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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  • Harry Flashman

    His Ireland TV series was a great TV event at the time (although if I’m not mistaken at the same time Thames also brought out a shorter history called The Troubles). It was a great introduction to Irish history to many of us (my own family included) who actually had quite a sketchy knowledge of Irish history. It was admirably balanced.

    The Green Flag is also a scholarly work. RIP Robert Kee, scholar and war hero.

  • David Crookes

    “If only the Home Rule Bill of 1893 could have passed…..”

    Some qualified person should write an alternative-history fiction by way of suggesting what might have happened if it had passed. Is it true to say that the long delay in granting ‘home rule’ allowed opposing factions to crystallize, and to take on great power?

  • Turgon

    David Crookes,
    “Some qualified person should write an alternative-history fiction “

    Most if not all sensible historians try to avoid excessive speculation of “what if” and counter factual history is exactly that: counter factual. In actual fact any what if… typed scenario tends to say a great deal more about the one creating the what if.. scenario than anything else.

  • Mick Fealty

    Indeed, that’s work for a novelist… you’d have to re-order some major political forces…

    Somewhere in the archives is the story from the first Village magazine in which Paisley was reported to have said that Ireland might have been united if Dev hadn’t effectively placed the Catholic church at the centre of the Constitution.

    Nice idea, but no sign of the force that would have ensured that and much else that would have been needed to allow northern Protestants acquiesce in a Dublin run state (you throw in a large chunk of what today makes southerners disaffected from their own state.

    Such a work would be useless if it did not track and map the actual forces that aligned to make come to pass what did happen and propose a plausible ‘work around’.

    Otherwise it might be safely disregarded as political whimsy. In any case, Kee had enough on his hands being an Englishman and giving a relatively honest account of the history of Irish nationalism. Particularly at a time of huge tension.

  • BarneyT

    We perhaps should use the past to consider what was on the table pre 1912 and how it would fit in today.

    If I am correct the Republic (by definition) is much further removed from an British machinations than it would have been had homerule been accepted and established back then. In parts of the ROI there is not much Irish radicalism today dont forget.

    Had home rule been established perhaps even with a degree of ulster home rule within that framework, Ireland would be a very different place. “What if” is in this case a valid consideration, and I can’t help feel it was an opportunity missed. I believe the 1969 to 1998 period could have been largely avoided.

    The arguments against home rule I believe were weak at the time of the covananteers, however (excusing the main focus to protect material wealth) they were strenghtened in time and latterly justified by the course that the free state and subsequent ROI took, particuarly with the Church having such an invasive impact on society.

    We should look at the “what ifs” with respect to homerule and full involvement from ulster and their representatives. Whilst unionism was entrenched in the north, it had a greater presence in the rest of the island. Ireland as a whole was more willing then than it is now to secure independence whilst maintaining links with the British.

    We need to examine a potential Irish settlement as if it were carved out by todays Fine Gael and the DUP. I expect that the conditions for a UI that might emerge from that council would not be too far removed from those that were presented pre 1912.

    The “problem” with Ireland is that the repetition of history renders “what if” speculation relevant.

  • Kensei

    Ireland’s problem is to have both too much Republicanism and not enough. The key issue at partition that led to the civil war was the swearing of the oath and not partition itself, though the impact it had is often unfairly diamissed these days given how often it was used to whip up the horses thereafter. Any settlement in 1893 would have come crashing into the other strain of Nationalism sooner or later. The whatifs there are far too many and there are a half dozen plausible options, depending on exact timing.

    Anyway, after that delightful bout of bloodshed over Republican principles, various governments in the South implemented various policies and accepted interference any decent Republican should baulk at. It’s still trapped in that limbo. The current voices demanding a new Republic are not particularly new.

  • Brian Walker

    Actually guys, a leading historian of the counterfactual, Niall Ferguson – another teledon – has produced a book of essays in which one of our leading historians of Home Rule Alvin Jackson deals with “what if” the Home Rule Bill of 1912 had passed. You can find plenty of Home Rule scenarios in the actual events before the Bill ran into the sand or became irrelevant, in Jackson’s Home Rule, an Irish History 1800-2000 plus all the echoes to date you could possibly hope for. Jackson. He’s a bit too pessimistic for my taste, but very impressive, all the same.

    Niall Ferguson, ed. Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. Originally Published London: Picador, 1997. New York: Basic Books, 1999. x + 548 pgs. Contributors, Acknowledgments, Notes, Index. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-465-02322-3 .

    “British Ireland: What if Home Rule had been enacted in 1912?” (pp. 175-227), by Alvin Jackson, Queen’s University raised the question. Throughout the nineteenth century, Home Rule for Ireland had been a recurring proposal to resolve a constitutional anomaly — the status of Ireland in the British Empire. Jackson shows why Home Rule constantly fell short every time its adherents proposed it — and then plausibly suggests the consequences if the advocates of Home Rule had prevailed on their third and last attempt to achieve it, in 1912. In Jackson’s view, Home Rule possibly could have produced a democratic, pluralist Ireland — but the gravity of the political risks and the likelihood of failure could have brought a result not only contradicting the hopes of Home Rule’s advocates but perhaps even worse than the actual course of Irish and Northern Irish history since 1912.
    The point of counterfactuals is not about mere romantic sighing or speculation. It is to give the alternatives being discussed at the time their proper weight, at the time when the final outcome was unknown. This it is argued is the proper approach and averts the sin of “historicism,” that is, the belief that a particular outcome was inevitable, just because a particular choice as made or outcome happened.

  • BarneyT

    Unionism needs to clarify the terms under which it would accept and participate in a United Ireland.

    Rediculous scenarious clearly have to be avoided, but until this happens, nothing will change.

    I do feel that the onus is on unionism to declare their position, even if that is a never never never response. Why? Nationlism is already “working” within an institution that it finds unacceptable, which should be recognised without prejuduce.

    Nesbitt made some noises about tolerating a United Ireland when he suggested it could be sold to him, but if he is to buy, we need to know his price.

    Nationalism is more easily appeased than republicanism, as nationalists on both sides have very obvious tribal wants.

    Republicanism by nature will grate with the unionist and more likely loyalist traditions, as they have much more to lose if they are to accept a unionist resolution, as their wants are much more idealogically based than those of nationalism.

    We need the cards on the table.

  • BarneyT

    …to add to this…for BBC balance…Republicanism needs to tell us if they would accept a united Ireland under the inevitble unionist terms, i.e. English monarch as head of state….or more directly would they be prepared to pick up from the 1912 scenario, had homerule prevailed.

  • tacapall

    Weekly Freeman cartoon, 10 Oct. 1885

    Independence not Separation

    John Bull – “I swear by the Eternal Jingo, much as I hate you, I will never consent to our ‘Separation’.”

    Pat. – “Look here, Bull, you’re only making an ass of yourself; don’t you see that unfortunately we can never be separated, our premises are built too close for that, but that’s no reason you should meddle in my domestic affairs, and for the future, myself
    and Biddy here, will manage our own little house, and you and Sawney [Scotland] can look after look your own place”

    Biddy – “O! Pat, jewel, will you try to keep that noisy, nasty man quiet – he quite upsets me.”

    Things might have been a lot different if the advice above had of been taken.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, Turgon. ‘Contrafactual’ is quite a self-important word.

    To imagine what might have happened but didn’t is a good exercise for people who want to affect the political future by offering an alternative reality to dwellers in the present.

    Sensible historians often play ‘what-if?’ games as sensible generals play war-games. A determinist view of history can be as dangerous in certain circumstances as historical illiteracy.

    After asking yourself what might have happened if certain damnably stupid things had not been done in the past, you may be less likely to do damnably stupid things in the future.

    BarneyT says the same thing more elegantly. “The ‘problem’ with Ireland is that the repetition of history renders ‘what if’ speculation relevant.”

    Of course not everything is repeatable. I wonder if we have seen the end of open-air mob oratory that works. New media bring us blessings as well as #plegues. The internet can facilitate illiterate communication up to a point, but it may also act as a vehicle for intelligent new ideas.

  • I think Turgon” is right.
    Counter-Factual History books sell well which means that a lot of sensible historians write them.
    This does not mean that it isa worthwhile academic pursuit.
    A lot of stuff on American Civil War is little more than wishful thinking.
    And the same can be said about Jacobite History…where inevitable “what if the French had landed…” is a recurring theme.
    An even more recurring theme is the “decision at Derby”, my opinion on which has got me thrown out of some very tweedy Jacobite circles.

    But frankly it is not a serious pursuit.

  • carl marks

    The green flag was perhaps the best book on Irish history published. I learnt a lot from it and my copy has been round the world, borrowed by Americans, Australians, Malays and a few Europeans.
    Robert Kee has my gratitude and should be compulsive reading for anybody interested in the history of this island.

  • Historians produce boring alternative histories. Bring on the science fiction writers. Imagine home rule Ireland as steampunk fiction as written by Michael Moorcock.

    Or to show the humour in it, transfer it to part of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

  • David Crookes

    If we ever get round to creating a new unified Ireland, we shall need to employ furnished imaginations. Every inventor is a man or a woman who asks, ‘What if…..?’ If your imagination is historically furnished, you will ask better questions about the future.

    Some people think it’s stupid to say that the factorial of zero is one, or to talk about the sine of zero degrees. But it isn’t.

    Ignorance and incredulity are twins. The less you know, the less you can believe in.

    No mental exercise based on the conditional sentence IF WE DO X, Y MAY HAPPEN, BECAUSE Y HAPPENED SEVERAL TIMES IN THE PAST WHEN PEOPLE DID X is a waste of time. And questions like WHAT MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED IN 1893 IF PEOPLE HAD DONE X? can help to hone a historian’s sense of the fulcral.

  • If the Home Rule Bill of 1912 had been passed in all probability the young men of Ireland would not have been spared the great slaughter of WW1.

    Young men from throughout the British empire, having lost the run of themselves, believing the imperialist nonsense they were force fed, willingly sacrificed their lives on a whim of the English ruling class. And for what?

    I doubt the majority of Irish lads would have been any different, indeed a home rule Irish government would have taken up the recruiting bugle.

    Even without home rule, Redmond was no slouch when it came to supporting that unnecessary meat grinder of a war, indeed he sacrificed his own son, so I doubt he would have had any problems when it came to sending to their deaths other men’s sons.

    Better to leave history as it is.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, Mickhall. Never thought before that a home-ruled Ireland might have introduced conscription in 1915.

  • Kevsterino

    The Green Flag is a gem. RIP Mr. Kee.

    On the subject of historical “whatifery”, there isn’t much to separate that stuff from just plain old fiction. When read as fiction, though, it can be diverting if you understand the underlying stuff well enough.

    I find fault with historical explanations of wars most of the time. Particularly when the war is described as inevitable conflict. I believe we can gain much more by looking more closely at wars that didn’t happen but all signs pointed to them. “Fifty-four forty or fight!” and all that…

  • Tomas Gorman

    I’m watching “Ireland. a television history” at the minute. The full series is available on YouTube and I must say its an absolute pleasure to watch.

  • David Crookes

    “I believe we can gain much more by looking more closely at wars that didn’t happen but all signs pointed to them.” Brilliant, Kevsterino. Inscribe on stone.

    Thanks for letting us know about that television history being available on YouTube, Tomas Gorman.

  • Greenflag

    Sorry to hear of Robert Kee’s passing . Some years ago I took my Greenflag moniker from his book . For anyone who is interested in understanding Irish nationalism his ‘The Green Flag ‘ is a must read .

    A scholar and a gentleman and much more . His interest in this small island did us those who follow it’s history some service .

  • Greenflag

    Mick Hall @14 January 2013 at 6:29 pm

    .And for what?

    World War II .

    ‘a home rule Irish government would have taken up the recruiting bugle.’

    And added to the total Irish dead North and South .

    ‘Better to leave history as it is.’

    History leaves us where we are .It can imprison us if we let it or we can shrug off some of the detritus if reason can prevail .One way or another we can’t escape it entirely .

  • My copy of The Green Flag has been much borrowed too. Wonderful. His other books are great reads too.

  • When I wrote my first book, “Native vs. Settler: Ethnic Conflict in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland and South Africa,” I used Kee’s TV history for a footnote. He had an interview with someone who talked about Sinn Fein cheating in the 1918 election–the first of many elections that the Shinners cheated in.

    I’ve read Kee’s Green Flag trilogy, but I prefer Richard English’s Irish Freedom.

  • Though it’s been a few years since his programme aired it sticks in my mind as being neutral and understanding of this much troubled period in our islands history , may he rest in peace.

  • gaya

    As a Sri Lankan who lived through our own ‘troubles’ ( i never knew why we called it that, till I watched the Thames TV Series many years on in Europe) and researching the post-conflict era in both Sri Lanka and Ireland, I would be grateful to know how I could get a dvd copy of Kee’s Ireland: A television history and the Thames series. Thank you.