Ken Whitaker’s life paralleled the history of the modern Irish State in whose economic, financial, social, educational, political and cultural evolution he played a pivotal role.
From the Rising, the year of his birth, through the violent years of the War of Independence and Civil War, the faltering first steps as a nation state, the isolation of the second World War and postwar protectionism, the abandonment of the British commonwealth, the creation of the Republic, through the insularity and despondency of the 1950s to the optimism and growth of the 1960s, the traumatic years of violence in the 1970s and 1980s in Northern Ireland, the peace and prosperity of the late 1990s, followed by the recklessness and greed of the Celtic Tiger years of the new millennium, the loss of Ireland's financial sovereignty to a more recent period of economic rehabilitation, Whitaker's long life mirrored Ireland's journey.
Born on December 8th, 1916, in Rostrevor, Co Down, before subsequently moving to Drogheda, Co Louth, Whitaker could claim dual nationality of both the Republic and
, a fact that undoubtedly influenced his life-long commitment and significant contribution to the evolving relationship between the two political entities on this island.
His father, Edward Whitaker, worked for Forestbrook, a small linen mill in Rostrevor. In 1914, as a widower with a family of three daughters, following the death of his first wife, he married Jane O'Connor, a native of Coolmeen, Co Clare, who worked as a "Jubilee" nurse in Rostrevor. They had two children, Ken and his sister Peggie, who was born in 1918.
While his father, as Whitaker recalled, was to remain distanced by both years and authority from the young son of his second marriage, it was his mother who was the greater influence on his life. Jane Whitaker was the typical Irish mother, devoted to her home and family.
“Her nursing training had brought out all the independence of spirit you might expect. She was always the decision-maker in the family.”
Her ability, her character and the impact she made both in her home and in her locality fashioned Whitaker’s belief in and later support for female equality in the workplace, on the various boards he chaired and in relation to the thorny issue of equality of membership in his golf club.
His mother’s prudent administration of the family’s household budget also instilled in her son a similar prudence in respect of the national finances later entrusted to his care. The spending power of the ordinary family in Ireland in the 1920s was constrained both by means and by the availability of goods. Good housekeeping involved thrifty purchasing and expenditure and minimum waste, all enshrined in the credo of living within one’s means.
“That was the environment and thinking that I grew up in,” he recalled. “There was no extravagance; money was always put aside for the rainy day, while indebtedness was considered a failing.”
At six years of age, a decline in the flax industry in the postwar slump resulted in the family’s move to the busy town of Drogheda, where his father found employment in the Greenmount and Boyne cotton mill.
The family home, Paradise Cottage, a house in a quiet cul-de-sac, was, as Whitaker often noted with a twinkle, “the nearest I may ever get to heaven”. In the middle of the Civil War, from his bedroom window he witnessed a fleeing IRA irregular, “a wild-eyed terrified man with a revolver in his hand”, running for his life, pursued by Free State soldiers, a memory that remained to reinforce his adult aversion to violence as a means to achieving political ends.
Whitaker remembered growing up in Drogheda as being “an interesting, memorable at times magical experience”. Reminders of the town’s historic past were everywhere – the medieval Millmount Tower, the scene of Cromwell’s massacre in 1649, St Laurence Gate, the ancient Tholsel, St Peter’s Church with the preserved head of St Oliver Plunkett, while on the outskirts lay the site of the Battle of the Boyne, the prehistoric monuments of the Boyne valley, dominated by the hills of Tara and Slane, and the abbeys of Monasterboice and Mellifont.
Childhood pastimes were determined by the seasons, spinning tops in early spring, marbles played along the kerb in Fair Street, fishing and swimming in the invigorating waters of the Boyne in summer, shooting rabbits near the antique ruins of Dowth and, as Whitaker admitted, “an early delinquency, the optimistic placing of half-pennies on the track of the Navan railway line to have them converted into pennies!”
The foundations of his adult interests – salmon fishing and the Irish language – were also formed during his boyhood years in Drogheda and later in Rannafast in the Donegal Gaeltacht, as well as his prowess at the piano and his love of singing and of classical music, especially Bach.
Independence and integrity
Whitaker contributed his early scholastic ability to some enlightened teachers at the local CBS in Drogheda, including the mathematician and English teacher Brother
James Marcellus Burke
and Peader McCann, revolutionary and scholar, “a man of principle, independence of judgment and absolute integrity”, traits he imparted to his star pupil, as well as a love of the Irish and French languages.
Though Whitaker excelled as a student, in 1930s Ireland career choices were determined by means rather than by ability. Most of Whitaker’s schoolmates were forced from financial necessity to leave school before sitting their Leaving Certificate.
He attained top marks in all his subjects in the examination in 1934, but when it came to third-level education, as he recalled, “there were no points required, only cash”. His hope was to pursue a medical career but his father’s pension could not encompass the expense of sending him to college.
While Irish universities and the medical profession were denied the talent of an aspiring medical student, their loss was to be the country’s gain.