© 2019 John Wiley & Sons Ltd The health of a nation tells much about the nature of a social contract between citizen and state. The way that health care is organised, and the degree to which it is equitably accessible, constitutes a manifestation of the effects of moments and events in that country's history. Research around health inequalities often focuses on demonstrating current conditions, with little attention paid to how the conditions of inequality have been achieved and sustained. This article presents a novel approach to inequalities research that focuses on examining powerful historical discourses as legitimising processes that serve to sustain unequal conditions. The use of this Foucauldian historical genealogical approach in a study of the Irish health care system is explored and proposed as a novel approach to the research of health inequities.