Ken Whitaker stands as one of the makers of modern Ireland, whose story was told in ‘Portrait of a Patriot’ that was published in 2014. That story comes to Clare in many ways wrote Joe Ó Muircheartaigh at the time, chief among them being the influence that his mother Jane O’Connor from Labasheeda/Coolmeen had in shaping an outlook that Whitaker brought to bear in his outstanding contribution to public service that made him the worthy ‘Irishman of the Twentieth Century’.
All in the service of the State
IT’S a Thursday afternoon in The Clare People office and the burning question was whether it’s Labasheeda or Coolmeen. It doesn’t really matter which it is, but at the same time it does, given that parish rivalries are always at their hottest around border areas.
It’s a GAA thing I suppose, but you could say it’s a political thing too with both parishes laying claim to a piece of the story that shaped one of the great heroes of 20th century Ireland.
The place is Ballygeery East and cross-referencing this rural West Clare townland with the 1901 Census of Population claims it for Coolmeen, but up steps Clare People work experience student Gearóid Kenny to call it Labasheeda.
Let’s just say that it’s a corner of Clare where allegiances can cut both ways.
It’s where Gearóid Kenny lives and was born into, while it’s the same house in which Jane O’Connor was born 135 years ago – the two families brought together serendipitously on Thursday afternoon as both Gearóid Kenny and Anne Chambers explained within minutes of each other.
“Jane O’Connor was Ken Whitaker’s mother and we’ve met the great man,” says Kenny, just after Chambers has talked about writing Ken Whitaker’s story – the biography of the man voted ‘Irishman of the Twentieth Century’ in 2001 as befitting his status as one of the makers and shapers of modern Ireland.
Born in 1916 just after the earliest foundations of the state had been laid with the Easter Rising and now in his 98th year, Whitaker is recognised as one of the key figures who dragged that state towards modernity, prosperity and real independence from the late 1950s and beyond.
All the while with that corner of Coolmeen/Labasheeda in West Clare as one of his own foundation stones, through summer holidays and much more.
“‘We enjoyed all the new experiences – the ride by sidecar from Ennis Station, watching cows being milked, feeding the calves, taking a dreas (turn) at the churn, driving the donkey and cart to Coolmeen, fetching water from the pump, searching under the hedges for hens’ eggs, eating cherries from the orchard in front of the house, even helping with the hay-making’.
“And for Ken there was also the daily swim with his father in the Puffin Hole at Kilkee and fishing in the Cloon River with his Uncle Jacko. His grandmother, by now over forty years a widow, lived in ‘a long, thatched pink cottage festooned with sweet briar in Kilmurrymacmahon, with a view to the right of the door of Clonderlaw Bay, which I remember long before the ESB chimneys went up in Tarbert’.”
Whitaker’s mother was the daughter of a blacksmith/farmer, one of 11 children born to William and Mary O’Connor in Ballygeery East. Along with her sister Minnie, Jane became a member of the pioneering ‘Queen Victoria Jubilee Institute of Nurses’ – known as Jubilee Nurses – whose contribution to rural life and the health service spanned nearly 90 years.
Established in England to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887, this earliest example of the public health nurse system was rolled out to Ireland a decade later with the O’Connor sisters getting their training in Manchester before returning to Ireland to take up employment.
“Everything goes back in everyone’s life to how you were brought up,” says Anne Chambers in ‘Portrait of a Patriot’. “Ken Whitaker is no different in this and his mother really had the greatest influence on him.
“It was his mother’s character and the impact that she made on him – both in her home and in her public life fashioned Ken’s own belief, his own belief in how he pursued his economic policy.
“Take the spending power of the ordinary Irish family in the 1920s was very much constrained by means and by the availability of goods. He said himself, ‘making do was the only way’.
“There was no extravagance, money was always put aside for the rainy day, while indebtedness was considered a failing. These are the things that shaped Ken Whitaker – what his mother did for his household budget, it could be fair to say that Ken applied that to the national economy when became Secretary to the Department of Finance and later Governor of the Central Bank,” she adds.
“Her nursing training had brought out all the independence of spirit you might expect. She was always the decision maker in the family…..developed in me a sense of public service, at any rate I never considered becoming a millionaire. I wanted something else, something that would give me personal satisfaction and be of some social benefit.”
Kay O’Connor became a ‘Jubilee Nurse’ in Rostrevor in County Down, while her sister Minnie came back to Clare and worked in Lahinch and later became attached to the practice of Dr Michael Hillery in Miltown Malbay, which years later provided another link to the Ken Whitaker story.
Dr Michael Hillery’s son, future President of Ireland, Dr Patrick Hillery was elected to Dáil Éireann in 1951 and subsequently became a member of a new wave of TDs born after independence who was elevated to the cabinet table by Sean Lemass when he became Taoiseach in 1959.
By then Whitaker, as Secretary of the Department of Finance had already gone to work, being the driving force behind a government White Paper that became known as the First Programme for Economic Expansion in 1958, subsequently working closely with Lemass, Hillery in government and outside it with pioneers lie Brendan O’Regan in shaping a different Ireland – you could call it an industrial revolution with the advent of initiatives such as the industrial free zone in Shannon and the establishment of SFADCO.
“It was a turning point for Ireland,” says Mary Chambers, “and Ken Whitaker was responsible for that. Although it had got its independence from England it was lurching on under a policy of protectionism that really by the 1950s had lost any relevance in view of the abject economic prospects and the air of despondency that affected the entire country.
“You’re talking about 60,000 having emigrated in 1957, unemployment was at its highest and agriculture was looked upon as being in a pre-historic state with output less than half of other European countries.
“Industrial production was lagging way behind. Irish companies were sheltering behind tariffs and subsidies and producing goods for which there was no export market.
“The general perception of the country was, despite the struggle for independence, that it had failed miserably to live up to expectation.
“Ken Whitaker – to get the ball roll and I don’t know of any other public servant that would have the temerity to do it – wrote to his minister which was passed on to Lemass and said to them that the country was in such an abject state that ‘we might as well go back and ask for re-admission to the UK’.
“That must surely have ruffled Republican figures in the Fianna Fáil administration at the time. Lemass knew that he was right – for the first time ever a policy to shape the economic development of the country from then on was produced by a crowd of characters in the Department of Finance who were never asked to do it in the first place. It put this country on a new economic pathway,” she adds.
The benefits of that change are still being felt today, while another great crusade of Whitaker’s life became Northern Ireland, as one of the shapers of Irish government policy before and during the Troubles.
It was Whitaker who accompanied Taoiseach Sean Lemass to Stormont in 1965 for his historic meeting with Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Capt Terence O’Neill in 1965, while he also worked very closely with Dr Paddy Hillery in his dealings with the North.
“The Dublin government decided to place a motion before the United Nations Security Council, requesting a UN peacekeeping force to contain the situation in the North. Despite British opposition, the minister for external affairs, Paddy Hillery, was subsequently permitted to address the Security Council.
“While attending a meeting of the IMF in Washington, Ken hurried to New York to make amendments to a speech to be delivered to the UN Assembly, the tone of which he considered to be too abrasive and which he had received from the Taoiseach to alter.
“Ken tracked down Hillery to a club off Fifth Avenue, where he was taking a swim before delivering his speech, in time to make the necessary amendments.”
“That was Ken and the way he worked,” says Anne Chambers, “behind the scenes for 30 years playing a huge and little known part in the movement towards peace in Northern Ireland.”
Ken Whitaker will celebrate his 98th birthday on December 8 next and in reference to his longevity jokes “one should choose one’s mother wisely”.
Jane O’Connor from Ballygeery East lived 100 years before passing away in 1979, with her son whom she influenced so much now closing in on his 100th year as the country prepares to celebrate the birth of the nation he did so much to create.
“T.K Whitaker’s life story is a model of excellence, integrity and public duty,” says the dust jacket of ‘Portrait of a Patriot’.
When Whitaker himself tells you that those words could have been penned for his mother as much as himself show how much the woman from Ballygerry East influenced him throughout his public life.