Meenan, James Francis (1910–87), barrister-at-law, political economist, and writer, was born 18 October 1910 in Dublin, eldest of three sons and one daughter of Dr James Nahor Meenan (qv), professor of medicine at UCD, and Mary Elizabeth Meenan (née Cleary), BA (Royal University of Ireland). Mary Cleary was in the same class as James Joyce (qv) at the RUI, and his character ‘Emma Clery’ is thought to be based on her. Both parents were from northern Ireland, but moved to Dublin. Meenan grew up at 66 St Stephen's Green; later the family moved to 28 Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin.
Educated at Catholic University School and Clongowes Wood College, he entered UCD in 1928. He obtained first place and first-class honours in both BA (1931) and MA (1932), and was auditor of the Literary and Historical Society (1932–3), as were his two brothers and one of his nephews, forming a unique family record in the Society. He was captain of the boat club. Awarded the travelling studentship in 1932, he pursued the tenure of his studentship in Rome and Perugia (1933–5). Returning to Ireland in 1935, Meenan was called to the bar, where he practised for six years. From 1936 to 1942 he was also a part-time assistant to the professor of national economics and political economy in UCD, George O'Brien (qv), becoming a full-time assistant in 1942. From 1942 to 1944 he assisted in the drafting of the rules for the circuit court. In 1951 he was appointed statutory lecturer in applied economics; and in 1961 he was appointed to the chair of national economics and political economy, which he held until 1980. His brother, Patrick, as well as his father, held medical professorships in the College, the centre of Meenan's life for fifty-two years (1928–80).
In 1941 he was elected a member of the RIA. During 1943–5 he deputised for the professor of political economy, TCD. He was president (1956–9) of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (SSISI), where in 1957 he delivered the presidential address, ‘The political economy of development’, to a joint meeting with the British Association for the Advancement of Science. A member of the executive of the Economic (later Economic and Social) Research Institute for twenty years from 1963 and chairman 1974–83, he was elected first president of the Association of University Economists of Ireland in 1964. Elected an honorary bencher of King's Inns in 1980, he was conferred with an honorary LLD by the NUI in 1981.
The three principal arenas in which Meenan's career unfolded and in which he made an enduring contribution to Irish life were the College (UCD), business and banking, and the cultural and voluntary spheres, centred on the RDS. He was a director of the Central Bank 1949–58; member of the court of governors of the Bank of Ireland 1958–78; member of the board of Maguire & Patersons 1961 and chairman 1962; member of the board of Trusthouse Forte (Ireland) Ltd, 1961, and Gallaher (Dublin) Ltd, 1962. He made a unique contribution to the life of the RDS, which he joined in 1927. He was its chairman 1959–80, and president 1980–83. In 1981 he delivered an acclaimed public lecture which marked the 250th anniversary of the founding of the society. He was a founding member of the Irish Times Trust from 1974 and a director of Irish Times Ltd.
A member of the Irish delegation to the conference on British commonwealth affairs in Sydney in 1938, Meenan served on several government commissions: on emigration (1948–54), for which he wrote a minority report; on decimal coinage and the metric system (1953–9); and on income taxation (1956–61), which led to the introduction of PAYE. He was appointed in 1962 to the steering committee that produced the study Investment in education (1965).
Meenan was a gifted writer, and his published work forms an integral part of his enduring legacy. Associated with the College, there was the chapter ‘The student body’ in Michael Tierney (ed.), Struggle with fortune: a miscellany for the centenary of the Catholic University (1954), where the chapter is incorrectly attributed to ‘J. N. Meenan’; the Centenary history of the Literary and Historical Society (1956), which he edited and to which he contributed a superb chapter that covered much of the early history of the College; A view of Ireland, with D. A. Webb (qv) (1957); his major work, The Irish economy since 1922 (1970); and George O'Brien: a biographical memoir (1980). In addition to several articles in the Banker, he contributed an important chapter to Bi-centenary essays: Bank of Ireland 1783–1983 (1983). In 1981 The Royal Dublin Society 1731–1981, edited by James Meenan and Desmond Clarke (qv) (Clarke died suddenly in 1979) was published. Meenan wrote fourteen articles for Studies, presented nine papers to the Statistical Society, and made regular contributions to the Economist, for which he became Irish correspondent in 1949.
Meenan's gracious and unhurried style concealed the degree of industry necessary for his manifold accomplishments. His breadth of vision and soundness of judgement were informed by his extensive knowledge of history and political economy, as well as by his active engagement in business and cultural life. Roy Geary (qv), Ireland's foremost statistician of the twentieth century, observed that with the contribution of nine papers to the proceedings of the SSISI, no author in modern times contributed more (UCD archives, LA/56/209). Sir Geoffrey Crowther, who edited the Economist when Meenan was Irish correspondent, judged Meenan's contributions as being ‘among the most distinguished that we publish’ (ibid.).
A hallmark of Meenan was loyalty to the tradition of each institution in which he was engaged. Among those who valued his steadfast friendship were former students and colleagues. He was impervious to social distinction; the security of his own background spurred him to undertake substantial voluntary work, ranging from the RDS to government commissions to his local Cheshire Home in Monkstown. For a man with such a diverse range of activities, who enjoyed the convivial atmosphere of the St Stephen's Green Club, he was not afraid of solitude and found relaxation in walking holidays on the Continent and in England. He never sought approval, or tried to gather a band of disciples to seal his reputation; rather, he played his part and rested his case. He died in Dublin 25 May 1987.
He married (1945) Annette Nora, daughter of Martin Francis Mahony (chairman of the Hibernian Bank and of Martin Mahony Bros, Blarney, Co. Cork). They had three daughters: Veronica, Anne, and Nicola. Their home was Albany House, Monkstown.