Economist who had huge influence on agricultural policy and development

Seamus Sheehy helped bring in dairy quota in 1984, and helped end it 30 years later

Prof Seamus Sheehy: a leading expert on the impact and evolution of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)

Prof Seamus Sheehy: a leading expert on the impact and evolution of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)


Seamus Sheehy
Born: July 13 1935. Died: July 20 2018

Prof Seamus J Sheehy, who died in Dublin on July 20th aged 83, had substantial influence over the evolution of agricultural policy and development for close on 40 years. Over the years he advised many government ministers directly or indirectly on relevant matters, and he participated in many departmental groups dealing with commodity issues. He carried out a number of studies for and served as an adviser to several State bodies.

He also advised farming organisations and was very well known and respected for his frequent press, radio and television contributions. Whenever there was any new development or crisis in the agricultural policy arena or in the farm economy, Sheehy’s opinion would be among the first to be sought.

One of his main strengths was his knowledge of the impact and evolution of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In that context, perhaps his best-known contribution was his work on justifying the introduction of the dairy quota in 1984, much against the wishes of the agricultural establishment, and it indicated his astute reading of the market realities and budgetary situation facing the dairy sector at that time.

His correct reading of the situation was further illustrated when, 30 years later, and acknowledging the new realities, he recommended the ending of that policy. In all his professional activities he was very protective of his professional integrity and independence, a stance which never prevented him from having his opinion sought by those who might previously have been the subject of his criticism.

Famous cartoon

He often incurred the wrath of politicians. There was a famous cartoon in a leading farming newspaper depicting Charlie Haughey expressing his displeasure at Sheehy’s comments on a farming issue of the day, with the caption: “How can we get rid of this turbulent Professor!”

Sheehy was born in Ballyporeen in south Tipperary, the second-youngest of seven children, and brought up on a small dairy farm. He was educated at Mitchelstown Christian Brothers School and, after graduating from UCD with a first class honours degree in Agricultural Science in 1957, he worked in the Department of Agriculture in Johnstown Castle for two years on crop research. He received an assistantship in Pennsylvania State University, from where he graduated with a PhD in Agricultural Economics in 1964.

He then returned to Ireland and was the first agricultural economist appointed to the staff of UCD. In 1969, he was appointed statutory lecturer and head of the newly created Department of Agricultural Economics, and was made professor some years later. It was during these early years in UCD that he met and married Síle O’Neill, a research economist in An Foras Talúntais.

In his teaching role he took particular interest in the performance and welfare of his students

After taking up his appointment in UCD his main function was the organisation and teaching of agricultural economics. His own special area of interest was agricultural policy, but he also taught statistical analysis, price theory and production economics. He managed to allocate about one-third of his time to research, which was generally of an applied nature, addressing the practical problems arising in Irish agriculture – mainly focused on the livestock sector, and largely conditioned by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Major studies

He carried out major studies along the way, including a cost/benefit analysis of the controversial Bovine TB Eradication Programme, another on the implications for Ireland of the McSharry reform of the CAP, and reviews of ongoing developments in the agricultural sector for State bodies.

In his teaching role he took particular interest in the performance and welfare of his students. In the earlier years he might have had some hundreds of papers to correct from the summer undergraduate examinations, and this exercise caused him particular anxiety. He would be disappointed and concerned that some students didn’t do as well as he wanted them to do, and became self-critical about the content of the course or the manner in which it was taught.

In this respect it was a constant concern of his to achieve the best possible outcomes for his students. In 1989 the remit of his department was extended and became the Department of Agribusiness, Extension and Rural Development. In the administration of his department he was a tough but fair taskmaster and fought for and ably represented his department in college affairs. His record as a competent and progressive educator is reflected in the quality of his graduates and the many who have achieved senior positions of responsibility in the world of banking, commerce, the media, politics and State organisations.

In 1987 he was invited to become a director of AIB and served in that capacity until 1995. He received much acclaim for his surefooted chairing of a critical board meeting where major issues were dealt with in an efficient and decisive manner.

World population

A second area of interest was the Third World, in relation to which he taught a course on world population and food, embracing the interaction of developed with developing countries. These interests were wide and varied, and included being Chairman of a Gorta project committee, visiting Sudan and Tanzania on missions for the Agency for Personal Service Overseas (APSO) and the Higher Education for Development Cooperation (HEDCO), and acting as a consultant on a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation livestock development project for Turkey. He also participated in a World Bank project on policy analysis in Uganda and Malawi.

He took a very active interest in the development of agricultural economics as a profession, being a founder-member of the Agricultural Economics Society of Ireland and a member of the respective international societies. He was a joint author of three books on agricultural economics and author of an extensive array of articles and research papers.

Agricultural economics was his passion but his love of gardening at home and in his holiday retreat in Brittany provided a welcome and enjoyable respite.

He is survived by his wife Síle, his children Ruth, Kevin and Garret, grandchildren Oscar, Cuan, Emilia and Juliette, and brother Maurice.