O'Donovan, John (1908–82) civil servant, politician, and academic, was born 23 January 1908 in Rockboro House, Macroom, Co. Cork, son of Cornelius O'Donovan originally from Clonmel, agricultural instructor, and his wife Hanna (née Twomey). Educated at Catholic University School, Dublin, he obtained an entrance scholarship to UCD, where he graduated BA (1928) with first class honours in economics, history and jurisprudence. In 1929 he took a first class honours MA in economics and was awarded a travelling studentship, which he held at University College, Oxford, where he graduated B. Litt. in 1931. A Rockefeller foundation fellowship enabled him to spend the academic year 1931–2 at Harvard Graduate School, the Brookings Institute and Chicago University. He later obtained a D.Econ.Sc. (NUI) for The economic history of live stock in Ireland (1940). He had inherited from his father a lifelong interest in farming.
In 1933 he joined the Irish civil service as an administrative officer, being assigned first to the Department of the President of the Executive Council, followed by temporary secondment to the secretariat of the League of Nations. From 1935 he was an administrative officer in the Department of Finance, becoming private secretary to the minister, Seán T. O'Kelly (qv) in 1941. Promoted assistant principal (1943) and principal (1950), he dealt with the financial aspects of legislation and the finances of state-sponsored bodies. Described by T. K. Whitaker as having ‘outstanding economic qualifications’ (Fanning, 555), his promotion to principal had been in breach of the usual seniority principle. In 1952 he left the civil service on his appointment as statutory lecturer in economic theory at UCD. He became associate professor of political economy (economic theory) in 1966, a position he held until his retirement from UCD in 1976.
In 1954 he joined Fine Gael and ran in that year's general election in the Dublin South-East constituency. Elected on the distribution of John A. Costello's (qv) surplus, he ousted Noel Browne (qv), who at that election ran for Fianna Fáil. When Fine Gael, Labour, and Clann na Talmhan subsequently formed the second inter-party government, O'Donovan was chosen as parliamentary secretary to the government. His close political relationship with Costello was underlined by the taoiseach's decision to appoint him as special economic adviser to the cabinet and by his attendance at cabinet meetings. A low public profile and a heavy workload marked his time as a parliamentary secretary. This no doubt hindered his chances of increasing his popularity with his constituents. In the general election of 1957, when Fine Gael fared poorly, O'Donovan lost his seat, his share of the first preference vote falling from 2,598 to 1,332. In the subsequent seanad election he was elected on the cultural and educational panel, and later served as leas-chathaoirleach (1959–61). In 1960 he won a celebrated victory in the high court after he challenged the constitutionality of the Fianna Fáil government's 1959 electoral amendment act, which dealt with the redrawing of constituency boundaries. O'Donovan argued that the measure would lead to the under-representation of parts of the country, contrary to article 16 of the constitution. His ultimate victory forced the government to introduce a new measure.
In the general election of October 1961 he contested the Dublin South-East constituency for Fine Gael, but finished last of the five candidates, a defeat that marked the start of a short period away from active politics. Again unsuccessful in the 1965 general election, this time standing for the Labour party in the Dublin South-West constituency, he eventually returned to the dáil in 1969 as a Labour TD for Dublin South-Central, obtaining 2,450 first-preference votes and being elected on the eleventh count. His election campaign saw him lobby for social justice, including free legal aid for those charged with criminal offences. Although he spoke out on a range of social issues, his presence in the dáil was again marked by a low public profile and he lost his seat in the 1973 general election. This defeat marked his retirement from active politics.
Elected to membership of the RIA in 1958, he regularly wrote papers for the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, his most notable being an examination of the role of state enterprises in the Irish economy. He served for many years on the board of the Agricultural Credit Corporation.
He lived for most of his life in the Dublin suburb of Dundrum with his wife Kathleen, daughter of John Mahon of Tullamore, whom he married in 1936. They had one son and five daughters. He died 17 May 1982 at Kilcroney nursing home, Dublin.