by Michael Kennedy
Nicholas George Nolan (Ó Nualláin, Nicolás Seoirse) (1907–84), civil servant, was born in Hong Kong on 8 December 1907, although he was sometimes described as a native of Cork. The eldest child of Nicholas G. Nolan (1878–1920), chief interpreter of the Hong Kong Supreme Court (1907–20) originally from Cork, and his wife, May Georgina (née Hennessy) (1886–1929), originally from Wexford. Nolan had three sisters and four brothers. One brother, Fr Henry Nolan, SJ (1910–2006), was head of the English Language Section of Vatican Radio (1945–61) and was a former rector of Belvedere College, Dublin (1965–8).
Nolan began his education at the Victoria British School, Hong Kong. After his father died in January 1920 the family returned to Ireland, settling first in Cork. Nolan continued his education at the 'North Mon' Presentation College, Cork. He entered the civil service as an executive officer in the first open competition in 1925 and served in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners until 1932. During the later 1920s the Nolan family moved to Dublin.
Whilst with the Revenue Commissioners Nolan commenced studies in commerce at UCD, graduating with first class honours in 1931, taking first place in the year. He won a bursary in commerce and in 1932 was awarded an M.Econ.Sc. (first class) for the dissertation A Celtic exodus, or the Irish emigration. Nolan later obtained a Ph.D. in economics from the NUI in 1936 through a 429-page dissertation entitled The Irish emigration: a study in demography. It argued that an Irish government could, with the development of agriculture and industry, bring Ireland to its optimum population level. The linked topics of his dissertations were perhaps suggestive of his own family's departure from and return to Ireland.
Following his appointment to the grade of administrative officer in 1932 he moved to the Department of Finance. In 1936 he was appointed private secretary to the secretary of the Department of Industry and Commerce, John Leydon.
Nolan moved to the Department of External Affairs in 1939 where he worked at headquarters until 1946 when he was appointed counsellor to the newly opened Irish Embassy to the Holy See where he served with Ireland's first Ambassador to the Holy See, Joseph P. Walshe. For personal and family reasons Nolan did not greatly enjoy being posted overseas. From very shortly after his arrival in Rome he sought, with Walshe's approval, a transfer to a domestic post, preferably a return to the Department of Industry and Commerce.
The vacancy created by the departure of the assistant secretary at the Department of the Taoiseach, Patrick Kennedy (Pádraic Ó Cinnéide), to head the newly established Department of Health in 1947 gave Nolan the opening he sought in the domestic civil service. Returning to Dublin in the spring of that year he was promoted to fill the vacancy left by Kennedy and began a long appointment as assistant secretary to the Government and assistant secretary, Department of the Taoiseach. Nolan ultimately succeeded Maurice Moynihan as secretary to the Government and secretary, Department of the Taoiseach on 1 January 1961, holding the post to December 1972. He retired on reaching the age limit and was succeeded by Donal O'Sullivan, another 'North Mon' alumnus.
During his term as secretary Nolan was one of the powerful 'committee of secretaries' which oversaw aspects of government policy implementation and execution during the term of Taoiseach Seán Lemass. However unlike other members of the committee, Nolan was more concerned with the method of implementation of procedures within his department and often was consumed with the minutiae of departmental business.
Nolan's métier was managing the process and operation of the Department of the Taoiseach and ensuring correct procedures were drafted and rigorously implemented. Known for his hair-splitting style, extreme precision in drafting as well as his precise copper-plate writing, Nolan was gently lampooned as 'Meticulous Nicholas' and even 'Ridiculous Nicholas', having, according to one story, allegedly counted the number of strings on the Irish state symbol, the harp, on an official letterhead and returned the batch of paper as the incorrect number of strings had been printed for the harp in question. However others, such as Conor Cruise O'Brien, were more severe in their views; Cruise O'Brien describing his erstwhile colleague as a 'notorious martinet' in his memoirs (112), though in such terms as to make something of a virtue of Nolan's style.
Nolan was a painstakingly efficient bureaucrat, correct to the point of pedantry. He did not as a rule offer policy advice to the taoisigh he served, instead acting rather as a conduit for the implementation of the taoiseach's decisions and as a mechanism for the smooth facilitation of the business of government. On paper he appeared annoyed only if his amour propre was piqued or if a matter of specific organisational concern or departmental protocol irritated him. Otherwise he was the epitome of the anonymous civil servant. Yet Nolan's position meant that he often appeared in public with the taoiseach and on more than one occasion, (such as 22 December 1960 and 20 July 1961), his 'bland countenance' graced the front page of the Irish Times ('Backbencher', Ir. Times, 2 Sept. 1963).
Nolan was appointed a civil service commissioner in 1953 and a trustee of the Chester Beatty Library in 1968. He was awarded the Grand Cross of King Leopold II by King Baudouin of the Belgians in 1968.
On 24 June 1936 he married, at St Mary's Church, Haddington Road, Dublin, Margaret Mary 'Peggy' Dwyer Joyce (1906–84) of Clyde Road, Dublin, the eldest daughter of Professor Robert Dwyer Joyce, a Dublin doctor. They had two sons, Nicholas George, later a physician in the Washington DC area (1939–87) and Robert Dwyer (b. 1943), a research scientist and company director.
Nicholas Nolan died in Dublin at St Vincent's Hospital on 24 May 1984. He is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery. He left an estate of £121,719.21.