Sunday, August 12, 2018


Photo: Cathal Cavanagh 2015
Click on any image for a larger version

When someone you know dies it's like the closing of a window on that part of your life which was connected with them. It's a slow process as reflexes die hard. There is then a period when they no longer exist, sort of forgotten or pushed aside in memory by the competing claims of the nearer present. Until they finally take their place in the archive and ocasionally return in story and myth.

I knew Seán at a professional distance in my work career and at a more personal level after mine, and his, retirement. So before they fade, or I do myself, I'll take the opportunity to revisit a few of these memories below.

La Conjoncture

What the French like to call "politique de conjoncture", a term unknown to most of us before we joined the Common Market, we know as "short-term economic policy". And that's where Seán was within the Department of Finance when I came on the scene. His boss, Brendan Menton, did the short-term economic forecasts, a vital input into the annual budget process, on the back of an envelope.

No doubt Seán, with his intellect and rigour, would not have willingly replicated this feat, but perhaps he had some sympathy with the intuitive versus the formal approach, given the obvious complexity of the latter? Who knows? But it was a mantle he was to inherit and at a time when the dark magic of econometrics was becoming all the rage. Fortunately, he had good backup at the time in this area.

Meanwhile on the other side of the house, the medium term was ticking away and by the time I got there the country was in the process of drawing up its Third Programme for Economic and Social Development, 1969-72.

Now, you should understand that, at that time, the short and medium term economic sections in the Department were at daggers drawn and this continued for many years. The strict demarcation extended even to the tea clubs. I remember at a much later stage being instructed to inform someone from the other side that they were not welcome in our tea club. Cross-fertilisation and joined up thinking were on a par with loose morals in those days.

So, at that stage, Seán was the enemy and I had nothing whatsoever to do with him.

Some years later, with the establishment of the Department of Economic Planning and Development (D/EPD) the situation only got worse. The Government at that time was essentially a triumvirate, consisting of Jack Lynch (Taoiseach), Martin O'Donoghue (Minister for EPD) and George Colley (Minister for Finance). As Martin was pre-eminent in economic and financial matters, his Department found itself frequently over-ruling the Department of Finance, much to the latter's disgust and resentment. My then boss frequently had to call Seán to order, and when the two Departments were amalgamated, that self-same boss who was now working to Seán, stayed out of his way as much as possible. This did not make my job any the easier.

It is to Seán's credit that, when I did have dealings with him, none of this was allowed to come into play. Nevertheless, I was not "one of his people", as he thought of those who had soldiered with him on the short-term side.

One Out, All Out

By the mid 1980s, I was dealing with the Department of Finance's role in relation to the National Economic and Social Council, where Seán was a regular attender.

I was briefing him for an upcoming meeting. It was getting late in the day when Seán said, "We'll leave this for now and take it up again in the morning".
"I won't be here in the morning."
"Where will you be?"
"I'll be on strike, Seán."

Seán was very taken aback. The idea of "one of his people", which, by then I must have become, actually going on strike was foreign to him. However, he took it in good grace and must have realised that he had got a bit out of touch with his staff.

Once the strike was out of the way he decided to reconnect and undertook a series of short familiarisation meetings with his Administrative Officers. This was quite significant as Seán was quite hierarchical in his professional dealings within the Department.

Maurice Doyle

Before he became Secretary of the Department, Seán used to stand in for Maurice Doyle, the then Secretary, at meetings of the National Economic and Social Council. In briefing him for one of these meetings, I mentioned that the Council had requested a paper from the Department on the exchange rate, then, as always, a highly sensitive topic with all sorts of currency market implications.

To fill you in, in his debriefing of the previous meeting, Maurice had left me in no doubt about the vehemence with which he stated to the meeting his absolute refusal to even consider such a request.

Seán was unaware of this and innocently asked me: "Well, did we give them a paper?".
"And why not?"
"Maurice just refused."
"I'm not sure that was wise of him."

Seán would have avoided an outright confrontation and given them a paper. What enlightenment it might have contained would have been another matter entirely.

My Mother's Funeral

I was quite taken aback when Seán turned up unexpectedly at my mother's funeral in Bray in 1987. It was good of him and has not been forgotten. I pointed him out to my sons as the man who signed the pound notes.


I have recounted elsewhere how Seán and I (and, incidentally, Bertie) had our security status upgraded and were allocated a KGB-trained protection officer in Budapest in 1992.

And while I'm on the subject, Tom Kilbane, one of Seán's fellow birdwatchers, recounted at the funeral how they had both been arrested in Romania when photographing a rare bird which happened at the time to be directly in front of a power station. Tom claims that they were only detained for an hour but that the way Seán told it you'd think they'd been to the torture chamber.

Tom also mentioned them killing a sheep as they drove up a mountain road, and having to pay the farmer compensation when they were stopped by the police on the way back. I heard from another source that the farmer, when he heard an approaching car, drove his sheep out onto the road. The healthy ones managed to get out of the way while any sickly one got run down and the farmer demanded compensation. You can't be up to them country folk.

Scrap Saturday

I can remember an episode of the satirical radio programme "Scrap Saturday" which did Seán a serious injustice, portraying him as Sir Humphrey against Bertie as Jim Hacker from the excellent "Yes Minister" TV series. I've blogged my reaction elsewhere. The post is in Irish as I was entered for an Oireachtas competition at the time. Because of renewed interest in it I have provided a translation in a comment on the post.

The New Seán

I had no contact with Seán after his retirement in 1994 until after my own retirement when I met him by chance in the locality one day. In the conversation that followed it turned out that we both had quite different perspectives on many of the goings on in the Department in our day and each of us could add our own little bit to the story.

I was very taken with how chatty and laid back Seán was, compared with his more formal demeanor in the Department. This led to many subsequent conversations when I met Seán in the street and eventually we invited him along to the lunches a few of us had when one of our number was back in town from abroad.

Seán was a great addition to the chat and I think we all, including Seán, benefitted from widening the range of experience at the table. The lunches weren't quite The Last Supper but they did represent a formal festive seal on the reconciliation between the short and the medium term.

Fear uasal. May he rest in peace.


The Funeral

Given Seán's age, he was 89, and the fact that most of his contemporaries were no longer with us, there was a very respectable attendance at the funeral. I'm listing below just those that I and my colleagues recognised from our own time in the Department of Finance.

Wally Kirwan
Dermot McCarthy
John Hurley
John Loughrey
Ciarán Connolly
John Corrigan
Gay Veale
Eugene O'Sullivan
Bob Bradshaw
Tony Brown
Pat McCardle
Elizabeth Beckett
Josephine Duignan
Brendan Ryan
Pat Rowan
Joe Doherty
Dermot Quigley
Bridget McManus
Michael Tutty
David Ryan
Liam Murphy
Felix Larkin
Paddy Mullarkey
Noel O'Gorman
Ray Bates
Sean Donlon
Dermot McAleese
Paddy Barry
Tom Considine
Philip Hamell
Anne Vaughan
Joe Mooney
Con Breen
Eoghan Ó hAnracháin
Brendan McNamara
Kieran Grace

There were many others present reflecting Seán's active and varied life.

The President was represented by his ADC and the following politicos were spotted: Bertie Ahern, Michael Woods, Nora Owen.

Ronan McGreevy has a short piece on the funeral in the Irish Times.

St. Brigid's, Killester, awaiting the funeral

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