Brendan Walsh: An influential Irish economist who taught students to ask questions
Obituary: ‘Although Walsh was wary of governmental interference in economic affairs, he was the great eclectic rather than the espouser of any particular economic ideology’
Prof Brendan Walsh: May 6th, 1940-May 17th, 2016
Prof Brendan Walsh, who died suddenly age 76, was a hugely influential Irish economist.
Walsh was the youngest of four children. His father was a civil servant; his mother and her sister ran Curtins, a women’s clothing shop in Talbot Street, Dublin. The family lived in the middle-class suburb of Rathgar. The young Brendan observed that he was almost alone among the boys attending the nearby Jesuit Gonzaga College to have a mother who “went out to work”.
There Fr Joe Veale SJ quickly spotted the brilliance of this precociously tall, slightly awkward student.
After graduating from University College Dublin, and with a masters from the University of Tennessee, he went to Boston College where his PhD subject was macroeconomic modelling in an Irish context.
He lectured part-time in Newton College in Boston where he met Patricia Noonan, then an undergraduate. They married in 1965, and Colm, their first child, was born in Massachusetts where Walsh taught economics at Tufts University.
The family moved to Ireland in 1969 when he obtained a job at the Economic Research Institute, which soon added “and Social” to its title.
During his decade at the ESRI Walsh’s output of research papers ranged over subjects as diverse as marriage rates, family farming, religion, alcohol consumption, equal pay, marital status and birth order in men, alphabetical voting, regional policy and full employment.
He had already begun writing with his brother Dermot, a psychiatrist, on medico-social topics. His rigorous applications of economic theory and statistics to Irish demographic trends and the Irish labour market in this period were truly pioneering.
In 1980, he became professor of national economics at UCD. This appointment, and that of Peter Neary as professor of political economy at the same time, marked a significant “changing of the guard” at Ireland’s premier academic economics department. Patrick Lynch and James Meenan handed on the torch to a new generation.
Colleagues and students alike noted how quickly Walsh became a father-figure to younger colleagues, some little younger than himself. His approachable teaching style, shaped in the United States, matched by considerable charm and a wry sense of humour, endeared him to all.
Taking time out to work in Iran (1975-1976), and in The Gambia ( 1989-1991) for the Harvard Institute for International Development gave his teaching added perspective.
Much of his teaching focus was on macroeconomics but grounded in microeconomics, theory being related directly to reality. This provided a sound basis for considering major policy issues.
Although Walsh was wary of governmental interference in economic affairs, he was the great eclectic – rather than the espouser of any particular economic ideology. On social matters he was progressive.
Above all he taught students to ask questions and to go where the evidence took them, no matter how challenging the conclusions.
He published prodigiously, often co-authoring, and had a tally of 150 research papers and a much-admired textbook (co-authored with Tony Leddin of the University of Limerick) by the time of his retirement; more would follow. But it was his extraordinary versatility in tackling a wide range of subjects that distinguished his work.
Walsh’s calm demeanour and straightforward commentary on the economic problems of the day was often in demand in TV and radio studios.
From the late 1970s, one of his recurring themes was the paramount importance of maintaining competitiveness for a small open economy such as Ireland.
During the 1982-1987 coalition government Fine Gael taoiseach Garret FitzGerald sought Walsh’s counsel as he tried to square the circle of restraining public spending in the face of his Labour coalition partner’s political imperative of protecting it.
Both the coalition government of 1973-1977 and the Fianna Fáil government of 1977-1981 had tried to counter the deflationary effect of high oil prices by running ever-bigger budgetary deficits, thus generating an unsustainable increase in the national debt. The national development plan (1977-1980) envisaged unprecedented growth stimulated by tax cuts and higher public spending, with the public finances restored through unachievable tax “buoyancy”, and more private-sector investment.
Walsh led those who warned that neither would or could deliver.
With Patrick Honohan in 2002, Walsh suggested the “Irish Hare” as a better metaphor for the booming Irish economy of the 1990s than the Celtic Tiger. The ability of the Irish economy to catch up, they argued, was helped by the flexibility of the labour market, the quality of the workforce, a sensible exchange rate policy, and what they called “fiscal normalisation”.
For Walsh, formal retirement in 2005 simply meant a change of pace, and freed up time for his seven grandchildren.
Brendan Walsh is survived by his wife Patricia Noonan Walsh, his children Colm, Nessa and Ben, and his brother Dermot.