Maurice O’Connell obituary: A civil servant who helped usher in modern Ireland

The former Central Bank governor oversaw Ireland’s complex transition to the euro

Maurice O’Connell, during his days as Governor of the Central Bank. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Maurice O’Connell, during his days as Governor of the Central Bank. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Maurice O’Connell
Born: May 5th, 1936
Died: April
1st, 2019

Maurice O’Connell, who has died after a lengthy period of ill health, was a quiet Kerryman who was at the centre of economic life in Ireland and Europe as governor of the Central Bank from 1994 to 2002.

He was one of a generation of public servants who took Ireland out from the shadow of Britain to a more independent place in Europe.

In the Central Bank, O’Connell oversaw Ireland’s transition to the euro in 2002. Because of his expertise, the government extended his term of office to lead that transition.

It was a huge and complex task. Completely new notes and coins had to be produced. In preparation, €129.4million in banknotes and €970million in coin had to be distributed. The circulation of two currencies – euro and Irish pound – had to be overseen for the first six weeks of 2002. Compounding complexity, the handover occurred just after the Christmas season, when currency demand peaks.

There was more to his years in the bank than the euro. Almost a decade before the crash of 2008 he expressed concerns at overheating of the economy, particularly the Dublin housing market. He was a founding governor of the European Central Bank. He oversaw the production of some fine banknotes, and the implementation of several significant pieces of legislation.

He had been a senior civil servant before appointment to the Central Bank – one of a generation who guided Ireland through opening the economy in the 1960s, joining the Common Market, and breaking the link with sterling in 1979.

Thus he brought to the role wide experience of financial matters and long-term planning, with an appreciation of political pressures. As a civil servant, he had worked mostly in the Department of Finance, rising to become second secretary in charge of its finance division.

He spent periods in the Department of Public Service and the Department of Economic Planning and Development. During his years in finance, he had been heavily involved in the defence of the Irish pound during the currency crisis of 1992-3, a director of the European Investment Bank, and Irish representative on the European Union Monetary Committee.

In retirement, he continued his public service. He was appointed to the Board of the Abbey Theatre and “An Bórd Snip Nua”(the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes) during the economic downturn in 2007. The Sports Council appointed him to examine the role of the Football Association of Ireland in the preparation and support of the Irish team at the 2002 World Cup.

A proud Kerryman

O’Connell was born in Moyvane, Co Kerry, in May 1936, the seventh of eight children and only son to Thomas O’Connell and his wife Mary (née McMahon). His parents were the principal teachers of the village’s two national schools. Even in childhood, his intelligence was obvious, and he regularly did the homework for some of his fellow pupils. Tragedy struck early, his father dying when he was seven.

After National School in Moyvane he attended St Michael’s College, Listowel, winning first place in Ireland in Intermediate Certificate Greek. He studied for the Leaving Certificate at St Brendan’s Seminary, Killarney (now St Brendan’s College). He then studied classics at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

Deciding against the priesthood, he graduated with a Master’s in Classics from University College Dublin. He taught in Dublin, and for a couple of years at the prestigious private International School in St Gallen, Switzerland.

Seeing the Civil Service as offering better prospects and pay, he sat and passed the examination to become an administrative officer.

Personally he was quiet and unassuming, with an ability to deal with people at all levels of society. A measure of the man is that he rejected suggestions he write a book recounting his inside knowledge of the major figures in Irish government over the past half century.

Through his years in Dublin he stayed a proud Kerryman, reputed to have never missed a Kerry game. Fittingly his final outing, a few days before his death, was to a dinner of Dublin’s Kerry Association, where he collapsed.

He is survived by his wife Marjorie, daughters Catherine and Marjorie, sons Thomas and Martin, and sisters Dymphna and Bess.