Wednesday 22 May 2019

Obituary: Brendan Walsh

An in-demand scholar fit in mind and body until the very end

Inspiration: Brendan Walsh, emeritus professor at UCD
Inspiration: Brendan Walsh, emeritus professor at UCD

Charles Lysaght

Brendan Walsh, emeritus professor of national economics at University College Dublin (UCD), was an inspiring teacher and foremost in his generation researching Ireland's economic and social problems. His 2002 Brooking Institute paper, co-authored with the future Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan, is considered the most authoritative economists' account of the unforeseen Celtic Tiger - renamed by Brendan the 'Irish Hare'.

That he was not more prominent in public consciousness reflected a fastidious distaste for self-promotion, and a preference for balanced rational assessment and tentative conclusions rather than the bold assertions of the campaigner and the zealot.

Born in 1940, the son of a civil servant father and an enterprising mother who ran her own clothing business in central Dublin, he was my friend ever since we were classmates in Gonzaga in the 1950s.

A tall, well-built boy, he never threw his weight about and excelled almost effortlessly in all he did.

He led a team that won the schools' debating competition; he was Leinster schoolboy champion in the shot putt; and under the tutelage of Jesuits Jack Hutchinson and Joe Veale, he won an entrance scholarship to UCD with Irish and English as his subjects.

At college Brendan was drawn to economics, which the failures of the 1950s had made a fashionable subject. His wide reading, together with an exceptional clarity of thought and expression, put him head and shoulders above the rest of us taking a first with many marks to spare in his degree.

His teachers were not as alive as they might have been to his exceptional talent and they allowed a visiting American professor to woo him upon graduation to his university in Tennessee.

It was sheer good fortune that Brendan was not lost permanently to Ireland. He moved on to the Jesuit Boston College for a doctorate.

He avoided the Vietnam draft and taught for two years at Tufts University, Boston before returning to Ireland in 1969 with an Irish-American wife, psychologist Patricia Noonan, their first child Colm and a slight American timbre in his voice.

He was recruited to the Economic and Social Research Institute where he did pioneering work on Ireland's unusual demographics.

In 1980 he was appointed Professor at UCD. His book 'Macro-Economy of Ireland', co-authored with Tony Ledden and now in its fourth edition, remains the bible for students.

Brendan's counsel was much sought. The Harvard Institute of International Development sent him on extended assignments to report on Iran and The Gambia.

At home he advocated lower income tax and a flexible labour market on the American model. He declared that the day of the permanent pensionable job was over and questioned the wisdom of national wage agreements.

In 1993 he was the first choice of the academic staff to succeed as president of UCD. But the Governing Body disregarded their view and declined even to short-list him for selection by the Senate of the National University.

He was out of his depth in the intrigues of academic politics; he had never had to fight his corner.

In 2005, as the economist member of the Public Service Benchmarking Body, he tried to curb the extravagant inflation of public sector pay let loose by the ingratiating report of the Top Persons Remuneration committee that was to be one of the factors bringing about the abrupt demise of the Celtic Tiger in 2008.

A scholar to the core of his being, world intellectual curiosity was Brendan's life blood and his range of interests wide. Among his later projects was a study of suicide in Ireland co-authored with his psychiatrist brother Dermot, establishing a correlation between unemployment and suicide among males under 35.

With his keen sense of the ridiculous and ability to distil his erudition, Brendan was one of the most stimulating conversationalists I have known.

Getting around on his bicycle, seeing close friends, essaying trips to the west or to his house in Italy, indulging his interest in ornithology, being a hands-on grandfather, reading widely in French and German as well as in English, he was fit in body and active in mind until the end.

When he was struck down in his home in Palmerston Gardens over a week ago he was reading Homer's Odyssey that he had first encountered when we sat together in Father Eddie Keane's Greek class at Gonzaga all those years ago.

He is survived by his wife Patricia, to whom he was married for over 50 years, their three children Colm, Nesta and Ben and seven grandchildren as well as his devoted elder brother Dermot.

Sunday Independent

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