Anne Chambers on writing her TK Whitaker biography, Portrait of a Patriot

Widely regarded as the architect of modern Ireland, his was the quiet presence, the rational, informed voice behind many of the events that shaped modern Irish history

For the past two years as I interviewed and researched the personal archive of Dr TK Whitaker, it became apparent why the ordinary citizens of this country should confer him with the accolade “Irishman of the Twentieth Century”. This is further brought home when accompanying Ken, now 97, on our weekly lunch date when complete strangers stop to shake his hand and to wish that he was back at the helm once more.

And as the so-called icons of Irish society, after the most recent financial debacle, one by one, fell from their pedestals, as tribunals, trials and inquiries revealed the shortcomings of those entrusted with the care of the country and the welfare of its people, the people’s choice in 2001 of TK Whitaker, as their “man of the century” seems ever more to have been vindicated.

From a modest background in Rostrevor, Co Down, at the age of six, Ken moved with his family south to Drogheda where at the local CBS his exceptional potential was first nurtured. Unable financially to pursue his preferred medical career, in 1934, his footsteps led him to a career as a civil servant, entering at the basic clerical officer grade. There his talents broke through predictive promotional convention and his record rise through the ranks, unequalled to this day, saw him, at the age of 39, become the youngest secretary of the Department of Finance in 1956.

Ken Whitaker’s life parallels the history of the modern Irish State, in whose economic, financial, educational, social and cultural evolution he played a central role. Widely regarded as the architect of modern Ireland, his was the quiet presence, the rational and informed voice behind many of the events that have shaped modern Irish history: from providing the landmark blueprint for Ireland’s economic regeneration in the 1950s; directing Ireland’s convoluted path towards EU and IMF membership in the 1960s; leading the team which negotiated the 1965 Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement, thus ending the lengthy and economically disastrous tariff war between Ireland and Britain; his transformation of the Central Bank into a dynamic and effective institution in the 1970s; to the little-known but crucial role he played behind the scenes for more than 30 years in the search for peace in Northern Ireland.

And, as I was to discover, his service to the State did not stop on his retirement from public office in 1976. From the Senate, the Council of State, to his 20-year chancellorship of the National University of Ireland and, on a voluntary basis, his wise counsel and practical experience steered a mind-boggling range of public commissions and committees. From fishery policy, penal reform, to constitutional reform; chairmanship of bodies such as Bord na Gaeilge, the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Royal Irish Academy, ESRI, Irish Folklore Commission; co-founder of the British-Irish Association and the Agency for Personal Service Overseas – the list exceeds 40.

His contribution to national and international public debate and discussion on a range of topics, from economics to salmon conservation, is evidenced by the innumerable articles and speeches written and delivered during his public and post-public career right up until 2008.

Today in his 98th year Ken Whitaker is an iconic example of positive ageing. His continuing interest and participation in issues and projects of national interest, his openness to new ideas, his generosity to others, is notable. His attributes rest lightly on his shoulders. His ability not to take himself too seriously, to see the humour in the most portentous is to the fore in his reminiscences of many historic milestones experienced in his long career, as when noting, with a twinkle in his eye, at the lunch in honour of Sean Lemass's historic visit to Stormont on January 14th, 1965, which he helped to arrange, that "I imagine Dr Paisley's worst fears would have been confirmed if I were to say that the red wine we drank was Chateauneuf-du-Pape!"

In Ken Whitaker we are reminded of what is best in all of us, both as a society and as individual citizens. For him it was simply a case of performing his public duty as well as he could. While his economic policies may not always have received political or populist accord, his words, written in 1969 and still perhaps relevant today, sum up the essence of his motivation:

“Let us remember that we are not seeking economic progress for purely materialistic reasons but because it makes possible relief of hardship and want, the establishment of a better social order, the raising of human dignity, and, eventually, the participation of all who are born in Ireland in the benefits, moral and cultural, as well as material, of spending their lives and bringing up their families in Ireland.”

TK Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot (Doubleday) by Anne Chambers has been shortlisted for the 2014 Irish Book Awards