McElligott, James John (‘Jimmy’) (1893–1974), financial administrator, was born 26 July 1893 in Tralee, Co. Kerry, son of Edmund McElligott, a local shopkeeper, and Catherine McElligott (née Slattery), also of Co. Kerry. After schooling in Tralee, he went to UCD, where he graduated with an honours BA degree in classics (1913). After appointment as a first-division clerk in the civil service, he was assigned to the Local Government Board in Dublin. He joined the Irish Volunteers on their formation in 1913, and on Easter Monday 1916 reported to the GPO and took part in the rising. He was dismissed from the civil service and deported to England, where he was interned in various jails, ending up in Stafford jail in the next cell to Michael Collins (qv).
On release in 1917, he returned to Dublin, where he completed an honours MA in economics at UCD and became a freelance financial journalist. In 1921 he was appointed managing editor of the Statist, a London financial weekly. In 1923 he was invited back to Ireland to help to set up the new Department of Finance, with the rank of assistant secretary. He succeeded his friend Joseph Brennan (qv) as secretary in 1927 and held this post for twenty-six years until his appointment as governor of the Central Bank in 1953. He retired from the governorship in 1960 but continued to serve as a director until his sudden death on 24 January 1974, within hours of returning from a board meeting. He had in fact been continuously on the board of the Central Bank and its predecessor, the Currency Commission, for forty-seven years. He married (1927) Ann Gertrude, daughter of James Fay of Edenderry, Co. Offaly. They had one child, a daughter, Ann, who married (1961) James Devlin.
McElligott was honoured with a doctorate of laws by the NUI in 1946, was president of the Institute of Bankers in 1956, and became the first president of the Economic Research Institute (later the Economic and Social Research Institute) in 1961. He played a key role in the formation of the economic policies of the new state. He was a member of all the important economic and financial commissions of his time, including the tariff commission of 1926–30 (of which he was a chairman) and the commissions on banking of 1926 and 1934–8. He represented Ireland at many international conferences, notably the Ottawa conference of 1932.
He was involved in the launching of the Free State's first national loan, a remarkable achievement. As secretary of the Department of Finance and, in effect, head of the civil service, he had the task of guiding both politicians and civil servants through the first change of government in 1932. He advocated the establishment of a central bank from the late 1920s on, and framed much of the legislation under which it was eventually established. He masterminded the special financial agreements during the early years of the second world war and advised the government on the devaluation crisis of 1949. His writing was characterised by clarity and vigour, a reflection of his education in the classics.
Conservative in outlook, he was more in sympathy with the theories of Adam Smith and Gladstone than with those of Keynes and his followers, and strictly adhered to the principle of curbing public expenditure and taxation (Whitaker (1974)). His strong emphasis on austerity was a useful corrective to the unreasonable expectations of the young and inexperienced politicians who took over from the British administration in 1922 and the equally inexperienced politicians who took office after the first change of government in 1932. He has been strongly, indeed harshly, criticised by J. J. Lee for his conservatism. Such criticism does not take into account the contribution he made in the 1920s to the continuity of public administration and the establishment of the financial standing of the new state. It also fails to recognise the role of devil's advocate which a department of finance must play in criticising proposals for increasing expenditure, and which is part of the system of checks and balances that must operate in a parliamentary democracy.
A younger colleague pictures him ‘sitting in a cold and narrow room, wearing a black linen coat, a model of the austerity he preached’. In time, however, that colleague discovered behind the mask of severity ‘a warm, even emotional man, who could be reasoned with’ (Whitaker (1983), 162). He was persuaded in the end that some state expenditure, even of borrowed moneys, could be justifiable to promote competitive export industries and raise living standards. Despite his conservatism, McElligott recognised the national significance of the major pioneering Electricity Supply Board scheme to harness the Shannon (Whitaker, personal correspondence). During the war he supported the establishment of Irish Shipping, and his assistance was vital in the success of the initiative to send Irish supplies of food to distressed countries at the end of the war.
In later years his negative attitudes were probably counterproductive in that they emphasised the stereotype of the Department of Finance as being against every worthwhile development. He perhaps stayed too long as head of the department. By remaining in the position for twenty-six years he could fairly be accused of bringing to bear on the problems of the 1950s attitudes framed by the problems of the ‘20s and ‘30s. For example, his reaction to post-war changes in international finance, including the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, was overinfluenced by his long involvement with sterling-area policies. He had become used to looking at the world ‘through what we might describe as sterling-coloured spectacles’ (Fanning, 391).
Three years after McElligott retired from the Department of Finance, T. K. Whitaker became secretary and initiated a dramatic change in the direction of the department by emphasising its role as one concerned not solely with cheese-paring but with economic development. In fairness to McElligott, it has to be said that the room for manoeuvre Whitaker enjoyed, in recommending the use of the exchequer as a vehicle to encourage economic development, would not have been as great if McElligott had not left the public finances in such good order. On his departure from the Department of Finance to go to the Central Bank, a commentator, referring to his lifelong efforts to curb public expenditure, remarked that ‘if there were those who tired of defending the pass and withdrew, J. J. McElligott was not one of them. It must have been a weary business for Thermopylae did not last over a quarter of a century; yet, this defender remained active to the end’ (quoted in Fanning, 492).