James J. MacElligott (1893-1974), civil-servant; was born in Tralee, Co. Kerry on 26 July 1893. One of five sons of Edmund John McElligott, a shopkeeper, and his wife, Catherine Slattery. He attended Father Buckley’s school in Tralee, and went on to graduate with a honours BA degree in classics from UCD in 1913. He and two of his brothers made their way into the civil service. In entered the civil service in 1913 as a first division clerk and was assigned to the Local Government Board. He joined the Irish Volunteers in the same year, and in 1916, he joined the Easter Rising as private. He fought in the General Post Office and was jailed for his part in the insurrection. Consequently he lost his job in the civil service. Upon his release from Stafford Jail in England he completed a postgraduate degree in economics at UCD and took up financial journalism. In March 1919 he was employed by a respected British journal the Statist. He became acting editor of the journal in July 1920 and two years later became managing editor. After nine months as managing editor he resigned to take up an important position in Ireland. McElligott was a natural choice when the new Department of Finance was being organised. He had gained much experience whilst at the Statist and in 1920 had written his MA thesis on ‘Manufacturing Industries in Ireland in the Period 1760 to 1820’. In 1923 it was no surprise when McElligott was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Department of Finance.
In the 1920s and 1930s banking developments were largely conditioned by the operation of the Irish Banks Standing Committee. Early contacts between the Committee and the Department of Finance were abrasive. At a meeting in 1923 members of the committee questioned the ability of Joseph Brennan (Secretary) and his Assistant Secretary, McElligott, wondering ‘if the two young gentlemen who waited on them spoke with authority.’ The banks initially hesitated underwriting government loans without a British Treasury guarantee, a politically insensitive demand they later stopped insisting upon. In any case the government managed to raise the required £10 million without much assistance from the banks. After Brennan left the Department in 1927 to work for the Currency Commission, the burden of negotiating the government’s case fell on McElligott who was promoted to Secretary and remained in this office until 1953. In February 1927, he married Ann Gertrude, daughter of Denis Fay, a cattle salesman of Edenderry. They had one daughter.
McElligott shared with Brennan a reputation for tenacious pursuit of economy and efficiency in the administration of the public finances. In the immediate aftermath of the civil war, the first national loan for £10 million (a sum equivalent to several hundred million euro today) was oversubscribed. Annual budget expenditure had been lowered by the end of the 1920s to just £25 million. Like Brennan, McElligott faced harsh economic reality as Secretary of Finance. State expenditure had to be reduced after the disaster of civil war. Industrial development on economic lines was virtually impossible and agricultural production was steadily declining. One of the first steps taken by McElligott as Secretary was to stress to heads of all Departments that extravagance could not be afforded. He was conservative in outlook and adhered strictly to the principle of reducing public expenditure and taxation, moderated by recognition of the need for major productive developments such as the ESB.
One of Michael Collins’ last acts as Chairman of the Provisional Government was to issue an important memo to all departments concerning the position of the Department of Finance. As was the case in the British state, the permission of the Department of Finance was required before the Cabinet could approve any proposal which required spending. The Taoiseach could override this rule when he thought it proper. For the most part this practice was followed by all governments up until the 1960’s. This naturally gave the Department of Finance great power over the total business of government, a power which its long serving Secretary McElligott was keen to use.
He studied a late draft of the 1937 constitution and returned his comments on 10 April, 1937 to the Department of the President. He had some unpopular things to say to de Valera on the matter of the constitution’s definition of ‘the nation.’ He was particularly opposed to the claim in the draft constitution that Northern Ireland was part of the so called national territory. McElligott also took issue with the name of the state under the draft constitution, that is to say the name ’Éire. He had both financial and practical difficulties with the name change from Irish Free State to ’Éire. Beginning with the cost that a name change would mean for state papers, coinage etc. He argued in general terms that:
‘The adoption of the name of Éire though quite justifiable from a traditional and scholarly points of view, may from a realistic point of view be a mistake. This land is generally known internationally as Ireland or one of the derivatives of that name, and so there will probably be a period of confusion and misunderstanding before the unaccustomed name conveys a definite meaning to educated people throughout the world.’
Though McElligott’s advice to the civil servants working on the draft constitution was clear, concise and practical, the majority of his ideas were rejected by de Valera.
The 1952 budget was McElligott’s last as the Secretary of Department of Finance. His long term as Secretary of Finance ended in 1953 when he was succeeded by Owen Redmond, followed shortly by Kenneth Whitaker in 1956. McElligott was a product of the civil service and was described by Whitaker as ‘possessing the wisdom of a serpent and the mildness of a dove’. His cautiousness and manner were highly irritating to others. O’Gráda depicted him as the ‘Dr. No’ of Irish economic policy. He held tenaciously to the view that government intervention was more likely to do more harm than good to economic development. When Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932, McElligott and other laissez-faire fanatics found themselves defending their views and ceding ground to the promoters of Interventionist policies. McElligott, however, retained his belief that government should spend as little as possible, keep taxation low and rely on the unhampered flow of the market to ensure maximum profits for farmers and businessmen.
Joseph Brennan resigned as Governor of the Central Bank in 1953 as his relationship with the government was deteriorating. The knock-on effect of this was significant. McElligott replaced Brennan and the important administrative position McElligott occupied for twenty-six years was vacant. The Cabinet had no particular agenda to replace McElligott with a different type of official, they simply promoted the next in line, Owen Redmond.
There is no question about the powerful position McElligott held in Irish economic circles from 1927 to 1953. Not only did he command a powerful position but he also had the respect and support of most officials in the Department of Finance and the banking community. He arguably emerges in a better light when set against the growth of public spending and debt that followed his departure. He was a member of all the important economic and financial commissions of his time, including the Tariff Commission (chairman) and the commissions on Banking of 1926 and 1934-8. He was President of the Institute of Bankers 1956 and first president of the Economic Research Institute (now ESRI). McElligott received an LL D [Doctor of Laws] from the National University of Ireland (NUI) in 1946.
He retired from the governorship of the Central Bank in 1960 but continued to serve as a director. McElligott died suddenly at his home, Oak Lodge, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, on 23 January, 1974. He was buried at dean’s Grange cemetery, Co. Dublin, on 26 January, having served his country for more than sixty years.
Writings, biography & studies. J. J. McElligott, ‘Irish coinage: past and present’, in Brian Talbot Cleeve (ed) W. B. Yeats and the designing of Ireland’s coinage (Dublin & New York 1972). Louis McRedmond, Modern Irish lives: dictionary of 20th-century biography (Dublin 1998).
John Paul McCarthy & Tomás O'Riordan