As integral as government ministers and senior politicians are to the formation of national policies that affect our daily lives, senior civil servants are arguably even more important. This might be nowhere more apparent than in Ireland’s economic and financial development over the past century. Since the foundation of the state, a surprisingly small group of ‘mandarins’ have considerably influenced the evolution of Ireland’s financial and economic apparatus. The management of interest rates, inflation and broader economic policy, largely by senior civil servants for much of the history of the state, has had a profound impact on the lives of Irish people. Entries in the Dictionary of Irish Biography on some of these civil servants, linked by the Department of Finance and the Central Bank, allow us to chart the evolution of those august bodies over many decades.
James McElligott, educated in Tralee and University College Dublin (UCD), was active in the 1916 Easter Rising and worked as a financial journalist before being appointed assistant secretary of the Department of Finance in 1923. Promotion came swiftly and, as secretary of the department from 1927, McElligott was integral to the development of the early financial and economic structures of the new state. A mainstay of the economic and financial commissions that put in place early fiscal structures, he also represented Ireland at various international conferences. In 1932, as effective head of the Irish civil service, McElligott calmly guided the state, and the incoming Fianna Fáil administration, through the first change of government. A vocal proponent for the establishment of an Irish central bank, McElligott played a key role in its eventual establishment in 1943; he was appointed governor a decade later, establishing a surprisingly persistent pattern.
McElligott’s successor at the Central Bank, Maurice Moynihan, was educated at CBS Tralee and University College Cork. Encouraged by McElligott, a distant relative and friend of the family, he joined the civil service in 1925 and served for a time as McElligott’s private secretary. In 1932 Éamon De Valera appointed Moynihan as his private secretary. This gave Moynihan a key vantage point during the ‘Economic war’ with Britain, while he was also an important figure in the final stages of the drafting of the 1937 constitution. He also became secretary of what is now known as the Department of the Taoiseach in 1937, heading the government secretariat until 1960. The following year he succeeded McElligott as governor of the Central Bank. There Moynihan oversaw the emergence of Irish monetary policy and developed the infrastructure underpinning the Irish banking system.
Charles Murray, educated at Synge Street CBS in Dublin and UCD, joined the Revenue Commissioners in 1934. Transferring to the Department of the Taoiseach, where he provided economic advice to John A. Costello and de Valera, Murray also collaborated with T. K. Whitaker in the development of novel economic research and planning techniques. He subsequently joined the Department of Finance in 1957 and was Whitaker’s main collaborator in drafting the groundbreaking report Economic development (1958), on which the transformational Programme for Economic Expansion (1958) was based.
Murray became assistant secretary at the department in 1961, where he assisted in Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 and pioneered the use of cost benefit analysis and management accounting techniques in the civil service. Secretary of the department from 1969, in 1976 Murray succeeded Whitaker as governor of the Central Bank. Confronted with inflationary government deficit financing, in 1977 Murray damningly observed that ‘involuntary emigration is a sign of failure’. He oversaw the break with sterling (30 March 1979), which facilitated Ireland’s autonomy over interest rates, before his retirement in 1981
Maurice Doyle worked with Murray on Economic development, contributing research on agriculture; he was subsequently involved in all three programmes for economic expansion (1958–73) and became second secretary in the Department of Finance in 1971. There he contributed to the emergence of what became known as ‘social partnership’ (structured agreements between unions and employers) and implemented EEC regional and structural funding programs in Ireland. Doyle represented Ireland at the OECD, the IMF and the World Bank and became secretary of the Department of Finance in 1981. He managed Ireland’s perilous public finances during the ensuing turbulent decade (in 1982 writing to the Times of London to assert the Irish government was not about to default on its debt) before following the well-trodden path to becoming governor of the Central Bank in 1987.
As governor, Doyle managed the exchange rate of the Irish punt and set interest rates on behalf of the government. He then shepherded the punt’s value on the road to European Monetary Union. Pugnacious and curt, he regularly criticised the over-reliance of Irish governments on deficit financing.
The absence of women from the group reflects the barriers to their advancement within the civil service, and the wider public service, for much of the twentieth century. A range of policies and rules, gradually codified and known as the ‘marriage bar’, excluded the majority of women from such employment (abolished in 1973, the marriage bar and its long-term consequences are the subject of ongoing research by historians, sociologists and economists among others). Though Thekla Beere became the first female secretary of a government department in 1959, it was not until 1995 that the second, Margaret Hayes, was appointed. No woman has ever served as secretary general of the Department of Finance.
While the political giants of modern Ireland understandably receive much public and academic attention, this group of Department of Finance and Central Bank ‘mandarins’ have had an outsized hand in shaping the Irish state. Though just a small sample of the many entries on civil servants collected in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, their careers present a pattern of continuity charting the evolution of key national institutions. Far more than the caricatured image of civil servants as anonymous figures toiling in drab rooms, they have contributed significantly to the development of modern Ireland.