Dr Eilish Cleary obituary: Champion of public health who gave a voice to those who didn’t have one

She highlighted the dangers of fracking and was a cherished advocate for the First Nations people in Canada. But she was fired without warning from her post as CMO of New Brunswick

Born: October 22nd, 1963

Died: March 22nd, 2024

The Dublin-born Canadian-based champion of public health and fearless environmental health advocate Dr Eilish Cleary has died aged 60.

Dr Cleary was Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for Eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick from 2008 to 2014. During that time, she wrote a report on the possible health effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in New Brunswick, an area about the size of Ireland with a population of less than one million.

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Dr Cleary’s report was initially kept secret but later published in 2012, going on to help campaigners in New Brunswick stop shale gas exploration in that province for a number of years.

In 2013, the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors gave Dr Cleary the Environmental Health Review award for bringing public health to the debate on shale gas exploration. Her study, Recommendations Concerning Shale Gas Developments in New Brunswick called for health impact assessments, full disclosure of chemicals used in fracking fluids and ongoing monitoring of the health of those living near any industrial work. Previously, debates on the risks of fracking focused on air, water and climate change issues.

She won numerous awards: the 2013 Dr Donald Morgan Service Award from the New Brunswick Medical Society; the 2016 President’s Award from the Public Health Physicians of Canada; and the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee medal for her service to New Brunswick in 2023.

In 2014, New Brunswickers were also proud when she was seconded from her job as CMO to work on fighting Ebola in West Africa with the World Health Organisation for ten weeks.

Having previously worked in Sierra Leone, she described the heart-wrenching scenes of mass burials for those who died of Ebola in a rural part of Sierra Leone in an article in The Irish Times. At that time, she said, “it was important for me to show that somebody cares. Living in caring societies is good for people’s health”.

However later that same year, back in her job as CMO for New Brunswick, Dr Cleary was fired without explanation from her post just as she had begun her investigations into the herbicide glyphosate. The herbicide was widely used on forest lands in New Brunswick. And, although there were public demonstrations in front of the Health Department’s office and calls from academics and physicians – including The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment – for her to be reinstated, she never got her post back.

David Coon, leader of the Green Party in New Brunswick said that after she was fired, the Liberal government broke up the public health team she had created. “This left a chill in public health. The new CMO was very careful about her public comments, while the regional medical officers of health became silent entirely. Any sense of independence that the CMO once exercises vanished since her dismissal.”

On a trip back to Ireland in the early 2010s, Dr Cleary spoke publicly about the dangers of fracking, helping galvanise the anti-fracking campaigns of groups including The Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network and the anti-fracking group, Love Leitrim.

In an Irish Times interview in 2012, she said that Ireland needed to guard against “the boomtown effect” of a go-ahead for large-scale fracking. “This effect can include increased crime, drug and alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and domestic violence,” she said. Other impacts she noted can include housing shortages, increased cost of living and strains on hospitals, infrastructure and social services.

Following her dismissal, Dr Cleary worked in a family medical practice in McAdam as well as doing contract work with the federal government on issues facing First Nations communities.

Throughout her career in public health, she was cherished by the First Nations community. And in 2010, they presented her with an eagle’s feather at a sweat-lodge ceremony. In the weeks before her death, members of the First Nations community came to the hospital to carry out a ritualistic smudging ceremony.

Eilish Cleary grew up in Malahide, the middle child of five children to John and Mary Cleary, the owners of the Mullach Cottage cafe.

Following her secondary school education at Pobal Scoil Iosa – later Malahide Community School – she studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), graduating as the youngest doctor in her year in 1986. Dublin-based GP Dr Keith Perdue, a TCD classmate who remained friends with Eilish throughout her career said, “Eilish was a shy, modest and principled person so it took me quite a while to realise the extent of her achievements. She acted on behalf of people who didn’t have a voice whether that was people against fracking or the First Nations people in Canada.”

After college, Cleary trained as a GP, before going to Sierra Leone with her then-husband, Gerard Beirne (the couple had met in Trinity and married in 1988). She worked in a small hospital which Beirne managed during an outbreak of Ebola in 1990.

This experience drew her to further studies in infectious diseases. Back in Ireland, Dr Cleary worked in Dublin and Donegal for a time before the couple moved with their young children to live in Spokane, Washington State, USA while Beirne completed a Masters in Creative Writing.

In 1998, the family moved to Northern Manitoba to work and live in Norway House Cree Nation, one of the largest indigenous communities in that part of Canada.

She did feel very, very sad and let down to have lost her job but I never saw her angry. She was a quiet and gentle person who later loved her work as a family doctor

—  Siobhán Cleary - sister

While working in the hospital there, Dr Cleary became a strong advocate for equity in healthcare for First Nations communities. Soon after, she got a job as assistant chief medical officer in Winnipeg, Manitoba where the family made their home for a number of years.

In 2008, Dr Cleary became CMO for New Brunswick and moved to live in the provincial capital, Fredericton.

Following her dismissal as CMO six years later, she worked part-time as a community medicine specialist with the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Indigenous Services while also working in the McAdam Health Center as a family physician, following a period of retraining. Displaying neither anger nor bitterness at her dismissal, she told a local radio station, “It makes us realise we’re all human and life is tough at times. We have to adapt to the challenges.”

Her sister, Siobhán Cleary added, “She did feel very, very sad and let down to have lost her job but I never saw her angry. She was a quiet and gentle person who later loved her work as a family doctor. She also had a great sense of humour.” Around this time, her marriage broke up and Beirne returned to live in Ireland while their children stayed with Cleary in Canada.

Sometime later, she met retired American computer scientist, Paul Meyer with whom she shared a passion for travel and adventurous water sports.

The couple bought and renovated a house together in Penniac, a rural area just outside Fredericton where they enjoyed long hours canoeing on the river and walking in the woods. Eilish Cleary is survived by her partner, Paul Meyer, her children, James, Luke, Sorcha, Cormac and their father Gerard (Gerry) Beirne, her mother, Mary, brother, Kevin, sisters Bríd, Fiona and Siobhán. She was predeceased by her father, John.

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