John le Carré ‘died an Irishman’ after gaining citizenship, son says

One of the last photographs of author ‘is him sitting wrapped in an Irish flag’

In a twist worthy of his great thrillers, John le Carré, the most English of contemporary novelists, “died an Irishman”. In a BBC documentary to be broadcast on Saturday, le Carré’s son Nicholas says his father, bitterly disillusioned by Brexit, embraced his Irish heritage and became an Irish citizen before his death last December.

Under his real name of David Cornwell, le Carré served as a British diplomat and, secretly, as a spy for the counter-intelligence agency MI5. The novels that made him famous, after his third thriller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963, form a penetrating anatomy of Britain's decline as a world power.

Le Carré’s best known character, the master spy George Smiley, hero of the trilogy of novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979), is one of the archetypal English characters of 20th century fiction. His quiet anguish, as he struggles with ideas of loyalty and morality, epitomise his country’s larger dilemmas.

Sense of alienation

But in the BBC Radio 4 documentary, A Writer and His Country, le Carré's friend and neighbour, the writer and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, charts his increasing unhappiness with England after the Iraq war of 2003. Brexit, which he deeply opposed, completed his sense of alienation. He was determined to remain a European citizen.


At the time of his death, le Carré's friend, the novelist John Banville, confirmed that the English writer had researched his family roots in Inchinattin, near Rosscarbery, Co Cork and had applied for an Irish passport, to which he was entitled through his maternal grandmother, Olive Wolfe.

It was not known, however, that he had in fact completed the process of becoming an Irish citizen. His son Nicholas says “the Irish connection was very real and it mattered to him very much”. When the archivist who was helping him to research his roots in Skibbereen said “welcome home, it was vastly moving for him, a huge emotional shift, an awareness of history and self which had genuinely eluded him his whole life”.

Nicholas Cornwell recalls that “On his last birthday, I gave him an Irish flag, and so one of the last photographs I have of him is him sitting wrapped in an Irish flag, grinning his head off. He died an Irishman.”

A Writer and His Country will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday evening.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer