A memoir recalling life of a lecturer and economist who made his home in the West

Pictured at the launch of “Memoir of an Irish Economist” were, from left: NUI Galway President, Dr Jim Browne; Editor Niamh O Dochartaigh; NUI Galway Emeritus Professor Gearóid O Tuathaigh; and Professor Alan Ahearne, Head of Economics at NUI Galway.

Memoirs are a dime a dozen in this varied world of modern print. Initially, many glitter in the glow of television lights, attract attention, and die a death of indifference on a lonely bookshelf – their purchase, the popular thing to do at the time. Not this one.

At first sight, the main title, “Memoir of an Irish Economist” might suggest a similar fate. If the truth is told, economists, even in the crazy world of ‘boom and bust’ are often seen as a bore. Their subject matter is for a parallel world, far removed from that of sport, music and the dail y scandal.

Yet the subtitle of this intriguing memoir, “Working Class Manchester to Irish Academia” makes us look again. This fine work, edited by Niamh Ó Dochartaigh, is different, as it tells a story of a world in reverse! Today, as millions flee their homelands from war or economic degradation, this book tells the story in reverse. Labhrás Ó Nualláin (1912-2000) was born Laurence Nolan in Manchester - the Gaelic version of his name gives a clue to why his story upsets the normal migration pattern of life itself. While thousands left Ireland to find work, any work, in Britain in the early part of the 20th century, a youthful Labhrás was already seeking to migrate back to the devastated Irish homeland of his parents to find more than his inner self.

He was born to Westmeath man Michael Nolan, a railway worker in Manchester as World War 1 was about to begin, while his mother, Johanna Hyde came from County Cork. The young Labhrás visited his twin Irish family homes at a very early age, on many holidays that can only be classed as sublime. The fresh air and nuances of rural Irish life, so different to those of industrial Manchester, were already sowing the seeds of change in a young, impressionable mind. They began very early, it seems, when he heard soldiers in 1917, while crossing on the ferry to Ireland, telling his father that ‘they were going across to fight the Irish”, and became more profound when his mother displayed the Irish tricolour instead of the Union Jack fluttering from every terraced red-bricked house in their street in Manchester on Armistice Day in November, 1918. There was something rather special in being Irish, and this memoir is fascinating in its detail of how Labhrás became ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’.

It traces his myriad of efforts in this regard, from buying a booklet, Teach Yourself Irish, while still at school to making full use of free public libraries to self-educate himself while he obtained initially mostly menial work jobs, which, like his father, tuned him to the benefits of socialism as well as stimulating a growing interest in Irish republicanism of the more benign kind. Joining the revised local branch of the Gaelic League, “Craobh Oisín”, was a major step, where the Irish language was taught. Here, he came in contact for the first time with teachers with an Irish background, while the Clarion Club introduced him to political and economic public discussions, while still only eighteen years of age.

Changing his name to Irish was a turning point, as was his pasing a Civil Service examination in Dublin in 1930 for the Clerical Officer grade, but he was not awarded one of the vacancies. The die was cast, however, and when he was successful in 1934, his uncle in Dublin sent him the £1 one-way ticket to Ireland – “he was going back to his own people”.

He initially gained employment in the Employment Exchange in Dublin, at £2 a week, and later in Sligo and Carrick-on-Shannon, where, in the former, he met and married Frances Hegarty in 1938, and started a family. During this period also, he sought to do a B. Comm. degree in UCD, and after six years in Sligo, he was transferred back to his old position in Dublin in 1940, and, eventually, in 1943, was one of the few awarded the Hons. B. Comm. degree in UCD. While at college during the World War years, he served his time for his new/old country by serving in its LDF battalion, as did Charles Haughey beside him.

After being awarded his well-earned degree, Labhrás was moved upwards to other branches of the Civil Service, at one time even confirming the travel expenses of Sean Lemass, before eventually being appointed to the post of Prices Inspector in 1945. However, the lure of further advancement in the academic line was still there, and he registered for the Master of Economic Science Degree at UCD and the BA at Trinity, gaining honours in each in 1945.

More success followed when he was appointed Secretary/Accountant at the Institute of Research in 1946, while also studying for the LLB. He eventually was appointed a full time researcher on the Mansion House Anti-Partition Research group, leading in 1949 to being asked to research the question of the financial relationship between Britain and the Northern Ireland governments, a work which was later published and widely acclaimed. At this time also, he had joined the new Clann na Poblachta party, ending up as joint-editor of its magazine, “Our Nation”, and befriending no less a person than Sean MacBride, Minister for External Affairs.

However, becoming a lecturer at University level always beckoned to Labhrás and when a vacancy for one in Economics, Commerce and Accountancy arose in 1953 in UCG, as it was then, he applied. This, of ocurse, is where his memoir becomes fascinating, as he first encountered the strange ways of college life and procedures, some dating back to the foundation of the college itself in 1848. He was eventually successful in his application, and, initially sad after spending thirteen years in Dublin, he and his family moved west to eventually find a peaceful home at Eagle Lodge in Barna. His new workplace was something else, however, as we read, with bated breath, his initial attempts to settle in to the intriguing life of the academic in college. From then, until he was appointed to the Chair of Economics in UCG in 1970, and to his final retirement in 1982, we learn much about the academic life in our University of the West. It makes fascinating reading.

While, obviously, fighting his own corner in his much varied academic career path, we learn also that Labhrás sought at all times t o upgrade, and bring into modern times, the whole area of his assigned subjects. Here also, he covers the muchdebated subject of lecturing through Irish or English, or both, as well as evening courses, as the college marched more confidently towards the future, thanks in no small measure to continuous efforts by him and other academics, as well as those of young, upcoming former graduates, whom he always encouraged. There is much more in this tome, as we learn also about his love of running in younger days, and cycling in older ones – he even cycled all over Northern Ireland when doing his research, which culminated in the publishing in 1953 of his work, “The Finances of Partition”, for which he received the Doctorate of Economic Science. His many travels, external lecturing in America and presenting welcome advice at national and international conferences are also covered - he even found time to enjoy a pint or two with Brendan Behan on the Aran Islands.

All of this, culminated eventually in official retirement, during which he travelled widely and continued to write learned papers. Swimming also was a favourite, and soon he was a member of the Blackrock Regulars, the winter swimmers, whom he joined in later life. I met him there, but I also was one of the lucky ones whom he taught in UCG back in the 1950s. My thanks ot Niamh Ó Dochartaigh, his daughter, for editing this life story of a gentle man in every respect.

Written by Peadar O’Dowd and printed in The Connacht Tribune on 30 October 2015