A History of Dentistry in the Athenry area

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A number of years ago as a presentation to the Irish Dental Association a colleague and I decided to research the history of dentistry in Galway.

The research of the Public Dental Service was a relatively easy undertaking. However, unearthing the history of the earlier days of dentistry proved to be a much more daunting task.

The history of dentistry in Galway echoes the history of dentistry in Ireland. Equally this could be said of Athenry. Briefly, the Registration of Dentists was first established by the Dentist Act of I878. This act conferred the right to use the title ‘dental surgeon’ for those who possessed certain qualifications.

This did not restrict others from calling themselves ‘dentist’ and practicing dentistry. At the time this work was mostly confined to the extraction of teeth. This was carried out by designated trades people often blacksmiths, and barbers. Others travelled the country either with travelling shows or individually arriving in towns and villages for the Fair Day.

There was a man, known to have visited a number of Galway towns on a regular basis, who had a young boy with a drum positioned outside his tent. The drum was timed to drown out the roars, from within, which he considered bad for business. How right he was!

The Dentist Act of 1928 passed by the Oireachtas established the first Register of Dentists in Ireland and required people to hold a degree or licence in dental surgery but allowed those already in practice to remain on the register. My research of the original British Register of I878 and the Irish Register of 1928 failed to uncover any address of registered dentists in the Athenry district. I would be grateful if any of the older readers might have any memories that may have escaped my attention.

Mr. Martin Hession, native of Athenry qualified as a dentist in 1948 and opened a practice in Northgate St. in 1949. Dr Desmond Kelly opened a branch practice in Athenry in 1983 and continued there for nine years. Dr Cathal Mangan opened his practice four years ago and has been joined recently by Dr Sarah McMorrow.

For my own part I joined the Health Board in 1982. I was given responsibility for the schools in the Athenry area in 1985. The schools under my care are Athenry boys and girls schools, Newcastle, Attymon, Brackloon Carnaun, Kiltullagh, Carrabane and Craughwell. Dental nurse Ms Una Breathnach and I operate as a dental team. Treatment is not performed in the school. Details are recorded and follow up treatment involves an appointment to visit us in the Health Centre in Loughrea, this being the nearest health Centre to the Athenry area with a dental surgery.

The annual schools’ visits are some of the more pleasurable in our year. We always receive a courteous and hospitable welcome. We have come to know the teachers well over the years and their co-operation and help is very much appreciated.

Dentistry has changed dramatically over the years. Originally the extraction of teeth and provision of dentures were the primary function of the dentist. The first set of dentures was a very precious item and often they were acquired especially for important occasions such as weddings. As dental health has improved and technology has advanced and dentistry has moved to a different level. There are now sub specialities within the profession; i.e.- orthodontics – straightening of teeth – endodontics – root filling of teeth – pedantic – specialist in children’s dentistry – oral surgery – specialist in performing surgery in the mouth – implant surgery – a relatively new but successful way of replacing lost teeth.

There has been a huge improvement in dental health, particularly over the last 30 years. Thirty years ago, 60% of the Irish adult population had no natural teeth. Today this figure has fallen to 30%. The level of tooth decay in children has declined dramatically.

It is now most unusual to find tooth decay in front teeth. There are a number of reasons for this development – improved standard of living with people taking better care of their teeth, water fluoridation, better access to dental services and improved diet with a reduction of sugar intake particularly for children.

Adult dental services are covered by a number of schemes. Those with medical cards are provided for under the DTSS – (dental treatment services scheme). Those with PRSI are covered by a scheme run by the Department of Social and Family affairs.

For my part I look forward to continuing the dental care of the children of the Athenry area, my main responsibility being the pre – school and national school children. I have been gratified to see huge improvements in the dental health of children over the years.

My congratulations to the children, their parents and teachers who have brought about this refreshing progress.

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About this record

Written by Brian McNamara BDS, NUI.

Published here 02 Feb 2024 and originally published Summer 2003

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