Peter Neary obituary: Most talented Irish economist of his generation

The Louth-born academic and UCD professor was a world authority on trade economics

The internationally-renowned Irish economist Peter Neary died following a short illness

The internationally-renowned Irish economist Peter Neary died following a short illness

 

James Peter Neary
Born: February 11th, 1950
Died: June 16th, 2021

The internationally-renowned Irish economist Peter Neary has died following a short illness. The emeritus professor of economics and fellow of Merton College at the University of Oxford and former professor of political economy at University College Dublin was a world authority on trade economics. He was widely regarded as the most talented and committed Irish academic economist of his generation.

Philip Lane, former governor of the Central Bank and current chief economist of the European Central Bank, said that Neary inspired him personally both on how to carry out high-level, globally-relevant research in Irish universities and how to develop the wider economics profession.

Neary had an astonishingly productive research record and was editor or associate editor of many prestigious international economic journals. It was often said that he published more papers in top economic journals than all other Irish economists put together. He was a fellow of the Centre for Economic Policy Research in London since the 1980s, an international research fellow of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany and a fellow of CESifo Research Network in Munich, Germany. He was also the only Irish president of the European Economic Association and one of only two Irish presidents of the Royal Economic Society.

Peter Neary is the Seamus Heaney of economics. He is our Roy Keane, our Bono

Throughout his illustrious career, he was a visiting scholar or professor at a number of universities throughout Europe and North America including Princeton and Berkeley in the United States; Kingston, Ontario, in Canada; and the École Polytechnique in Paris. His engaging conference lectures were appreciated in cities throughout Europe and in South Korea, Australia, Turkey and India.

His entry in the international edition of Who’s Who in 2002 and his Royal Irish Academy Gold Medal in social sciences in 2006 are just a sample of the many honours he was awarded in his stellar economics career.

Born the eldest of four children to Dr Peter and Anne Neary, James Peter Neary grew up first in Dundalk and then in Drogheda, Co Louth, where his father worked as a medical doctor. He was a quiet child and a voracious reader who showed no interest in sport. At Clongowes Wood College in Co Kildare, his contemporaries remember that the maths teachers were terrified of him as he knew more than they did. Following his secondary school education there, Neary studied at University College Dublin (UCD), graduating with a first-class honours in both his Bachelor of Arts in economics, politics and statistics in 1970 and his master’s degree in economics in 1971. His study notes were so meticulous that college friends still remember how valuable they were to borrow before exams.

He gained employment as a research assistant at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin straight from college and became the first in his generation to publish in a peer-reviewed journal. He applied his skills in econometrics to the development of a software package that was widely used in academia, research institutes and banks.

From 1972-1974, he was a junior lecturer at Trinity College Dublin. Following this, he went to Nuffield College at the University of Oxford to study for his PhD which was a systematic study of the international movement of capital in different sectors in the short and long term.

But it was his appointment as a full professor of political economy at UCD in 1980 at the age of 29 that was to be most influential. Former governor of the Central Bank Patrick Honohan, who had studied at UCD with him, said that Neary’s appointment as a professor at UCD was a key moment in the modernisation of economics teaching in Ireland. He joined the new generation of economists, including Paddy Geary, Colm McCarthy and Brendan Walsh, and stayed for 26 years.

“Peter pushed for the gold standard of teaching being underpinned by research carried out to the highest international standards and published in top journals,” said Honohan in a tribute on irisheconomy.ie.

The school of economics at UCD held a celebration of Neary’s contribution to economics in April 2021. At that online event, international research collaborators and friends from his student and lecturing days remembered his sharp intellect, infectious enthusiasm for economic research, insatiable curiosity, warmth, wit and charm. Cormac Ó Gráda, emeritus professor of economics at UCD, said that when Irish economists travelled to international conferences in the last 40 years, the first question they were always asked was if they knew Peter Neary. “Peter Neary is the Seamus Heaney of economics. He is our Roy Keane, our Bono,” he said.

Students at UCD remember him as a lecturer who was well prepared, good humoured and generous with his time and advice. And as a supervisor, he was known to be demanding and rigorous but never unreasonable.

Aside from his passion for economics, Neary enjoyed cooking, hiking and travelling with family and friends. In 1990 his 18-year marriage to Irish economist Frances Ruane – with whom he had two children, Philip and David – ended. He went on to spend the next 30 years with Mairéad Hanrahan, now professor of French at University College London. The couple have two adult children, Róisín and Eoin.

Although primarily a theorist, Neary became involved in economic policy decisions. For example, he publicly questioned the decision of the Irish government to adopt the euro, pointing out both the importance of Ireland’s trade with the UK and how a euro area monetary policy might be inappropriate for a single, small member state. More recently, he built a strong economic case against a hard Brexit.

At conferences, Neary made complex material accessible. His most cited paper, which he wrote with Max Corden in the 1982 Economic Journal, analysed how a sectoral boom could divert labour from elsewhere in the economy and result in deindustrialisation, as happened in the Netherlands after the discovery of North Sea oil and oil price rises of the 1970s. This paper changed economic policymakers’ understanding of how best to manage a resource boom.

During his 14 years lecturing and carrying out research at Oxford, he made many friends and impressed students and colleagues alike. In fact, some of his colleagues remarked on the knowledge they gained from attending seminars with him. He retired from his statutory chair in economics at Oxford University and his professorial fellowship at Merton College in September 2020. In June 2021 chancellor of the National University of Ireland, Dr Maurice Manning, conferred him with an honorary doctorate in economics at a virtual event.

Peter Neary is survived by his wife, Mairéad Hanrahan, his children, Philip and David Neary and Róisín and Eoin Hanrahan, and his granddaughter, Clara, his brothers, John and Paul, his sister, Sheila (Talini), and his mother, Anne.