Once described as a Renaissance Man and by being a doctor, surgeon, journalist, newspaper proprietor and politician the commentator was ‘spot on’. It is rare that a person should excel in so many different disciplines, but then John Gray was the exception to all the rules. He was born on 13th July 1815 in Claremorris, Mayo and entered Trinity College, Dublin where he studied medicine. In 1839 he graduated as a Master in Surgery from Glasgow University, returned to Dublin, married Mary Dwyer and worked in a hospital on North Cumberland Street.
Although from the Protestant ruling class Gray became the political editor of the nationalist newspaper The Freeman’s Journal and was co-owner from 1841. He used the newspaper to discuss important issues and, in 1843, backed Daniel O’Connell’s call for the Repeal of the Act of Union; both men were subsequently sentenced to prison. However, due to the impetuousness of the prosecutor who challenged Gray’s defence to a duel, neither he nor O’Connell went to gaol.
In 1850 he became sole proprietor of The Freeman’s Journal, reduced the price and considerably increased its readership. With his interest in local politics he was elected an alderman of Dublin Corporation in 1852. He put the issue of clean water for the city at the top of his agenda, and did everything to promote the Vartry Scheme. This was a massive project and necessitated building a series of water pumping and filtering stations from the Vartry River to Dublin. Due to chronic overcrowding and bad housing conditions in the city the introduction of clean water was vital in defeating the regular outbreaks of typhus and cholera that claimed so many young lives. On the day the project came into operation, 30th June 1863, Gray was knighted by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
In 1865 he stood as a Liberal Party candidate in the general election and was elected as MP for Kilkenny City. During his time at Westminster he was a busy and successful campaigner for the reforms espoused in The Freeman’s Journal, such as the disestablishment of the Anglican Church of Ireland, improving the educational opportunities for Catholics and reform of the land laws. His fight for the provision in the new Landlord & Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870 of fixity of tenure gathered great support, and it was eventually conceded by Prime Minister Gladstone.
He died in Bath, Somerset on the 9th April, 1875 and his remains were returned to Ireland. As a man held in the highest esteem he was honoured with a public funeral and burial in Glasnevin Cemetery. And, shortly afterwards, a public subscription raised the necessary funds for a statue on O’Connell Street. It was unveiled in 1879 and is dedicated to the ‘appreciation of his many services to his country, and of the splendid supply of pure water which he secured for Dublin’.