Peter Neary, RIP

Prof. Peter Neary has died. Readers interested should check out his webpage and CV for a sense of the depth and breadth of his contributions to the international trade literature. His work was recently celebrated by his former UCD colleagues and can be watched here. Please use the comment function if you’d like to pay tribute to a great economist.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h’anam dílis.

By Stephen Kinsella

Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Limerick.

11 replies on “Peter Neary, RIP”

A sad loss. Peter’s return to UCD at the age of 29 as full professor (of “Political Economy” — a title he did not consider ideal!) in 1980 was a key moment in the modernization of economics teaching in Ireland. (We had both been undergraduates there about a decade earlier when the atmosphere was congenial but amateurish.) Already the national economic policy debate was becoming much more sophisticated with contributions from a new generation: Paddy Geary, Dermot McAleese, Colm McCarthy, Sean Murray, Brendan Walsh, but it was Peter who really pushed for the gold standard of teaching being underpinned by research carried out to the highest international standards, and published in the top journals.

His astonishingly productive research record and his important contributions to the economics profession are well recognized in the contributions of luminaries from all over the world who contributed to the UCD celebration event of a few weeks ago linked by Stephen above. One notable feature is the way in which Peter found opportunities to build research outputs explicitly on the work of Irish precursors F.Y. Edgeworth, Roy Geary and Terence Gorman. His research legacy ranks with theirs.

Peter was a flag bearer (and a personal inspiration) for showing how to conduct high-level globally-relevant research in the context of the Irish university system, while also selflessly helping to develop the wider economics profession.

While best known for his international trade contributions, he was also a first-rank macroeconomist.

My condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

Peter was always very nice to me when we met, but it was in talking with Max Corden while on sabbatical at the University of Melbourne that I got a sense of how highly everyone–including Max who was when they worked together probably the pre-eminent trade theorist in the world–thought of Peter. Their famous Dutch Disease paper and its genesis are covered in the 2015 Corden lecture Neary gave in Melbourne.

I started as an undergraduate in UCD in 1980 when Brendan Walsh & Peter Neary became professors & started the gentle revolution of modernizing Economics in UCD. Both were very supportive and inspiring. Anyone who was taught by Peter will remember it: always well-prepared, good humoured and enthusiastic. If it wasn’t for Peter I doubt I would have gone on to post-graduate studies in the UK in 1984. In 1992 Peter, then head of department, was instrumental in me returning to Belfield. He will be much missed in UCD.

I was lucky enough to be an undergraduate at UCD from 1978 to 1981 and got to experience the transition to the new regime first hand. Brendan was already relatively well known to us, but Peter (“the young professor”) was a bit of a mystery. But here was a guy who had just become a co-editor of the top journal in international economics, and could teach a course called “advanced trade” using material from just his own published and soon-to-be published papers. He opened our eyes (or my eyes, at least) to what was possible. I learned a lot about the craft of research from him while working on a thesis for my masters degree in 1981-82. He was always generous with his time and advice, and I will always count him a major influence on my life. RIP Peter.

Peter taught me at UCD mid-90s, and Kevin says it perfectly, always so well prepared, good humoured and enthusiastic. But it was only when I did my PhD outside Ireland did I really begin to appreciate his impact and influence in economics. Everywhere I would go in Europe or the US, and I said I was Irish or had studied at UCD people would say “ah, do you know Peter…”. And when I started working in the Bank and would be presenting around Europe… it was the same again all those years later (plus a few of those other fellas above 😉). My most recent, really fond, memory of Peter was at the 2018 IEA conference at the Bank. Peter was his usual self: presented a great paper on hedonic index numbers, complicated, but, always the great presenter, he made it so accessible. Then stayed around for the next two days meeting people, commenting, giving advice, particularly for early career researchers around the coffee breaks where, in his usual charming and interested way, always just drew people to him. At the bank, we were trying to get our head around non-tariff barriers due to Brexit, and Peter gave us some helpful pointers on that work. I really recommend the video Stephen links above from the UCD celebration. It gives a great sense of the sort of person he was, as well as his enormous and wide ranging contribution to economics.

Peter was wonderfully warm and welcoming when I arrived at UCD as a visiting faculty in 1989. I was not in his department (I was in Banking and Finance, which was in the same building then) but he acknowledged me as a fellow economist and went out of his way to help me settle and meet fellow economists. He was busy, busy, busy but still warm and welcoming. We did not talk that much about trade theory or financial economics — mostly about Dublin, the local arts and drama scene, and modern Irish history. We stayed friends for thirty years. My condolences and best wishes to his family and his many close friends.

We both met Peter on our first day in UCD in 1967. Peter’s enthusiastic and engaged personality meant that he stood out from the crowd, and this was the start of a lifelong friendship. In Des Norton’s lectures, Peter’s comprehensive and multi-coloured note-taking was a wonder to behold, and if any of us hadn’t made a lecture, we always knew where to get perfectly filled in on what we had missed.
With Ian Irvine, he graduated top of our class. He immediately went as a Research Assistant to the ESRI, where within three months of his BA, he became the first of our generation to publish in a peer-reviewed journal, in a piece on imports co-authored with Terry Baker and Joe Durkan in the ESRI’s Quarterly Economic Commentary. This began his immense scholarly contribution on trade economics which has continued throughout his life until his untimely death, becoming one of the lead world authorities in this area. He found time early in his career for other academic interests – his study of the Irish postal system “Neary on Mail,” and his Regrecon program, which helped budding econometricians in the days before ready apps.
Throughout his career, Peter conveyed the same enthusiasm for his work and for the wider world that so struck us when we first got to know him. He was a wonderful teacher, collaborator and colleague. He took his teaching very seriously and at his NUI honorary doctorate conferring this week, it was noted the importance he gave to teaching first-year students, not something that is always a priority for other world-class researchers. With the late Brendan Walsh, he transformed the teaching of economics in UCD. He helped many of those who were excited by his lectures to progress in the profession. For a teacher that is a hugely important legacy.
A recent conference at UCD marked his contribution to the discipline of economics. For us what came out from that conference was that so many benefitted not just from his wisdom, but possibly more important, from his enthusiasm for economics and his wider sense of fun.
He will be hugely missed by his friends and family.
Eithne and John FitzGerald

Peter was an inspiration. I was in UCD in the early 1980s when he, COG and BMW were at their prime. I also crossed paths with him in Queen’s Ontario where he was welcomed as a leading light of the profession. He was a great conversationalist over lunches in the UCD staff canteen and I remember several heated discussions about politics and social developments between himself and other UCD characters like Sean Murray, Rodney Thom and Cormac O’Grada. In retrospect, he spoke a lot of truth on these difficult subjects and was ahead of his time. Very sad on hearing of his recent illness and sudden passing. His kind are extremely rare.

I worked as Dept Administrator at the UCD Dept of Economics with Prof Peter Neary in the early 1990s. All these years later, I can still remember the interview he chaired for that appointment and particularly his very sharp intellect. That same intellect was evident throughout all my time in the Economics Dept. I was very saddened to hear of his passing. May he rest in peace.

I would like to add my comments to those above regarding Peter Neary and his contribution to economics in Ireland.

Along with Mark Wynne, I was in that UCD undergraduate class in 1980-81 when Peter arrived and the Masters class for 1981-82. Peter lectured in macroeconomics to both groups and also in trade. None of those courses had a textbook, mainly because so much of the material was original and hot off the press. The macro courses dealt with how the neoclassical synthesis had broken down in the 1970s and looked at the two main developments which at that time had arisen to replace it: the new Keynesian disequilibrium models and the New Classical models based on price clearing and rational expectations. These were tour de force courses which covered an incredible amount of material in a short time, yet without sacrificing depth. Needless to say the trade courses were also of a very high standard and in the graduate course Peter gave an early version of his work on the Dutch Disease which was to become his most cited paper (at the time there were realistic hopes that oil would be discovered off the south coast of Ireland so the material was highly relevant!). The smart move in those days was simply to take whatever courses Peter was offering.

I followed Peter’s path of research assistant in the ESRI and then graduate study at Nuffield College, Oxford, although I took a five year break after the coursework so that I eventually wrote my thesis under his supervision at UCD. He was a excellent supervisor, demanding and rigorous yet never unreasonable and always accessible. Meetings were held regularly and written work had to be submitted in advance. This would be returned before the meeting with extensive comments in red (Peter never lost his love for coloured pens!). Too much red could presage trouble, but too little red was not a good sign either, as it meant he had found little to stimulate him. In the second part of my thesis I was looking at the implications of different consumer models for tax reform results, and here Peter was in his element. As evidenced by his more recent work in trade and also index numbers, he was simply very, very good at tricks with utility functions.

I was also lecturing in UCD at this time and shared a large first year class (over 800 students!) with Peter. Echoing what John FitzGerald says above, I was hugely impressed with his dedication and professionalism in preparing this course. He put in every bit as much effort as he would have for an advanced graduate class. I’m open to correction on this, but my impression is that while at UCD Peter mainly lectured to either large first year classes or small specialised advanced undergraduate/graduate groups. He seemed to do little enough teaching at intermediate level, and I think teaching at either ends of the spectrum, so to speak, probably was the best way to use his talents.

To conclude, perhaps the principle theme that has come through all the comments and memories regarding Peter in recent times has been the huge and overwhelmingly positive influence he had on people who worked with him and on the economics profession in Ireland in general. Certainly he was the biggest influence on my career and even to this today, when confronted with a professional issue my first instinct is: what would Peter think? As Patrick Honohan and others have rightly pointed out, he was not the only talented and committed academic economist in Ireland in the last forty years or so but in my humble opinion he was the best and it was a privilege to know and work with him.

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