One pair of Irish eyes not smiling

July 14, 2000

A leading endocrinologist may be refused a post at a university in Ireland because his Irish is not considered good enough.

Timothy O'Brien, an associate professor at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, heads ground-breaking research in gene therapy approaches to diabetes, transplants and atherosclerosis. As a graduate of University College Cork who wanted to return home, he applied for the post of professor of medicine at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Little, if any, medicine is taught in Irish in Galway.

He was the clear favourite and the choice of both the assessment board and the faculty of medicine. But he fell foul of the university's Irish-language requirement. The university has a national remit to promote the language and positively discriminates in favour of Irish-speaking applicants for academic and administrative posts. If all other criteria are met, the post will go to applicants who pass the language test.

Professor O'Brien had been brushing up his Irish but was among three of the six candidates who failed the Irish test. He passed a separate Irish-language test run by the Local Appointments Commission that oversees recruitment to the health service. The commission was involved because as well as teaching in the university, there is a related appointment as a consultant physician with the Western Health Board. Salary for the combined post is split equally between the board and the university.

The commission feels it still has to offer Professor O'Brien the consultant physician job, but the university is in a dilemma and is considering legal advice on the matter.

The university can waive the Irish-language rule if there is no other suitable applicant for the post, but in the case of the chair of medicine there is another qualified applicant.

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