Michael D. McCarthy

Portrait of Michael D. McCarthy by Edward McGuire RHA, UCC

Michael D. McCarthy BA MSc PhD MRIA, President, University College Cork, 1967-1978

Michael Donald (Dónal) McCarthy (1908-1980), was born on 4 June 1908 to Michael McCarthy (timber merchant) and his wife Ellen Desmond at Morrison’s Island, Cork city. The family had relocated to Midleton, Co. Cork, by the time of the birth of his sister there in 1910 and they are living in Midleton at the time of the 1911 census. He was educated at the local Christian Brothers Secondary School and then Rockwell College, Co Tipperary.

McCarthy achieved first place in the Honan and College entrance scholarship examination in 1925 followed by an undergraduate career at UCC; he was awarded a first-class honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Mathematics and Mathematical Physics in 1928 and the Peel Memorial Prize. McCarthy had begun playing Gaelic football at Rockwell and continued playing on the UCC senior football team and then was drafted onto the Cork senior hurling panel winning an All-Ireland medal in 1929. While an undergraduate he played hurling for Cork county.

Dónal McCarthy joined the Statistics Branch of the Department of Industry and Commerce in 1930 where he was a junior statistical officer. In 1931 he was appointed a lecturer in mathematics at UCC. During this time he studied for the MSc (Mathematical Science) gaining first-class honours in 1934 and began a PhD in Statistics. As part of his PhD work he carried out research at King’s College, London, during 1936-37 and graduated in 1938. At the age of 36, he was appointed to the Chair of Mathematical Physics in 1944 succeeding Alfred O’Rahilly. Between 1948 and 1954, he served on the Commission on Emigrations and other Population Problems and also served on the UN Expert Group on National Accounts. In 1949 he left UCC and joined the newly established Central Statistics Office (CSO) as Deputy Director and became its second Director in 1957. His predecessor, Dr R. C. (Roy) Geary, described McCarthy’s intellectual abilities in glowing terms.[1] McCarthy was vice-chairman of the Conference of European Statisticians (1963–66) and chairman of the UN Statistical Commission (a functional commission of the UN Economic and Social Council) from 1960 to 1964. In 1966 he was appointed first Director of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) overseeing the transformation from the former Economic Research Institute (ERI)). In the following year he was chairman of the UN Social Development Programme (1967). During this period the statistical information provided by the CSO and ESRI provided baseline statistical information for the developing Irish economy in the time of Seán Lemass and T. K. Whitaker. McCarthy was also economic advisor to the Minister for Finance and was advisor on social and economic planning to the government.

McCarthy was a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Institute of Mathematical Statistics and the International Statistical Union. He was fortieth president of Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (1962-5). He was awarded two honorary degrees: DSc (NUI, 1966) and LLD (TCD, 1971). The public orator at TCD, J. V. Luce, described McCarthy as ‘a man of acute intellect who had made a sustained and valuable contribution to the economic development of our country, and to the expansion of higher education in Cork’.[2]

In 1967 Donal McCarthy returned to UCC when he was appointed President; the close-run election for the position with his successor, Tadhg Ó Ciardha, is described by John A. Murphy.[3] In this role he successfully reformed and modernised the institution by establishing professional administrative structures, reforming the appointments system and creating the Development Plan Report, that was adopted by the Governing Body in 1972. Messrs Murray & Murray, Pettit & Partners (architects, engineers and planning consultants) were engaged in December 1971 to prepare the plan. The firm, with Irish principals, were based in Ottawa, Canada, and had similar experience dealing with Canadian universities. This relationship demonstrates McCarthy’s experience with international thinking outside Ireland. During the summer of 1972 the members of the Physical Planning Committee visited universities in England and Denmark. (The architectural model created as part of the 1972 plan is in the UCC Curatorial Collections, Heritage Services, Buildings & Estates.) This plan was subsequently approved by the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Education as the basis for the important, future funding of the UCC programme for building expansion to meet increasing demand in student numbers. The future of the institution was secured for the following two decades, which laid the physical and operational foundations of the modern University. The Plan forecast an increase in student numbers which proved to be accurate for the period of the plan in that the projected number of students in 1990-91 was 7,000 and in the event was 7,300 – a testament to McCarthy’s abilities as a statistician.[4] His presidency was a period of expansion, administrative development and growth in student numbers. During his term the Science (Kane) Building, containing vital lecture theatres, office space and laboratories was completed, and the foundation stone of the new Dairy and Food Science Building had been laid. In addition, construction work on the Boole Library and lecture theatre complex had begun in January 1978 and acquisition took place in the same month of the former La Retraite hostel and surrounding land in early 1978.

Dónal McCarthy was married to Margaret (Pearl) Mulhall of Midleton (d. 23/1/2012) at Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, on 3 September 1935; they had a daughter and three sons (Fionnghuala, Brian, Kevin and Donagh). He retired from the Presidency on his 70th birthday in 1978 and died on 31 January 1980. He was survived by his wife and family including his younger brother Walter and sister Sheila. He is buried at St Michael’s cemetery, Blackrock, Cork. Roy Geary wrote an obituary in the Irish Times. The portrait of Dr M. D. McCarthy is on display in the Aula Maxima, UCC.


Select publications of M. D. McCarthy

‘On the application of the Z-test to randomized blocks’, Annals of Mathematical Statistics 10:4 (December, 1939), 337-359

‘The Cork University social survey’ Cork University Record 3 (Easter, 1945)

‘Some university statistics’, Cork University Record 4 (Summer, 1945)

‘The civil service as a career for graduates’, Cork University Record 5 (Christmas, 1945)

With C. Boyle, ‘The accuracy of monthly, six-weekly and two-monthly weighings in estimating milk yields’, Journal / Department of Agriculture XLIII (1946), 5-23

‘Statistics in the university’, Cork University Record 13 (Summer, 1948)

‘Symposium on national income and social accounts’, Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, Session 105 (1951-52)

With G. A. Duncan, T. K. Whitaker, and Patrick Lynch, ‘Symposium on national income and social accounts’, Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland 28:5 (1951/52), 473-514

‘Is Dublin too big?’, Administration 2:3 (Autumn, 1954)

‘Irish demography and economics’, University review 1:3 (Winter, 1954-5), 73-79

‘The structure of the civil service. 1. Some facts’, Administration  3:2 (Summer, 1955)

‘The costs of education, by John Vaizey (review)’, Administration 6:4 (Winter, 1958)

‘Survey methods in social investigation, by C. A. Moser (review)’, Administration 7:4 (Winter, 1959-60)

‘The statistical approach’, Irish Journal of Medical Science (July, 1959), 293-308

‘The statistical approach’, Administration 8:3 (Autumn, 1960)

‘The 1961 Census of Population’, Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, 20:4 (1960/61), 73-93

‘Some Irish population problems’, Studies (Dublin) 56:223 (Autumn 1967), 237-247



GRO, birth: https://civilrecords.irishgenealogy.ie/churchrecords/images/birth_returns/births_1908/01649/1658480.pdf ; marriage: https://civilrecords.irishgenealogy.ie/churchrecords/images/marriage_returns/marriages_1935/08945/5237970.pdf   

1911 Census: http://census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/Cork/Middleton_Urban/Broderick_Street/434353/

‘Our president, with portrait’, UCC Record 43 (1968),

‘Progress report on College buildings and properties 1 October 1970-30 September 1971: Development plan for University College Cork’, UCC Record 47 (1972), 50

‘Honorary degree of LLD conferred on Dr M. D. McCarthy, President, UCC, by Dublin University’, UCC Record. 47 (1972), 4-5

‘Retirements: Professor M. D. McCarthy’, Cork University Record 53 (1978), 11–15

‘Former UCC President Dr M. D. McCarthy dies’, Cork Examiner, 1 February 1980, 1

‘Ex-UCC president dies’, Irish Times, 1 February 1980, 6

‘Former Heads of the Irish Statistical Office’, UN Statistics Division. Online at: https://unstats.un.org/unsd/wsd/docs/Ireland_wsd_Former_DGs_bios.pdf (accessed 1/4/2021)

‘Donal McCarthy’, Economic and Social Research Institute: People. Online at https://www.esri.ie/people/donal-mccarthy (accessed 1/4/2021)

Byrne, Patricia M., ‘McCarthy, Michael Donald (‘Dónal Mac’)', Dictionary of Irish Biography

E. G. Pettit & Company and Garth May, University College Cork Development Plan Review 1993 (December 1993)

Geary, R. C., ‘Dr M. D. McCarthy. An appreciation’, Irish Times, 5 February 1980, 9

Murphy, John A., The College: a history of Queen’s / University College, Cork (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995)

Sweeney, Paul, Kieran Rankin and Bill Keating, ‘Biographical portraits of the past presidents of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland’ (April 2014). Online at http://www.ssisi.ie/ssisi_presidents_6_5_2014.pdf (accessed 1/4/2021)



[1] Cork University Record (1968), 4.

[2] ‘Honorary degree of LL.D. conferred on Dr M. D. McCarthy, President, UCC, by Dublin University’, UCC Record 47 (1972), 5.

[3] John A. Murphy, The College: a history of Queen’s / University College, Cork (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), 319-320.

[4] Foreword, University College Cork Development Plan Review 1993, iv.

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