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In 2002, the retired Irish Civil servant, T.K. Whitaker, was voted ‘Irishman of the 20th Century’. It may seem surprising to those have not studied Irish history that a civil servant should win a public vote of this type. For those who have studied the subject, especially from the 1950s onwards, the award makes perfect sense. 

Thomas Kenneth Whitaker (1916 – 2017) at the launch of the Whitaker Institute for Innovation and Societal Change at NUI Galway in 2012.  Courtesy of the Whitaker Institute
Thomas Kenneth Whitaker (1916 – 2017) at the launch of the Whitaker Institute for Innovation and Societal Change at NUI Galway in 2012. Courtesy of the Whitaker Institute

 There is also a local connection as Thomas Kenneth (Ken) Whitaker was born on 8th December 1916, in Rostrevor in county Down. His father, Edward moved to Rostrevor in about 1897 and resided at 1 Glenview Terrace (where the Kilbroney Park Café is today) in the village with his wife Maria Josephine. The 1901 census records his occupation as a Commercial Clerk, and at that time he had three daughters. 

Postcard showing the village of Rostrevor in the early years of the 20th century. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Postcard showing the village of Rostrevor in the early years of the 20th century. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Edward was involved in village life and was a member of The Rostrevor Lighting and Sanitary Committee acting as the secretary for several years. In 1908 he was one the founding members of the St Vincent De Paul in Rostrevor. In 1910 Edward resigned as secretary of the Rostrevor Lighting and Sanitary Committee as his wife was ill, although he remained a member of the committee. He was highly praised for the vast amount of work he had done as secretary. His wife, Maria Josephine, died in January 1911 at the age of 44. 

Edward married T.K. Whitaker’s mother, Jane O'Connor, in about 1914. She originally came from Coolmeen in county Clare and came to Rostrevor in 1906 as a district nurse. She was well known and liked throughout the area. At the annual meeting on the work of The Rostrevor Parish Nurse, Doctor Vesey, the local G.P., spoke of how skilful and kindly Nurse O'Connor was and how she was of great assistance to him.

The Whitakers continued to live at 1 Glenview Terrace until the family moved to Drogheda, county Louth when their son, Thomas Kenneth, was six. He entered the Civil Service after completing his Leaving Certificate with honours from the local Christian Brothers’ School. He joined the civil service after taking first place in the clerical officer examination.

The Christian Brothers’ School on Upper Magdalene Street, Drogheda, where T.K. Whitaker attained honours in his Leaving Certificate. © Government of Ireland
The Christian Brothers’ School on Upper Magdalene Street, Drogheda, where T.K. Whitaker attained honours in his Leaving Certificate. © Government of Ireland

T. K. Whitaker’s first posting was to the Irish Civil Service Commission, but he was promoted rapidly up the ranks, usually winning first place in examinations. After just four years, he was promoted to junior administrative officer. When the post of secretary in the Department of Finance became vacant in 1956 Whitaker was appointed to the position at the age of 39, making him the youngest person to have held this post. 

In the second part of this article we will explore how his appointment came at a critical juncture for the Irish state.

Newry and Mourne Museum would like to thank Hilary McGrath and also Angela Sice of the Whitaker Institute for providing source material and images for this article.

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

by Declan Carroll

TK Whitaker: His Life and Times. Drogheda - Author: Ted Greene. ISBN 978-0-9554518-2-9

Architect of the economic reforms that set Ireland on the path to a prosperous future, TK Whitaker was voted Irishman of the 20 Century in 2001.

Read about his life in this heartfelt book (£15/€15) which also explores the times this extraordinary gentleman strove to improve life for everyone. Contact Ted Greene at tedgreene29@gmail.com for more information.

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