Renowned historian and journalist
His lifelong fascination with Ireland may have been whetted by a happier relationship with the heiress Oonagh Guinness, Lady Oranmore and Browne, and he was a regular visitor to Lugalla, her Co Wicklow home, where the guest list over many decades included everyone from Douglas Fairbanks to Brendan Behan. Oonagh’s son Tara Browne, an icon of the swinging 60s, inspired the Beatles’ song A Day in the Life after he died when his car hit a lamp post in Redcliffe Square, London, in 1966.
Kee’s interest in all things Irish extended to the arts. As co-founder of the publishing imprint MacGibbon Kee he published the work of Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien, and JP Donleavy among others. His promotion of Irish artists spanned many decades and along with Maeve Binchy, Brian Friel, and Tim Pat Coogan, he was patron of Smashing Times Theatre Company, established in 1991 by a group of women actors who met at the Focus Theatre, Dublin.
Having joined the RAF in 1940, Kee became a bomber pilot during the second World War and spent more than three years as a prisoner-of-war in Poland after being shot down over the Netherlands. He made two failed attempts to escape and later wrote that it was “all rather fun”, and that his years in an English public school provided good training for survival in a prison camp. The experience was not wasted. as it provided material for his first book A Crowd is not Company , a novel set in a Nazi camp which the Times of London described as “arguably the best POW book ever written” and which was ultimately revealed to be a memoir.
After the war Kee began his career in journalism, working for the Picture Post, the Sunday Times, the Observer and the Spectator, before moving into television, where his trademark continued to be a passion for justice, notably when reporting on Ireland and on such issues as racism and its impact on the Asian community in Britain. He worked for the BBC, ITN and Channel 4.
BBC reporter Fergal Keane, who wrote and presented the 2011 five-part BBC/RTÉ television series The Story of Ireland, described Kee as “the most fair-minded UK observer of Ireland that ever lived”.
He said Kee was a pioneer in the telling of history on television, who was “fair-minded and brave”, and whose writing and television work on Ireland would remain “a benchmark for all who care about the subject”.
Divorced twice, Kee is survived by his third wife, Kate Trevelyan, and by a son and two daughters by his previous marriages. Another son predeceased him.