The Colonial Room was full of physicians greeting each other and exchanging news. A man wandered in looking for another function but was invited to stay for a drink. One of the physicians remarked, “That’s Irish hospitality for you.”
Last week, the Celtic Medical Society met for one of its five-yearly dinners. Dr. Arthur Weisenseel, a member for 30 years, was delighted with the large turnout. The 65-year-old Queens native may not have an Irish name but his accent veers from native Queens to a strong brogue.
“My grandmother was from Boyle, Co. Roscommon, originally but lived with us in Woodside,” he explained. “She taught me how to speak, so every now and then I float into the brogue, whether I like it or not.”
Weisenseel’s grandmother was 12 when she arrived in the U.S. She worked as a maid, scrubbing floors for doctors on Park Avenue. Weisenseel’s mother married a man with German roots and was determined that her family would produce a doctor.
“They used to fight about it,” Weisenseel said. “My grandmother wanted me to go home and help unite the country.”
Weisenseel’s mother had her way, so he studied medicine at Fordham University and became a cardiologist.
“Medical school was easy for me,” he said. “I have a photographic memory. There must have been a Druid priest somewhere in my family.”
Recently awarded a Top Doctor in New York accolade by the medical profession, the physicist has many extra-curricular activities, of which his Irish heritage plays a big part. He has, for example, graced the stages of various Manhattan restaurants, including La Traviata and Forlini’s.
“I sing between the opera acts,” he said. “Last week, I got down on one knee and sang, ‘Would I Ever Leave You?’ to Connie. She loved it.”
Connie Cotter is his wife of 15 years. She encourages Weisenseel’s zest for performing and even got him singing lessons. Weisenseel has four children from a previous marriage.
Other theatrical exploits include a stint as a rebel, in a play called “Packie’s Wake,” singing for former Mayor Guiliani at Gracie Mansion on St. Patrick’s Day, and orchestrating sing-songs at regular opportunities.
Weisenseel first heard about the CMS from a colleague. “A friend of mine told me, ‘You’ll love the camaraderie, these are people you’ll be comfortable with,’ ” he recalled. He took the advice and joined.
The Society was founded in 1891 by Dr. James Kelly, an Irish doctor from Dublin. Kelly united colleagues who were of Irish extraction and meetings were held in various places, including the Gaelic Society and the Academy of Medicine.
Later, meetings were held in the homes of members. The aim of the society was to create solidarity among Irish doctors to combat the prejudice that existed then. It was a reaction to the discrimination that affected Irish doctors at the time.
“It was like the Emerald Societies, but we actually preceded those,” Weisenseel said. “The Irish weren’t always as welcome as they are now. Now we have a mix of natives and Irish Americans. You still have to have roots in Ireland, though; it is not enough to be married to an Irish woman.”
Women were forbidden as members until Weisenseel realized that half the graduates from medical schools were women. He set about righting the situation.
“I decided to promote the membership of women,” he said. “We have to help them. They were not as sure of themselves then.”
As Weisenseel remembers it: “All hell broke loose. It nearly got to the point of fisticuffs.” The Society finally acquiesced and the first woman was admitted nearly 30 years ago. Despite that, there were few women at the meeting last week.
Times have changed and the focus of the Society has changed as well. The aim today is to provide a society with social, cultural and philanthropic elements to it.
“The members are all natural theater people, most are extroverts,” Weisenseel said. “Doctors must present a degree of probity and decorum, but this is a place where you can let your hair down.”
Psychiatrist Kevin Kelly said he feels that the Society has a role to play in helping Irish people today. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he and his colleagues realized that the resources of the Counseling Services Unit of the Fire Department would be stretched to the limit. They also felt that the Irish elements of the FDNY and the CMS might be compatible, that the firefighters would talk to them more readily. They approached the director of the CSU, Malachy Corrigan, and offered their services on a voluntary basis. Kelly has become a more regular fixture of the staff there, working on Project Liberty.
At the moment, the Society admits four or five new people a year but is keen to attract new members. The dues are $125 a year, which covers the five dinners at the Armory. There is also a big party planned for St. Patrick’s Day. Said Weisenseel: “It is like a scene from James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. It is a party like the ones I used to grow up with, people bring their children and grandma could be there.”
Weisenseel is convinced that it is the Irish element that makes the society so special.
“It is a great opportunity for colleagues to meet and talk, but it is the real Irish eloquence that makes it interesting,” he said. “People get up to talk about almost any subject, their natural eloquence trips off the tongue.”
The Society does maintain an interest in things medical, though, and in the course of two recent trips to Ireland, the group visited hospitals, met with doctors and attended lectures at medical schools. Weisenseel recalls a proud moment he had on one of those trips. “It was the hundredth anniversary of the Society and I was incoming president,” he said. “We visited the Royal College of Surgeons and they inducted me by putting a medallion around my neck. I said to myself, ‘Grandma, this one is for you. ‘ “
Soon, the groups in the Colonial Room broke up as the physicians made their way to the horseshoe-shaped table for dinner. There was some anticipation about the after-dinner speaker, Ed Moloney, writer of a recent book, “A Secret History of the IRA”.
Other speakers have included Frank McCourt, Seamus Heaney, Edna O’Brien, Oliver St. John Gogarty, who was a member of the Society when he practiced as a physician in New York, and Al Smith, governor of New York in the 1920s.
Moloney. Who covered the conflict in Northern Ireland as a journalist for 22 years, rose to a round of applause. He thanked the doctors for the invitation and launched into his talk on Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. He described Adams as ruthless, ambitious and a master strategist. The doctors seemed eager to debate the issue. Several questions from the floor followed.
One doctor, a native Irishman, said that sometimes the Irish Americans can romanticize events in Ireland.
Weisenseel concurred, but went into detail. “The Irish Americans were nurtured on the songs of those times,” he said. “There is a romantic view but that is what we grew up on. . . . We too have very strong feelings about the future of Ireland. You can no more take the Irishness from us than you can take our skin. We are the children of those people who had to leave, so we will always have roots in Ireland.”