Robert Kee: A Tribute

Nora Connolly 

Copyright Ireland

Copyright NASA Goddard photostream

Robert Kee the brilliant journalist, historian and campaigner for justice has sadly died aged 93. Kee the quintessential British liberal was also an establishment figure who along with others became involved in the setting up of TV–am in the early 1980s. Robert Kee was friends with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s and the Dowager wrote a glowing testimony of Kee in her memories. Which highlighted Kee`s outstanding intelligence and communication skills. She mentioned Kee`s work with Panorama pointing out that the BBC was lucky to find someone of his calibre. Those viewing any broadcasts by Kee would have to agree with this assessment. Robert Kee spent a long time in Ireland and was a regular visitor to the Devonshire`s Irish estate, Lismore Castle. He rubbed shoulders with the aristocracy but he was no establishment toady and did not allow his grand association`s to debase an overwhelming desire to strive for truth and justice, as his publication `Trial and Error` illustrates. A book which helped bring the disgraceful miscarriage of justice concerning the `Guilford Four` and `Maguire Seven` to public prominence. The book also unddoubtly helped to right judicial wrongs and for this reason alone Robert Kee should be warmly remembered today by all striving for fairness and justice.

Robert Kee also wrote an important biography of Charles Stewart Parnell the `Laurel and the Ivy` but Kee had a vast hinterland to draw upon, he was a war hero a bomber pilot for the RAF, who was shot down over occupied Europe. He become a prisoner of war a role he occupied stoically writing about his experience in his critically acclaimed `A Crowd is not Company`

For these book`s alone Kee deserves a glowing tribute but it will be for his ground breaking, `The Most Distressful Country’, ‘The Bold Fenian Men` and `Ourselves Alone` which will be his abiding memorial. The first two volumes published in 1972 under the title `The Green Flag` later published in three volumes in 1989 and republished by Penguin Books in 2000 sub-titled `A History Of Irish Nationalism`. These analytical easy to read books were followed by an outstanding thirteen-part BBC and RTE history of Ireland made in 1980 and broadcast in 1981, to well deserved critical acclaim in the UK, Ireland and the USA.

During Christmas I returned to the `The Green Flag`(2000) which rekindled my interest in Robert Kee and reminded me of his genius as an historian and the ease in which he drew out the complexities of an emotive history in a clear objective way. I then returned to Kee`s television history and became fully aware of his mastery of the subject, while there have been many television histories since none compare to this. Those studying Irish history and nationalism should look up the television series and combine it with their reading of the book because Kee demystifies a complex subject and unravels the subject in a systematic unbiased manner. The historical advisors to the series were FS Lyons, JA Murphy and ATQ Stewart.

It is difficult to distinguish between any of the thirteen-episodes, they are all outstanding. However, the later episodes are an incredible piece of television documentary making. In particular is the set of interviews with Kee and elderly members of the `Old IRA`. These men had played a peripheral role during the Easter Rising in 1916 but a major role later in the preamble to the Anglo-Irish War. They carried out brutal assassinations which are outlined in chilling detail. Men who were clearly reaching the end of their own lives and content to reflect on the past aided by Kee`s skill as an interviewer. The viewer is able to appreciate what actually happened during this time while the content is deeply unsettling the transmission of the information smoothly delivered. This is a unique primary source of events as they took place.

Most notable are the contributions from Joe Sweeney, Martin Walton, Charles Browne, Sean Dowling and Edward MacLysaght. We hear about the rigging of the 1918 election which brought Sinn Fein an overwhelming majority when Vinny Byrne a leading member of the Dublin Squad described how he voted about twenty times and that he was only one of many subverting the Representation of the People`s Act 1918. While Kee outlines this, he also points out that the election result still fairly represented the overall political opinion in Ireland at that time.

However, it is when events in Ireland turn to violence after this election that Kee`s interviews literally come into force. There is an absolute unnerving discussion with Dan Breen who described rubbing people out in a casual way as if he were describing a domestic chore. The interviews with the impish Vinny Byrne are amazing and the discreet role in bringing these accounts to life is the remarkable part played by Robert Kee, he reminded me of a boxing referee who keeps out of the action to allow the spectator the best view of the bout. And a boxing match is perhaps a fair (if not gentle) analogy with Irish History and the events described.

In the final episode of Robert Kee`s history he draws all of the complicated strands together. He sits with a family who watch his documentary and the reaction and discussion that emanate from this are again remarkable. As is the exchange with pupils in a school that Kee visits to discuss his documentary. Near the end of the programme Kee focuses on a reunion of the `Old IRA` veterans. Where Vinny Byrne made a plea from the chair for money to be sent in from what was clearly a very depleted set of supporters who may have been struggling financially. The summary at the end of this broadcast by Kee summed up the situation in a couple of sentences and the decency, intelligence and integrity of Kee is evident in every word.

Robert Kee RIP historian, educator and journalist died 11 January aged 93.

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