law Medical System In Ireland With Special Reference To The Dispensary Medical Service.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 2256, 1904, pp. 46–75. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20280133. Accessed 4 Apr. 2020.


[3] http://www.irishgenealogynews.com/2015/07/rcsi-roll-of-licentiates-now-s....

[4] https://web.archive.org/web/20180922234200/http://carrigallen.com/1900-1....

[5] Leitrim Observer, 22 October, 1904.

[6] Leitrim Observer, 24 June 1905.

[7] Leitrim Observer, 1 July 1905.

[8] Leitrim Observer, 8 July 1905.

[9] Leitrim Observer, 15 July 1905.

[10] Leitrim Observer, 24 August 1907.

[11] Leitrim Observer, 19 June 1909.

[12] Leitrim Observer, 13 March 1920 


[14] Leitrim Observer, 21 March 1895. 

[15] Leitrim Observer, 7 December 1907.


[17] The Anglo Celt, 23 March 1929.

[18] Leitrim Observer, 30 March 1929. 

Additional Information
Date of Birth 1851 (circa) VIEW SOURCE
Date of Death 1st Mar 1929 VIEW SOURCE