Exacting economist who built up the ESRI

Kieran Kennedy (left) with John FitzGerald, David Duffy and Diarmaid Smyth, after publication of an ESRI commentary in March 2000. photograph: paddy whelan

Kieran Kennedy (left) with John FitzGerald, David Duffy and Diarmaid Smyth, after publication of an ESRI commentary in March 2000. photograph: paddy whelan


KIERAN KENNEDY: Dr Kieran Kennedy was director of the Economic and Social Research Institute from 1971 until 1996. An outstanding applied economist, he was one of three experts recruited by then taoiseach Charles Haughey in 1982 to formulate his plan The Way Forward. It was the blueprint for the effective remedial measures taken by Haughey’s government when it returned to power in 1987.

Born in Newbridge, Co Kildare, Kennedy was one of five sons of a garda. He spent much of his early life alone with his grandmother on a farm in east Galway. This bred in him a self-sufficiency and somewhat solitary aspect.

He returned to his family for what he always lauded as an excellent secondary education with the Christian Brothers at Sexton Street in Limerick. He joined the Civil Service as an executive officer in 1954 and, four years later, won a competition to join the elite corps of administrative officers in the Department of Finance.

Meanwhile, he had taken evening courses in commerce at University College Dublin, where economics professor George O’Brien spotted his exceptional talent and befriended him when he was hospitalised for 18 months with tuberculosis. Graduating in 1958, Kennedy took a master’s in economic science and in 1960 won a travelling studentship.

Ken Whitaker, the secretary of the Department of Finance, was keen to build up its economic expertise and gave Kennedy leave of absence to attend Nuffield College in Oxford. He took a graduate course for the B Phil degree directed by Nobel prize-winner John Hicks.

Kennedy went on to Harvard on a fellowship and wrote his doctoral thesis under Simon Kuznets, another Nobel prize-winner. It was the basis of his book Productivity and Economic Growth: the Irish Experience, published in 1971 and praised in the Economist for its meticulous use of data and competence in their interpretation.

In the same year, he was appointed to succeed Prof Michael Fogarty as director of the ESRI, where he had worked as a senior research officer after leaving the Department of Finance in 1968.

Initially funded by the Ford Foundation, the ESRI was designed to provide independent economic analysis. This was made vulnerable when it had to depend on funding from government and other sources. It was a tribute to Kennedy’s forbidding integrity as well as his doggedness as a fundraiser that the ESRI survived while never compromising independence.

He insisted that its papers be the work of individual researchers and his only role was to ensure their professional competence; on that his standards were high. Immensely focused, he was an exacting but fair taskmaster who did not shirk tough decisions.

Kennedy himself wrote papers, usually in collaboration with one of his researchers. He was much exercised by the problem of unemployment, the persistence of which he considered a major national failure; his prescriptions were more “Statist” than was becoming the vogue. He was always available to government. He had an imperfect sympathy with Garret FitzGerald but admiredHaughey as one of the most incisive intellects he had encountered.

Kennedy pursued his interest in Irish economic history begun at Harvard when, in 1975, he co-authored a book on the economy since 1946. He edited two series of Thomas Davis lectures on RTÉ, the second of which, in 1997, marked the 150th anniversary of the Statistical and Social Society of which he had been president. His own lecture on industrial development since the Famine displayed characteristic clarity.

After his final retirement from the ESRI, Kennedy took no further interest in economics and devoted himself to art; painting, he found, satisfied his need to be totally absorbed. He followed sport on television and was active as an angler – these afforded him relaxation and a welcome solitude.

Although not really sociable, he could be an engaging conversationalist. A deep faith, in which Marian devotion loomed large, was the pole star of Kennedy’s life. He was a life-long member of the Legion of Mary, whose founder Frank Duff had introduced him to Finola Flanagan, a fellow economist whom he married in 1966.

His researches in government archives and elsewhere into Duff’s correspondence provided some of the material for his wife’s acclaimed biography. Kennedy shared Duff’s ecumenism and was a member of several ecumenical groups. He spent a week each year evangelising lapsed Catholics among the emigrant community in England.

A teetotaller and a regular walker, he risked his health only by smoking a pipe. He suffered a long and debilitating illness with fortitude and was blessed by the devotion and regular presence of his wife Finola and their family of three sons and three daughters.

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