Kildare Dobbs: an accomplished and resourceful writer

Born: October 10th, 1923. Died: April 1st, 2013.

Kildare Dobbs: committed much of his abundant life to the written word and was the most genial of companions.

Kildare Dobbs: committed much of his abundant life to the written word and was the most genial of companions.


Seamus Heaney once said that nobody had done more to welcome and assist Irish writers in Canada than Kildare Dobbs, who made his own livelihood as a writer – of narrative non-fiction, books of travel, poetry, and journalism – wholly in Canada.

He was born in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, India, where his father was acting commissioner, but the family settled back in Ireland in a Victorian mansion between Castlecomer and Gowran, Co Kilkenny; Dobbs’s maternal grandfather, John Henry Bernard, was the Protestant archbishop of Dublin and, at Lloyd George’s urging, became provost of Trinity College Dublin in 1919.

Educated at St Columba’s — the poet Richard Murphy and Michael Yeats were fellow students and friends — he saw no future for himself in Ireland and so enlisted in the Royal Navy during the second World War, escorting and protecting convoys and merchant ships in the Atlantic. Twice he came close to death: once, his vessel almost collided with a troop ship, and on another voyage a vicious hurricane nearly capsized his ship.

During the decade of his first marriage, to Patricia Parsons, two sons were born, he attended Jesus College, Cambridge, and in 1948 the family decamped to east Africa, where Dobbs was posted as a district officer and magistrate in Tanganyika. The place seized his imagination and entered his dreams. At one point he intrepidly tracked man-eating lions.

Later he was falsely and maliciously accused of stealing an elephant’s ivory tusks and was sentenced to a minimum-security prison, with hard labour. The sentence was later quashed, but by then he had spent four months in jail.

He returned to Ireland, but, still restless, in 1952 decided to emigrate to Canada, sailing steerage from Cobh. Throughout his long life, he always felt the tug of the Ireland he had lost. After a desultory period teaching in high school, he joined Macmillan publishers as an editor and worked there for eight years, nurturing an academy of writers and forming close friendships with Brian Moore (“a complete master”), Mordecai Richler and Marshall McLuhan. Dobbs was an alert and resourceful publisher.

It was in Canada that his marriage ended in divorce, but he was given custody of his sons. His second marriage was to Mary McAlpine, a Vancouver journalist, and the couple and their two daughters spent time in Spain in 1964 and five years later lived in Morocco.

Other journeys – to France, Mexico (a beloved destination) and back to Ireland – aroused in him a wish to write travel essays, which became his favourite and most accomplished genre.

An elegant stylist, Dobbs’s first book, Running to Paradise (1962), won a Governor General’s Award in Canada. He was adept at various verse-forms and published three collections of poetry: The Eleventh Hour (1997), Casablanca: The Poem (1999), and, at the age of 87, Casanova in Venice: A Raunchy Rhyme (2010), based loosely on Giacomo Casanova’s Memoir s .

In 1970 Dobbs collaborated with the well-known cartoonist Ronald Searle on The Great Fur Opera , a satirical history of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Early in that decade he helped to formulate Canada’s major multiculturalism initiative, writing policy papers and speeches for the Trudeau administration.

Discerning chronicler
A discerning chronicler, his other books include Anatolian Suite (1989), a travel volume that also tells the story of the Armenian genocide; a work of fiction, The Pride and Fall (1981), inspired by his African experiences; and a sparkling memoir, Running the Rapids (2005). In this last he wrote: “Writing memoirs is like looking at a beach where the tides have thrown up litter, kelp, seashells.”

He also wrote an insightful introductory essay to accompany the photographs of his third wife, Linda Kooluris Dobbs, in The Gardens of The Vatican (2009).

Among his other signal accomplishments were adaptations for radio of Dubliners and Finnegans Wake , and a year as writer in residence at the University of Toronto in 2002.

As a journalist, the soft-spoken Dobbs delighted in raising issues. He committed much of his abundant life to the written word and was the most genial of companions, all the more convivial with a glass of gin at his elbow.

Kildare Dobbs died of kidney and congestive heart failure in Toronto. The date of his demise would have prompted a memorable witticism. His ashes were to be brought home to Co Kilkenny.

He is survived by his wife Linda, sons John and Christian, daughters Lucinda and Sarah, and sister Sally Gibbs.