Michael O’Keeffe obituary: Pioneering paediatric eye surgeon saved sight of many

Consultant ophthalmologist was a staunch advocate for patients and used his position to seek improvements in services

Born: September 21st, 1951

Died: January 25th, 2023

Consultant ophthalmologist Prof Michael O’Keeffe, who has died aged 71, was a staunch advocate for patients and was one of the founders of the Irish Hospital Consultants’ Association. He was a regular contributor to radio and newspapers, using his platform to highlight inefficiencies in the Health Service Executive and to seek improvements.

Michael O’Keeffe was the youngest of seven children born to Tom O’Keeffe and Josephine Lewis, in Ballylough, Mitchelstown, Co Cork. His farming father Tom was heavily involved in the dairy co-operative movement and his brother Ned would later become a Fianna Fáil TD and minister of State.


At his funeral, his daughter Isabelle spoke of “gentle nudges” to guide Michael towards the priesthood but instead he studied medicine at University College Cork.

After college he worked at St Finbarr’s hospital in Cork, where he was drawn to ophthalmology. To build up his skills he emigrated in 1978, at first to London and then on to Dundee and Toronto, where he was awarded a fellowship in paediatric ophthalmology.

As well as guiding him towards ophthalmology, St Finbarr’s introduced him to young physiotherapist Eleanor Coman from Tipperary, whom he married in 1980. Six years later they returned to Ireland, settling in Delgany, Co Wicklow, as he took up a consultant’s post, working chiefly in public healthcare. Over the following decades most of his time was spent between Temple Street, the Mater and Mater Private, the Rotunda and Holles Street.

Paediatric ophthalmology was not well-resourced, and he was soon fundraising for vital equipment. Prof Robert Acheson, his friend and colleague for 37 years, told his funeral mass how Prof O’Keeffe often travelled late into the night to give fundraising talks, and then back to work the next day. “He saved the sight of many adults and children, and the lives of many children with the life-threatening condition of retinoblastoma,” he said.

Known for his strong work ethic, his day started at 5.30am. Patients were often confused to receive an appointment for 6am, thinking it was a typographical error, and should be 6pm. He allowed himself a lie-in until 7am on Saturdays.

The many warm tributes from the medical profession after his death were greatly outnumbered by the condolence messages from grateful parents and patients. One patient wrote that he was her “real-life hero … the man that saved my eyesight at just a few weeks old, who looked after me at every single hospital visit to then giving me the ultimate gift (again) of better vision with a cornea transplant”.

Féach, the support group for parents with visually impaired children, said there was barely a visually impaired child or parent in the group who had not encountered him. “Prof O’Keeffe was not only an expert in his field, he was also a beacon of hope.” When they advocated for their children, “Prof O’Keeffe joined us in the ring and was an accomplished fighter indeed”.

He championed sports and leisure activities for visually-impaired people and was president of Vision Sports Ireland. The charity said he was instrumental in its growth and was always willing to use his contacts to help its work.

He was also privately very generous. One friend recalled being with him when a colleague rang from an African country about a young patient. Prof O’Keeffe immediately gave the colleague his credit card details so that he could book flights to take the child to Dublin for surgery.

He published more than 200 peer-reviewed papers and was a Newman Clinical Professor of Paediatric Ophthalmology at University College Dublin, as well as the Montgomery lecturer in Trinity College Dublin in 2017.

After he had seen patients on Saturday morning, he loved to retreat to Clohamon House in Co Wexford, where he happily spent hours cultivating his vegetable garden. He was twice All-Ireland handball champion in his youth and later switched to tennis. Friends said he was a formidable and fiercely competitive opponent, thanks to his ambidexterity.

His family remember him as “a fantastic father, who was always there for his family. There was never any issue too large or problem he couldn’t solve.”

When he was 66, he told Marian Finucane on her radio show he wasn’t ready to retire. “I’ve always found that you get better as you get older ... I’ve done lots of surgeries on kids over the years and I’ve innovated a fair number of procedures … and I’m better at what I do now than I was 15, 20 years ago.”

His work attracted many awards including a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Ophthalmology, and the British Child Health Foundation’s Claud Worth Medal. Most recently, he was due to receive a lifetime achievement award from the United Kingdom and Ireland Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons.

He suffered a heart attack in 2021, which led to complications. His youngest son Philip was also ill at this time, having contracted a rare form of cancer, but despite Prof O’Keeffe’s own health issues, he was a strong support to his son, up until Philip‘s death in the Mater Private in January 2022, aged 28.

Just over a year later, Prof O’Keeffe returned to the hospital for the last time, this time to receive care from many people he himself had treated over the years.

Michael O’Keeffe is survived by his wife Eleanor, daughter Isabelle, son Nicholas, brother Ned and sisters Eileen, Breda, Kathleen and Mary. He was predeceased by his son Philip and sister Peg.