UCD’s Literary and Historical Society welcomed economist, writer, and podcaster David McWilliams to UCD to receive the James Joyce Award last month. Upon receipt of the award, McWilliams joins a distinguished cohort of past winners which includes Nobel Peace Prize winners John Hume and Desmond Tutu.

McWilliams graduated from Trinity College with a degree in economics in 1988. He then received his Masters in economics from the College of Europe in Belgium. He then began working in the Irish Central Bank as an economist and subsequently worked in an investment bank in London.

McWilliams is best known for his work in the media, regularly appearing as an economist on both radio and television. McWilliams is the author of five books which aim to make economics more accessible and is a regular columnist with the Irish Times.

McWilliams also hosts a hugely successful podcast, together with long-time friend John Davis, which aims to make economics easy, uncomplicated and accessible, as well as covering issues beyond the field of economics.

In an engaging award ceremony, McWilliams spoke about the economics of James Joyce and the importance of tolerance and debate in a successful economy, providing an interesting perspective and the reasons for Ireland’s recent economic success.

Beginning with an interesting piece of Joycean trivia, McWilliams shared how the date of the award ceremony, October 25th, coincides with a notable day in the life of Joyce. On October 25th 1909, Joyce was crossing a choppy Irish Sea on a mailboat between Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire. Joyce was returning from Trieste, the then bustling port city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Dublin with an idea, not for a book, but for a business.

While in Trieste, Joyce had become enthralled with the newest revolution in entertainment – the cinema. Trieste had 21 cinemas, while Dublin, a larger city than Trieste, had none. Joyce saw his opportunity and decided to change this.

He returned home and on the 20th of December 1909, when Ireland’s first cinema, the Volta, opened on Mary Street in Dublin, Joyce accomplished this feat.

McWilliams told this story to introduce the idea that, despite what is often believed, the artistic and entrepreneurial minds are, in fact, quite similar. Both are innovators, obsessed with self-expression and not afraid to dissent from and disrupt the status quo. Perhaps this is why the same brain that wrote Ulysses and established an entire strand of English literature, also established Ireland’s first cinema.

Moving back to economics, McWilliams stated that healthy economies thrive on dissent and diversity. Societies that are open to dissent and diversity get great art and successful commerce.

McWilliams spoke of how from 1922 up until the 1990s, Ireland was the worst-performing economy in western Europe. It was no coincidence, in McWilliam’s eyes, that this coincided with the country being dominated by dogma and intolerance towards those anyway different or disruptive. McWilliams talked about his own personal experience of seeing friends leave Ireland because they were, in the eyes of society, “different”, leaving behind those accepting of society’s dominant dogma.

While the dramatic economic transformation that Ireland has witnessed is often credited to the economic policies of Taoiseach Sean Lemass and civil servant T. K. Whittaker, McWilliams suggested that it was only when Ireland liberalised and rejected the dogma of old that the country’s economic prospects began to change.

He said that the extraordinary dynamic society that we now enjoy stems from the country’s eschewal of dogma and is founded in acceptance, liberalism, and debate.

He characterised these as ideals that Joyce embodied throughout his life and work – and ones McWilliams stressed as important to bear in mind when faced with future choices on the direction of the country.

Mark O’Rourke – Features Editor