by Pat Rich

It was probably inevitable that what was intended to be a sincere post about a unique conference in Dublin that combines the humanities and medicine (#dotMED16) would ramble a tad unsteadily into ruminations about Flann O’Brien and the Platonic theory of forms as it relates to Irish pubs.

Frankly, it was Samuel Shem, the keynote speaker at the dotMED conference, who brought the disparate elements together when he explicitly referenced O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and how Shem had incorporated the two large (both in size and importance) policemen from that book into his own novel, The House of God.

For was not The Third Policeman the very novel I had in my luggage and had reread on the flight over, fresh in my mind from discovering that last year’s International Flann O’Brien Society conference in Prague had featured an address titled “Do Bicycles Dream of Molecular Sheep?” (in itself meaningless unless one also has an appreciation of the science fiction author Philip K. Dick)?

The conference dotMED itself runs a similarly convoluted path to that of this column. Conceived originally four years ago by Irish rheumatologist Ronan Kavanagh and physician-turned-medical-journalist Muiris Houston, the meeting initially focused on recognizing innovation in digital health by Irish companies. However, the one-day meeting, which regularly sells out months in advance, wanted to recognize the bond linking art, the humanities and medicine, as well as the new arts and sciences associated with digital health care and social media. And in the words of Kavanagh, also putting the fun back in medicine.

Hence the lineup for this year’s meeting, featuring a young Spanish physician photographer, a part-time English GP graphic novelist, a geneticist exploring the artistic potential for portraying medical data, and a leading social media guru in nephrology (going by the name @kidney_boy). Add Samuel Shem, Ireland’s leading gay rights activist, a musical interlude and an in-house illustrator and cartoonist and you can see what a heady mix was concocted.

While attendance at dotMED was the stated purpose behind this trip to Dublin, a wish to visit the haunts of my favourite Irish author Flann O’Brien (real name Brian O’Nolan) and the legendary pub culture of the city was not to be denied. For an Irish civil servant and newspaper columnist whose work never achieved the recognition of James Joyce and whose intense alcoholism was never as florid as that of Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien produced work of stunning originality and humour.

Who else could have taken atomic theory and written at depth about the intermingling of bicycle and rider that occurs on Ireland’s bumpy country roads when the molecules of the two merge? And when it comes to the trope of writing about someone writing a novel, what better example than At Swim Two Birds?

Flann O’Brien also provided us with that ode to the cornerstone of Irish pub culture, Irish stout (now represented overwhelmingly by Guinness).

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of the night —

The Irish pub remains central to the country’s culture and humming the above ditty, I visited many fine examples during our visit. This all culminated with a trip to the Palace Bar, not only a haunt of Flann O’Brien himself but also a pub I see as best representing the perfect Victorian/early twentieth-century pub in its unadulterated form (hence the reference to Plato’s theory of forms).


It’s not just the superb bar and unaged fittings that make the Palace such a perfect out-of-time pub but the general ambience, flow of people and conversations, and sense of being in just the right place. To be able to experience this, honour the memory of O’Brien, attend a medical conference of unprecedented originality and interest, and have the main speaker at that meeting provide the peg to pull all of this together – well, what more could one ask?

Photo credit: Ella Szabo