One wintry morning in February 1970, three men stood in the gap-roofed shell of Plassey House on the outskirts of Limerick and entered into an unspoken conspiracy. Two of them were civil servants and they decided to buy, for the State, 72 acres and a ruined house for what the third intended would be a university, despite the government's decision that the proposed institute would not have university status.
One was Ed Walsh, the newly appointed director of the National Institute of Higher Education, Limerick; the second was state architect Oscar Richardson; and the third was Noel Lindsay, an official of the building unit of the Department of Education, who died recently aged 89.
The facts those three men established on the ground, and Walsh’s doggedness, wore down the hostility of the establishment and today the restored Plassey House stands at the centre of a verdant 340-acre university campus with 11,000 students, straddling the Limerick-Clare border.
Lindsay went on to extend his influence far beyond the banks of the river Shannon. He led the Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority (HEA). On the international stage he worked at the World Bank, planning and implementing educational projects for developing countries.
An affable and optimistic man, his preference was for what could be done, rather than what should be opposed. There was opposition to the Limerick project within the Department of Education, but the support of far-sighted colleagues including Seán O’Connor and Finbarr O’Callaghan, ensured that Walsh’s vision prevailed.
‘Compassion and social conscience’
Lindsay placed education at the heart of development. He believed that Patrick Hillery's influence as minister for education in the 1960s was more significant than that of Donogh O'Malley although he introduced free secondary education. What Hillery had begun was the education sector's response to the Lemass-Whitaker economic reforms. Lindsay was a leader among those who took up the challenge by focusing on providing education and training for an industrialising society. The citation for his honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick states that "his interest in targeted initiatives in such areas as access for students with disadvantaged backgrounds, those facing challenges and mature students, demonstrates a compassion and social conscience that, in his view, is at the heart of an ethically responsible system of education". He was also honoured by the Dublin Institute of Technology.
Lindsay later noted that the sewing “sweatshops” which had traditionally relied for cheap labour on young girls leaving school as young as 12 had vanished as educational opportunities became available.
He married Helena Mullally in 1954. After a brief stint at the Revenue Commissioners in the 1950s, he worked in the Department of Education throughout the 1960s, gaining hands-on experience restructuring the secondary, technical, and higher education sectors. There were considerable capital costs involved in building new schools, regional technical colleges, and so on, and he became expert in delivering major projects in a cost-effective manner. His expertise in cost planning and control systems led to his role as deputy chairman of the OECD's education building steering committee.
In 1974 Lindsay was seconded to the World Bank in Washington. He was appointed planner and later education division chief for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. This took in the Middle East and Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey. Yemen and the Lebanon were among the countries in which he took a particular interest.
On his return to Dublin in 1980, Lindsay had a strong input into the White Paper on Education (1982). He emphasised the need for equality of access in the second- and third- level systems.
In 1984, Lindsay returned to the World Bank, but not without Marlborough Street putting up a struggle. Education minister Gemma Hussey noted in her Cabinet diaries: "Noel Lindsay has re-applied to work for the World Bank for an extended period – I'll have to try to change his mind." But he went anyway.
He returned to Ireland in 1988 and, shortly after, was appointed assistant secretary, and for a while became secretary (now secretary general) of the Department of Education, in time to see the Limerick institute gain university status in 1989. He worked closely with ministers Mary O'Rourke, Noel Davern and Séamus Brennan.
In 1993 he was appointed chairman of the HEA and led it for the next five years. Innovations included putting research funding on a new footing, developing adult and life-long learning initiatives, improving access and retention, and introducing quality-assurance measures.
Christopher Noel Lindsay, always known as Noel, was one of 12 children. The family lived in Ranelagh in Dublin. He attended Synge Street Christian Brothers secondary school and Trinity College Dublin where he studied economics.
He is survived by his wife Helena, son Derek and daughter Susan, and by his brothers Colm and Augustan.