Robert Kee, hero of journalism and the television history of Irish nationalism

Slugger should note the passing of Robert Kee, historian, TV and print journalist and RAF  bomber pilot, who has died aged 93. In this age of revisionist debate, his TV history series first shown in 1981 and The Green Flag, the written history of Irish nationalism which accompanied it, were well timed and still stand up  today. It was a stellar achievement  to produce such a magisterial work on  a hot topic at the time, when  so many critics were waiting to pounce on anything that might betray a hidden agenda of support for one side or another in the contemporary Troubles.

His collaborator as series producer was the great Jeremy Isaacs, later the first chief executive of Channel 4 who has an interest in Irish affairs which is now rare. For their research Kee and Isaacs bravely held long open house sessions in Belfast and Dublin with anyone who thought they could make a contribution. That was true dedication indeed.

Many years later I remember Robert reflecting: “If only the Home Rule Bill of 1893 could have passed.. ”  not that he thought it stood a chance. From his reading of history, it was clear his sympathies lay with what we used to call constitutional nationalism.

Even in conversation Robert was careful not to demonise any side in our generation’s Troubles. His defence of the Guildford 4 helped stimulate the agonising reappraisal of this and other spectacular injustices. The Guardian obit captures his confidently independent judgment on this and including presentation of the issues of the Falklands war on Panorama which caused him to quit the BBC.

I made a minor contribution to the Irish TV series when it included a sequence from a long interview I’d recorded with Ernest Blythe, the Protestant from Magheragall near Lisburn who  by the mid 1970s was of few leading survivors of the independence and civil war eras. Blythe was dead before Kee could interview him. As a militant anti –Irregular minister in the Cumann na nGaedheal government, we recorded a vivid flash of old animosities when Blythe told me: “If we’d have got de Valera we’d have shot him too.” The Irish Times obit of Kee praises his distinctive achievement, although it might have added that did a good job of explaining Ireland to the Irish too.

Kee never sought to propagandise but rather to explain Ireland to an English audience steeped in a mixture of ignorance or knowledge that was limited by the distorting lens of unquestioning assumptions laced with post-imperial incomprehension.

His interest in Ireland was life-long and he joined the campaign for the release of the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, who had been convicted of taking part in the Guildford pub bombings in 1974. In 1986, Kee wrote a book about the case, Trial Error.


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