Prof John Crown

Professor John Crown in conversation with Kathy Sheridan, Irish Times.

The campaigning oncologist has retired from the public health service and says he has given up advocating for reform of it, but he remains passionate about its potential. He continues to run a practice from St Vincent’s private hospital and keeps his hand in an an unpaid voluntary consultant in the public hospital.

At 67, Prof John Crown still exudes the old intensity, energy and capacity to talk like a train. A two-hour interview produces a transcript about the size of a short book. He’s still a bit ornery, though a little more battle-weary and a lot more circumspect. In short, he’s pretty damn happy with his life.

When we last met eight years ago, Crown was 59, fulminating at the prospect of mandatory public service retirement, insisting he couldn’t afford to leave at 65. He had recently married Orla Murray, a civil servant, and had a baby son as well as three children from a previous marriage. Then the public service retirement age changed but he retired anyway. Which was surprising.

“I didn’t have to go at 66. Look, I’ll be blunt: I was a 66-year-old man with a then seven-year-old child. And I honestly felt I’d paid my dues in the public system … it was becoming so difficult. You spend so much of your day apologising for beds which didn’t exist, for scans which weren’t done … It did wear me out a bit. And the demographics tell you … when you’re a man in your 60s with a child of seven, you’re aware of how much time you will have with that child. I want to try and do a bit more of it.”

Fortunately for his many adoring patients, Crown still runs a practice from St Vincent’s private hospital and keeps his hand in as an unpaid voluntary consultant in the public hospital, which enables him to continue his clinical and teaching research.

He takes energy from his involvement with cancer research charities such as the Caroline Research Foundation, and the Cancer Clinical Research Trust, and his professional career was crowned a few weeks ago with the Outstanding Contribution to Cancer Medicine and Research Award from the Irish Association for Cancer Research (IACR), presented at a prestigious international conference in Dublin.

An entertaining suspicion that he has an eye on the presidency is swiftly crushed. He did mull the idea for about an hour way back in his Seanad days, when a few colleagues raised it, he says. It was an unlikely prospect anyway for a man who can’t not speak his mind.

Crown contests the notion that he was ever a tad cantankerous or lacked diplomacy in a necessarily collegial profession – but then concedes that yes, he might have taken after his beloved mother, Kathleen, “a woman of very strong opinions and a very strong personality”.

Kathleen was working as a nurse in New York, where John was born in 1957. His father – who had entered the United States as an illegal immigrant, using his brother’s papers – was a taxi driver who sustained near-life changing back injuries in an accident and opened a small shop with the settlement.

John was 10 when they returned to Ireland and Kathleen worked in Irish hospitals for decades before returning to New York in her 60s to nurse for another 10 years. She was there when her son returned to New York for his oncology training. She was his touchstone, an “extremely resourceful, very intelligent, very well-informed woman”.

So, “on the um, question of diplomacy”, he says, “there’s no doubt that whatever that tendency is, I certainly inherited from her”. That’s a mild concession that he left nothing unsaid about healthcare administrators and politicians across numerous platforms over the years in a small country where establishment medicine and politics are often intertwined.

There is a fearlessness about Crown that may be partly explained by the formative American rearing and training. His enduring love – and “reinvigorated fear” – for the country that largely shaped him raises a question whether he regretted coming back to Ireland. “Sometimes I think Ireland and me weren’t a good mix. I still think that but I don’t regret it because obviously one cannot regret one’s family, the children I wouldn’t have had. I love Ireland deeply … I’ve lived here for 49 of my 67 years. I will die here.”

Image credit: Laura Hutton

Irish Times: March 23rd 2024