George O’Brien - a Biographical Memoir. James Meenan. Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1980. pp 1X+218.
This review was written in August 2003
This review was written in August 2003
George O’Brien was the only son of Richard O’Brien by his second marriage. Richard O’Brien was the founder and owner of the Wicklow Hotel towards the turn of the nineteenth century. It became a well-known hostelry in Dublin and proved a successful commercial venture. George was never interested in the hotel business and initially trained as a barrister. His career in law started promisingly but failed early because of his inability to cope with the stresses of a legal life. He became Professor of National Economics in University College, Dublin from 1926 to his retirement in 1961. He was a well known figure in the professional, academic and political life of Dublin from the foundation of the state in 1922 to his retirement from his chair in 1961 and his death in 1973.
|The former Wicklow Hotel|
The book is interesting to read for those of us who lived and remembered Dublin and UCD during the 30s, 40s and later years. It was a small world, at least in terms of the coterie of intellectuals, academics, professional and business people who frequented the Arts Club, the Bailey, Jammets, the Unicorn and the few prestigious tennis, golf and sailing clubs in the city and county. The Protestant and the emerging Catholic middle class were gradually merging and living in Donnybrook, Ballsbridge and the outer southern suburbs, and, with time and common interests and the break with the British administration, the wide denominational divide became more and more blurred. The social, political and cultural after-effects of the civil war were still palpable, particularly to one of my generation and background, but despite the bitter divisions which existed and which lasted for much of the following years following the war, a certain buoyancy and optimism emerges when one reads about the friendships and the new freedom of those among the new intelligentsia in the universities and the young state.
|2nd from left as cox of Maiden Four in UCD|
|UCD, Earlsford Tce. during my time there.|
O’Brien was pragmatic in his concepts of economics and he was little impressed by those who held rigid theories on the subject. His concept of economics fused imperceptibly into the regions of politics, social life and human affairs. He had a practical outlook on economics and on life in general, which included an appreciation of the Victorian virtues of a self-made man.
O’Brien had a tendency to depression and suffered a few serious breakdowns during his lifetime. He was unduly sensitive about people’s perception of him and this led to many unhappy moments and to numerous squabbles. However, his great accomplishments as a writer, a patriot and a teacher endeared him to many people and ensured that he had many friends and loyal admirers, and junior colleagues who appreciated his genial personality and his many contributions to the university and the country.
O’Brien as a professor believed that he was a teacher, not a research worker in a laboratory nor was he necessarily a deep original scholar. I often wonder whether the modern professor of medicine or surgery is not too often concerned with research rather than teaching and good communication with staff and patients. O’Brien was not inclined to worship gross economic growth and he distrusted planning and economic programmes. He believed the function of economics was to use limited resources efficiently in a society where personal initiative was encouraged and where success depends on the character of the people. It was also interesting to read that, because of interests well beyond economics, he was asked by Methuen to write a history of Ireland since the Union. He refused this commission and this book was subsequently written by P.S. O’Hegarty (a book which I think is an important source of our history from the Act of Union to the founding of the Free State. I have a copy in my father’s library. I bought a second copy about four years ago in Greene’s for £40. P.S. was a nationalist, a protestant and civil servant who was opposed to violence. He was a revisionist in relation to 1916 and the War of Independence. He thought it unnecessary in achieving independence and he deplored its effect in leading to the civil war. He might have been correct in his view but, as my father records in his memoirs, the war was inevitable because of British intransigence and harassment of the Sinn Fein deputies and supporters after the 1918 election).
O’Brien believed that economic growth had to be seen against limited resources and he was critical about the phantom of plenty -- a reminder of George Bush’s political philosophy and his obsession that the necessity of improving the standard of living of the American people took precedence over such vital considerations as the environment and the population explosion.
Speaking of the Inter-Party government, O’Brien was not opposed to the rescinding of the External Relations Act but he deplored Costello’s decision to leave the Commonwealth. These were also my father’s views if one is to judge by his policy statement when he was elected president of Fine Gael in 1944. Unfortunately my father did not protest about the decision and he was at fault in this regard. He probably did not wish to rock the boat and was anxious to maintain the new government at all costs against Fianna Fail. As noted by me previously in my memoirs, Dad always showed a strict Victorian sense of loyalty to his superiors. In this case it was Costello. It would prevent his raising the matter. He drove down to Cobh with Paddy Lynch, one of Costello’s close advisors, to meet Costello on his return to Ireland from Canada where he made his declaration. According to Lynch, his only comment about the decision to leave the Commonwealth was to say jocosely that Costello must have had a drink before he made his statement!
I believe my father’s intervention might have lead to a reversal of Costello’s decision without upsetting his colleagues or the opposition, but I am afraid that by this time, Dad, buried as he was down in the Department of Education in Marlborough Street, had lost the initiative to influence policy. O’Brien, in the Senate, questioned the implication of the declaration in terms of Irish and British relations, but surprisingly neither he nor any other supporter of the Fine Gael party opposed the decision. O’Brien, in his later reflections of his life, remarked that Ireland was in a unique position of influence in the world because of the great dispersion of Irish graduates to many other countries and the unique meeting of two great traditions here, the Roman Church and British democracy.
Meenan succeeded O’Brien as Professor of Economics at UCD. He
was the eldest of Prof. James Meenan’s four children. Prof. James
Meenan held the chair of medicine in UCD and St. Vincent’s Hospital. It was his
sudden and unexpected death in January 1951 that created the vacancy at the
hospital which I succeeded to. His three other children became doctors, two of
whom, Paddy and Charlie, were later to join the staff of St. Vincent’s where
they gave long and distinguished service to the hospital.
|Self in 1941as a student in UCD|
|28 Fitzwilliam square, a very familiar door|