Denis Conniffe, RIP

For those who haven’t heard the sad news, Denis died on January 20. He worked for many years in the ESRI and then, in his ‘retirement’, in NUI Maynooth and UCD. He was a brilliant statistician and a real giant of the Irish Economics world. He was always generous in sharing his knowledge with colleagues, particularly the PhD students with whom he worked. He was also encyclopaedic on local and military history, and an avid hill-walker. He will be greatly missed.

26 thoughts on “Denis Conniffe, RIP”

  1. Thank you for this Aedin.

    Denis’s removal will take place today, Saturday afternoon, from St. Vincent’s Mortuary to the Church of St. Thérèse, Mount Merrion, arriving at 4pm. The funeral will take place on Monday, after 10am Mass, to Mount Jerome Crematorium, Harold’s Cross. Family flowers only, please.

    I would like to echo Aedin’s comments about Denis.

    Denis was indeed a towering figure in Irish economics. He was an economist and statistician of the highest international standing, publishing extensively in leading international economics and statistics journals. But, as Aedin noted, his talents extended far beyond these technical areas.

    Those of us who were privileged enough to attend Denis’s talk on Edgeworth at last year’s IEA conference in Belfast got to see the full package of technical expertise, historical knowledge and witty observation that only Denis could provide.

    Denis will be remembered with deep affection by everyone who ever worked with him. He was an outstanding colleague: Always happy to help out with technical problems or to act as a sounding board and a constant font of entertaining stories and knowledge. He will be deeply missed.

  2. I would like to add to these tributes to Denis. I remember his kindness to me (and others) when I was a young Research Assistant at the ESRI and more recently his decency as a colleague at UCD. He was very generous with his time if you approached him for advice. Most colleagues will discuss a problem with you, give you advice and maybe suggest a reference. Denis would do all this, and then a few days later would come back to you with a detailed, often hand-written, solution to your problem, plus a few more insights along the way.

    He was probably unique in being President of both the Irish Economics Association and the Irish Statistics Association. My guess is he also would have been a great President of the Irish Local History Association (if such a body exists) such was his range of knowledge in this area.

    He truly was an outstanding figure amongst Irish academics and also a very nice man. My sincere sympathies to his family.

  3. I too have fond memories of Denis’ kindness and generosity from my time as an RA at the ESRI in the early 1980s. A true gentleman and scholar. My condolences to his family.

  4. He was very kind with his time to the current crop of UCD Ph.D. students and we will miss him greatly. He was the kind of gentleman scholar I would like to be someday.

  5. In the short time I knew him, it was obvious Denis was a lovely guy and well-respected by all. Prayers for him and his family.

  6. Sincere sympathies to Denis’ family and friends. He was extremely kind to me when I returned from the US, and I won’t forget that. I always enjoyed talking with him at IEA meetings, for years we tried to get him down to UL to give a seminar. All the best, Denis.

  7. I would like to join in these tribute to Denis, whom I knew and worked with since our days in the ESRI in the 1970s.
    He was a great store of knowledge on economics, econometrics, statistics, Napoleon, and Irish local history. He traveled Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s exploits and there was no part of Ireland on whose history he could not shed light. At the Irish Economic Association meetings in various parts of (the hidden) Ireland he always planned an educational local tour on the Saturday afternoon.
    He combined his interest in economics, statistics and local history in a recent essay on F Y Edgeworth in History Ireland, which Peter Neary tells me sparked a successful hunt to locate the great man’s grave in Oxford.
    Over the last year I personally benefited from long lunches with him over which he tried to set me straight on some econometric issues that I needed to come grips with for a paper I was writing.
    He could be mischievously witty in his discussion of the internal politics of the various institutions he worked for and indeed of the Royal Irish Academy, to which he was deeply committed.
    I recall him reviewing his own work and mulling over the relative importance of very theoretical econometric articles and more mundane work on applied Irish economic topics.
    He was always ready to apply his talents to problems that others perceived as important and to help them with their work, regardless of its relevance to his own interest.
    He was conscious of his ‘good fortune’ in surviving the initial diagnosis and treatment of his illness and would cheerfully point out that he had enjoyed some good bonus years. Unfortunately his luck ran out quickly and we are all the poorer for his passing.

  8. Denis was great to work with and an exceptional colleague. He was very generous with his time and insights. He went above and beyond to help you. My sincere sympathies to his family.

  9. Denis’s deep understanding of statistics along with experience of applied economics (& economists) as well as other fields gave him a perspective which is often lacking in the business. His research, rather like Roy Geary, is distinguished by both its breadth and its depth. As noted by others, he was also very kind and, in his own way, very funny.

  10. I share with others many memories of Denis. As a scholar he was driven by intellectual curiosity, which was reflected in everything he did and how he interacted with colleagues and students. We all mourn his passing, both professionally and personally, while celebrating his many contributions and his wonderful company.
    To know Denis was to appreciate his interest in history – and the lecture on Edgeworth last year was yet another reflection of this. He wanted important things to be remembered, and showed great personal commitment to this.
    In today’s world, the web is often our first point of inquiry. As a legacy to Denis, and to his values, would it not be timely for the Irish Economic Association to develop its website to include biographical details on Irish economists when they pass away? Today, if you google Denis, you get straight to the NUIM website, which provides an outline of his career, his reserach interests and his publications. There is also an alumnus page on the ESRI website which currently links to the NUIM site. It would seem to me to be timely to edit these details and move them in due course to the IEA website where they would remain on record.

  11. The legacy of an academic isn’t in the length of his CV, its in the passion he shares with others. Denis was a very smart and accomplished researcher, but his true gift was the enthusiasm he imparted to students and colleagues. In this he set a standard that I hope to live up to. Godspeed Denis.

  12. The world will be a much smaller place without Denis. In an era of relentless self-promotion he was a genuine intellectual interested in ideas for their own sake. This is what made him a great teacher at a group and personal level. Long before it was normal in Ireland he promoted the need to be judged by international standards without ever succumbing to an obsession with biometrics or slavish adherence to the latest trends.

    What many people may not realise was the enormous influence he had on the sociologists at the ESRI who benefitted from his breadth of interests and legendary generosity. One of the many benefits that I derived from our friendship was a supply erudite statistical footnote to fend of difficult referees.

    Others have quite rightly stressed Denis’s generosity, kindness and graciousness particularly to young researchers. He had another side that was just as valuable which was his capacity to pour scorn on intellectual dishonesty, arrogance and pomposity. To be among audience watching him do so over a pint was one of life’s great pleasures and I shall miss him enormously

  13. @Frances Ruane:
    “As a legacy to Denis, and to his values, would it not be timely for the Irish Economic Association to develop its website to include biographical details on Irish economists when they pass away?”

    Why not create a Wikipedia entry?


  14. I was lucky to have met Denis as my lecturer last year. I was always impressed by his seemingly limitless enthusiasm for the subject, his encyclopaedic knowledge and his willingness to assist students on any topic, no matter how trivial.


  15. We’ll all miss Denis. He will be missed by a wide range of people who knew him whether it be academically or in relation to his sporting interests, friends and direct or extended family. He passed away too soon. Derek

  16. Let me also add my condolences. I remember well his kindness, modesty, wit, and remarkable insight from my time at the ESRI in the 1980s. I also feel lucky to have seen and talked to him again while I was in Ireland in November – where in his typical Dennis way he did not say a word about being ill – and I know he will be greatly missed.

  17. I would also like to echo the sentiments expressed so far. A very smart guy and someone who gave a lot back to the student community.

    You will be missed Denis.

  18. Denis will be much missed.

    A few memories from his time here with us in Maynooth – the day a visiting speaker asked a rhetorical question about the joint probability of revolution in France and canals frezzing over in Holland to find Denis able to recount the exact episode in history and to tell us of its significance.

    The salacious wit with which he conducted the campus tour of Maynooth to visiting external examiners, starting at the map downstairs here in Rhetoric Hourse – probably not the received version of Maynooth history.

    I shared a Finance module with him – in his supposed retirement he read his way into Finance. I’ll be teaching that module again this semester from our joint notes, and so his knowledge will continue to benefit students. He was breathtakingly naive about students – that 100% of the students didn’t understand, or seek to understand 100% of the material came as a shock to him each time he encountered it – with the result that students found it easier to attend all of his lectures and we had the lowest failure rate ever in a module. (He was very upset when one student managed to fail!)

    During one of his late evenings ‘office wanderings’ a few year’s back he talked very candidly of the possibility that he might not get over his health problems – it was Jean, rather than himself, that he was worried about.

    My condolences to Jean and his family – it was a privilege to know him,

  19. My favourite memory of Denis is of the great enthusiasm with which he organised a conference in the ESRI and edited a book to mark the Geary centenary. He brought the same enthusiasm to everything he did, and I was lucky enough to experience it also on one or two of his local history outings at IEA conferences.

    More recently while I was working with Mike Harrison in UCD, Denis came to my aid, as he did for so many others. I mentioned that I was looking for a simple proof of an obscure point that might make our forthcoming book more self-contained. Within the hour, Denis was back with a book that I would never have found but which contained exactly the proof that I sought.

    The tribute paid by Alan Barrett after his funeral mass this morning was most fitting.

    A gentleman and a scholar. R.I.P.

  20. I know it will come as no surprise to all but just to note the shock and sympathy over his passing that have come through to me from colleagues in the econometrics/statistics world from the international research community. Denis was everything the comments on the blog suggest – I will miss having him about.

  21. Let me just add my echo to the above comments.

    In addition to his overwhelming concern for students, young and old, together with his splendid publication record in the most demanding of international journals, Denis made significant contributions to public service. Not many may recall now that he was, in the 1980s, the first Chairman of the National Statistics Council, precursor of the National Statistics Board and an important fillip to the CSO and improvements in the collection of national statistics.

    But on a personal level I will miss him most of all for the long country walks taken during economics conferences and during which he displayed his mordant wit, and his fully documented but caustic analyses of the life and achievements of many historical heroes.

  22. I read all the blogs and am so appreciative of all the comments, as are our three sons.

    I knew I had something very special for over forty one years, but am only now discovering how very specal Denis was to lots of other people.

    I walked the walks wih him, over napoleonic battle sites in Europe, and over the Kerry and Connemara mountains (often under sever more used to the gentle undulating slopes of Deerpark, Mt.Merrion) but it all was a huge adventure and enormous fun.

    To all of you who came to celebrate him in the last few days..thank you.

    We miss him, but we are not alone, and we know that.


  23. This contribution is from Gerry Boyle:

    Denis was my first boss. I vividly recall my first day or so in the Agricultural Institute (now Teagasc) in its then headquarters in Sandymount Avenue. Denis handed me a large file on a paper he had submitted to the Journal of Econometrics on Zellner’s SURE estimator. He was having some trouble with one of the referees whom he suspected was Zellner. Denis’ thesis was that the estimator produced biased estimates which he demonstrated, both theoretically and empirically, using Zellner’s original application. Anyway he asked me to have a look at the file and get back to him. I was both flattered and petrified. I produced some comments after a while. He didn’t say much that I can recall at the time. He didn’t publish the paper in the JE but he did later produce two papers, one, I think, appeared in Econometrica and the other in the Journal of Economics and Statistics based on this work. I was really chuffed when he generously acknowledged my small contribution in one of the publications. This is just one illustration of Denis’ generosity of spirit which I benefitted from on several occasions over the 30 years or so that I had the privilege to know him. I know he did the same for countless others.

    When I became head in Maynooth, I didn’t hesitate when the opportunity presented itself to hire Denis. He worked so well with colleagues and students giving of his time and huge intellect. And, as so many can testify, he was a gifted teacher.

    Denis of course was a statistician and econometrician of international class There will be other opportunities to record his contributions in these fields. But his range of interests and deep knowledge of so many areas was simply astonishing. And he had an incredible power of recall. I remember when I told Denis that I was going to live in Rearcross in Tipperary. Now Rearcross is a tiny village near Newport on the old Limerick-Thurles road. Not many people would be familiar with it. But of course Denis, not alone had he heard of it, but he told me that he had consumed a few pints on several occasions in one of its two pubs (“The Rising Sun”) when he used to visit UL. He even loaned me a book on Celtic mythology that featured a mountain near the village. Of course he had to suggest that we climb the highest mountain in the vicinity, Keeper Hill, which we did.

    Denis started his career in the Agricultural Institute. In this he followed a long line of great applied statisticians and econometricians who worked on agricultural data. Along with Aidan Moran he revolutionised experimental design in the Institute and laid the basis to this day for high-quality field research. He published seminal articles on the topic and related themes. One of his abiding theoretical interests in missing values stems from this period During this period he also proved himself to be a skilled and creative computer programmer. Not alone did he write highly impressive ANOVA routines but he also produced very sophisticated regression programmes. I remember when I joined the Institute in 1978, I was surprised to find that Denis’ programme contained subroutines on dummy variable analysis, for instance, that were way beyond the capacity available in UCD at the time.

    I’d like to thank Alan Barrett for his great tribute to Denis at his funeral and to let Jean and his boys know that they’re in our thoughts.

    I’ll miss you Denis and you’ll be missed by so many.

    Gerry Boyle, Director Teagasc

  24. Others have captured brillantly so much of what Denis was to those who knew him and admired him.

    Personally he was a great mentor to me when I was at the ESRI but also subsequently. Many happy memories of hours spent with Denis. The most enduring memory is of his irreverant gossiping and sheer capacity to create benign mischief. The twinkle in his eyes and hearty laugh as he would admonish himself for his latest salvo as he made his exit is what I recall best.

    Above all else Denis was fun to be with.

    “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”

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