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The lasting impact of the late Prof Tom Fahy

By Prof Brendan Kelly - 25th Jun 2023

Tom was erudite, forthright, generous, and astonishingly witty

Prof Thomas J Fahy, who died on 9 January 2023, is deeply mourned by his family, colleagues, students, patients, and the many other people who met him during his long, extraordinary career as a psychiatrist. As one of his students, I can attest to his lasting impact: Tom was erudite, forthright, generous, and astonishingly witty.

Born in the Curragh, Co Kildare, Tom studied medicine at University College Dublin and qualified in 1959. After further training in the UK, he returned as Clinical Director at St Loman’s Hospital, Dublin in 1968. He received his doctorate in medicine (MD) in 1969 for research on the phenomenology of depression in hospital and the community.

Tom spent a sabbatical year as Assistant Professor and Unit Director at White Plains Hospital, New York in 1971 before returning to Ireland as Professor of Psychiatry at University College Galway, a post he held from 1975 to 2001. Tom was a Foundation Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and served on the Medical Council and Medical Research Council. Over the course of his career, Tom and his research teams made substantial contributions in the areas of anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, head injury, and suicide.

Tom also wrote book chapters, including one called ‘Suicide and the Irish: From sin to serotonin’, which appeared in a 1991 volume titled Mental Health in Ireland, edited by Colm Keane (published by Gill and Macmillan and RTÉ). This book had a substantial impact on me as a medical student. It also contained a chapter by Prof Anthony Clare, another leading figure in psychiatry, and presented a range of views that drew out the challenges and possibilities of the field of psychiatry in Ireland. Tom’s contribution was broad, reflective, and inclusive, as was customary for him.

Tom’s enormously effective teaching style will be familiar to many doctors who attended medical school at UCG (later known as National University of Ireland, Galway, and now University of Galway) between 1975 and 2001. I clearly recall Tom’s lectures in the Clinical Science Institute from my time as a student in the 1990s. Tom spoke with deliberation, weighing each statement with care, building an atmosphere with exquisite skill, and then breaking the tension with one or two words that made me laugh so much I sometimes gasped for air. On one occasion, I had to leave the lecture hall to regain my composure.

Long-time colleague and Dean Emeritus Dr Anthony Carney recalls that Tom “was very knowledgeable as a clinician” and showed “fine leadership skills as clinical director and first head of the academic department of psychiatry in Galway. He was a keen researcher and supervised a significant number of MDs and Masters of Medical Sciences, completed by his trainee colleagues.”

Dr Anthony Carroll knew Tom professionally “since 1975 when I joined the staff of the Western Health Board as Clinical Director in Child Psychiatry where he was Professor of Adult Psychiatry. We travelled together for the higher psychiatric training committee in evaluating services in the UK. It was very interesting and instructive. Tom was fearless, but polite, and had very good judgement. I learned a lot.”

Dr Carroll recalls that he and Tom “became friends and fished together on Lough Corrib for years (not very successfully). Tom had a horse and hunted with the Galway Blazers. He was also one of the founders of the Bibio club, which was a wine tasting group.”

Tom persuaded Dr Carroll “to undertake private practice, something I was reluctant to do, but then recognised that there were some families where medico-legal work just had to be done. I took on a weekly session in his consulting room in the Crescent (the Harley Street of Galway). I brought in some play-toys, games, drawing materials, etc, and also some low chairs and stools. Tom told me that one of his patients on seeing these, said she now understood why he was called ‘a shrink’. His departure is a sad loss.”

Like many others, Dr Séamus Ó Ceallaigh of St Patrick’s University Hospital found his career shaped by Tom’s teaching: “He inspired so many of us to become psychiatrists with that rare combination of excellent clinical skills, academic rigour, and a real interest in people and their stories. He was a great storyteller too, pausing briefly to adjust his glasses before delivering the punchline with a smile.”

Prof Brendan Kelly is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of “In Search of Madness: A Psychiatrist’s Travels Through the History of Mental Illness” (Gill Books).

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