Renowned historian and journalist
Robert Kee, Born: October 5th, 1919 Died: January 11th, 2013In February 2005 the then British prime minister Tony Blair made a long-awaited public apology to the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven when he met members of the Conlon and Maguire families, victims of one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history.
During an emotional meeting Blair signed a copy of Robert Kee’s book, Trial and Error: the Maguires, the Guildford pub bombings and British Justice, belonging to Patrick Maguire (13 when he was arrested) with the inscription “I am sorry it took so long.”
Many people believe it would have taken a lot longer but for the campaigning work of Kee, the British historian and journalist who died on January 11th aged 93.
Kee had a great many connections with Ireland, not least his championing of those wrongly convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings, which claimed five lives. His book about the case was published in 1986 and was regarded as a significant factor in having the convictions overturned in 1989.
Since his death, a great deal has been written about his success in explaining the so-called Troubles to the British, mainly through his landmark 13-part television series Ireland: A Television History, broadcast by the BBC and RTÉ in 1980 and 1981.
It was described by the Daily Telegraph as “a spirited tour of 800 years of hostilities between Ireland and England”, and there are those who would add that a generation of Irish people were also educated by the series and by the accompanying book, Ireland: A History, which graces bookshelves in every corner of the island.
Indeed Kee’s influence may have stretched into the highest echelons of British politics. The late Mary Holland reported in The Irish Times in 1996 that Margaret Thatcher, who famously remarked that Northern Ireland was “as British as Finchley”, was reputed to have spent a holiday reading Kee’s The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism.
Holland noted that Thatcher later signed and defended the Anglo Irish Agreement, which acknowledged the identities of two communities in Northern Ireland.
As was Holland, Kee was a winner of the Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, awarded annually in memory of the murdered British ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs, for promoting and encouraging peace and reconciliation in Ireland and a greater understanding between the peoples of Britain and Ireland.
Robert Kee was born in 1919 in India, where his father ran a jute business. He was educated in Britain and won a scholarship to read modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a favourite with his tutor, the historian AJP Taylor – and reportedly, to his embarrassment, an even bigger favourite with Taylor’s wife.
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.