Eoghan Dalton Reports
Waterford Civic Trust paid tribute to a former mayor and veteran of the Napoleonic Wars with the group’s traditional blue plaque last week.
Born in 1790, Dr Thomas Mackesy fought at the Battle of Waterloo before becoming the first president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland from outside of Dublin.
First learning from his father working as an apothecary on 4, The Mall, he left the city to study at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. After receiving a diploma in 1809 he joined the British army, finding himself involved in the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1815.
Upon returning to Waterford he became a surgeon in the Leper Hospital and set up a successful private practice, later embedding himself in the civic life of the city. Admitted a freeman of the city in 1926, he took up the office of Mayor in 1941-42 after several years in Waterford Corporation.
Thomas Mackesy would be the leading figure of this medical and political dynasty, prominent throughout the 1800s.
While details about his life are thin, rising to the position of RCSI President is notable, according to Dr Eugene Broderick, historian with the Waterford Civic Trust. The first provincial practitioner at the college, Dr Broderick noted that this came when the hierarchy of the medical profession was based in the capital.
The Waterford Mackesy spent his life in was characterised by poverty, Dr Broderick said: “Like most Irish cities, Waterford wasn’t excessively industrialised. One of the problems was economic underdevelopment. It was a port city and depended very much on the ships coming and out of the city.
“Something that is very striking is that when visitors came to Ireland in the 19th century, they themselves were struck by the number of poor people in and around the city. The writer William Thackeray came to Waterford in the 1840s, and he observed upon the extent of poverty in the city. It’s the common theme really of people visiting Ireland in the 19th Century. Whilst in this day and age very often poverty can be hidden, the reality is that then, when people were poor, their clothes, their appearance, their physique screamed the fact that they were poor,” he said.
After Thomas’s death in 1869 at the age of 79 his son, Joseph, had a part in alleviating some of the issues in the city, in particular the poisonous water supply, a huge achievement said Dr Broderick. “One of the biggest problems in any city in Europe at the time was that water was contaminated. It was one of the most common means of carrying diseases and infection. So tackling that was a major advance in terms of improving public health in the city of Waterford.”
Joseph followed in his father’s footsteps in medicine and as a member of the Corporation. However he died unexpectedly in 1866, three years before his father. The mantle was picked up by two of Joseph’s sons, who continued the family tradition in politics and medicine. William Lewis Mackesy served as a surgeon in the Leper Hospital while his brother George Ivie worked in the hospital as well as completing a term as Mayor from 1879-80.
Similar to others, including the Redmonds of the Irish Parliamentary Party, the Mackesys gradually faded from Waterford politics as large scale changes were taking place. “They no longer exist within the city. The Mackesy family began the 19th century as members of a privileged class – they were members of the Church of Ireland, a privileged minority in the city. With the increasing democratisation of Irish society, the political privilege enjoyed by members of the church began to evaporate. So their influence declined as Waterford itself became more democratic,” said Dr Broderick.
The plaque has been installed at 21 Lady Lane in the city. Waterford Civic Trust’s distinctive blue plaques first began in the 1990s, with up to 50 now throughout the city. Upcoming plaques for the first half of 2018 include marking the Waterford origins of the Jacob family of biscuit-makers as well as honouring the first woman elected to Waterford Corporation, the suffragette Dr Mary Strangman
Eoghan Dalton Reports