Garvin, John (1904–86), civil servant and Joycean scholar, was born 19 November 1904 in Ballinafad, Co. Sligo, first child of Thomas and Kate Garvin. He was educated at St Nathy's College, Ballaghaderreen; at UCG, where he was awarded BA and B.Comm. degrees; and at UCD, where he was awarded an LLB. In July 1925 he was appointed administrative officer in the Department of Local Government and Public Health, following the first competitive examination for officers of this grade in the civil service of the new state; he and two of the other seven appointees (León Ó Broin (qv) and Maurice Moynihan (qv)) were to become heads of government departments.
Garvin was heavily involved in the preparation of the legislation which introduced the management system in Cork corporation in 1929 and the legislation of 1930 which reorganised local government structures in Dublin and introduced the management system in the city and the new borough of Dún Laoghaire. In 1935, when he was promoted assistant principal officer, he was appointed secretary of the statutory Local Government (Dublin) Tribunal under the chairmanship of Mr Justice George Gavan Duffy (qv); the tribunal's 1938 report on the administration of the metropolitan area was widely acclaimed but its recommendations were never implemented. One of Garvin's staff in those years was Brian O'Nolan (qv), better known as the writer Flann O'Brien, whose friend, mentor, and protector Garvin was to become. He was forced, however, in 1953, when secretary of the department, to seek O'Nolan's resignation from the civil service when dissatisfaction about the performance of his official duties, coupled with complaints about the satirical content of the ‘Cruiskeen Lawn' column – which, as Myles na Gopaleen, he had been contributing to the Irish Times since 1940 – made this unavoidable; Garvin's intervention succeeded in ascribing the resignation to medical grounds, which allowed for the award of a small pension.
On promotion to principal officer in June 1937 Garvin served as head of the department's finance section until 1940, when he took responsibility for the wide field of health, hospital, and medical assistance services. Having acted temporarily as Wicklow county manager in 1945, he worked with his minister, Sean MacEntee (qv), on the preparation of the legislative and administrative measures which led to the creation of separate departments of local government, health, and social welfare with effect from 22 January 1947 and was assigned as assistant secretary to the new Department of Health. He was appointed secretary of the Department of Local Government on 29 November 1948 and held that post for almost eighteen years until 30 September 1966, when he opted for early retirement.
Managing the Department of Local Government involved not only complex relationships with a range of government departments but also a constant struggle to balance national policies and priorities with the needs of local authorities – a situation which led Garvin in 1949 to describe the department as ‘the buffer state’. In difficult financial circumstances and with constant Department of Finance pressure to restrict capital expenditure, he successfully led the drive to increase the output of both local authority and private housing which was a major government policy objective in the years 1948–56. In those years, too, he was closely associated with the recasting of the still controversial management system and the establishment of new legal and procedural arrangements to govern recruitment, service and superannuation of local authority staff. In the following decade, a programme to improve and extend urban and rural water supplies was introduced, the ‘black-topping’ of county roads was virtually completed, and the department succeeded in taking the first steps towards implementing plans to increase investment in the national road network which had been frustrated by political considerations since 1948. Garvin's last years in office saw the introduction of a modern code of road traffic law (1961), the establishment of the physical planning system (1963), the restatement of housing law and policy (1966) and numerous other developments in all of which he played an active and important leadership role.
Garvin was a member of the local appointments commission (1949–66) and a vice-president of the Institute of Public Administration from 1957 onwards. After his retirement from the civil service, he was appointed chairman of An Comhairle Leabharlanna (the Library Council) and was for some years deputy-chairman of the Higher Education Authority. When the members of Dublin city council were removed from office by the minister on 25 April 1969 for failure to strike an adequate rate, he was appointed commissioner with responsibility for discharging the functions of the council and served in that capacity until 1973.
Described as ‘a quiet, reticent man, somewhat stern in mien, outwardly a typical senior civil servant’ (Robins), Garvin had an alter ego or a number of ‘ghosts’, as he put it himself. He lectured widely on local government, early Irish history, mythology, and manuscripts, and some of his work on the local history of Sligo and Roscommon was published in local journals under the pen-name ‘Marcus MacEnery’. Under that name and another pen-name, ‘Andrew Cass’ – derived in typical Joycean fashion from an inversion of Cassandra – he became known to a wider international public from 1947 onwards as a lecturer and as the author of reviews, critical essays, and exegeses on the works of James Joyce (qv) and the interpreter of their more obscure aspects; with his deep knowledge of Anglo-Irish literature, Irish history, and Greek, Latin, and Irish, he was superbly equipped for this task notwithstanding the thinly disguised sniping of O'Nolan, his former colleague, who regularly mocked the literary pretensions of bog-men and turnip-snaggers who set themselves up as authorities on ‘Jems Jyce’.
Garvin's attitude to Joyce was ambivalent, involving denigration of some aspects of his work coupled with obvious pleasure in unravelling literary and historical allusions, correspondences, and sources. In 1951 he wrote about the ‘interminable trimmings’ and the ‘curious extravagances of obscenity and blasphemy’ in Ulysses and suggested that the book ‘enabled Joyce to get off his chest a great deal of juvenile resentments and self-pity’ (‘Childe Horrid's pilgrimace’), while in 1947 he had described the content of Finnegans wake as farraginous and amorphous – ‘626 [sic] pages of what looked like gibberish thrown in the face of the public without any clue to its meaning’ (‘Sprakin Sea Djoytsch’). He went on, however, to devote considerable time and effort to the interpretation and identification of themes and references – and specifically those with an Irish dimension – in both works, culminating in his James Joyce's disunited kingdom and the Irish dimension (1976) on which he had been working for many years; the book presented new and original interpretations of various episodes of both Ulysses and Finnegans wake and restated and documented his thesis, first advanced in 1947, that one of the personalities of ‘Shaun’ in Finnegans wake was intended to represent Éamon de Valera (qv). He was a founder member of the Dublin Joyce Society in 1954 and a keen member of the James Joyce Institute of Ireland, founded in 1973. On Bloomsday, 16 June 1966, following the re-interment of Joyce and his wife in Fluntern cemetery, he delivered the memorial lecture ‘Portrait of the artist in Finnegans wake’ in the University of Zurich. He was awarded a D.Litt. degree by the NUI in 1972.
Garvin married (1937) Kathleen Daly MA. He died 9 February 1986 at his home in Clonskeagh, Dublin, and was survived by his wife, daughter Catriona Gallagher, and two sons, John and Tom, professor of politics at UCD. His body was cremated at Glasnevin crematorium.