The life and career of Irish author Brian Inglis (1916-1993) brought him many accolades for his achievements in journalism and broadcasting. His editorship of The Spectator (1959-62) was hailed for its nurturance of new talent, the resulting boom in circulation, and bold editorial decisions. Inglis is believed to written the magazine’s historic editorial in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality. On television, Inglis was a pioneer (on What the Papers Say, starting in 1956; and he went into battle with primitive vote-tallying computers during the Rochdale by-election in 1958). In 1962, Brian took over the reins of All Our Yesterdays, the long-running Granada documentary series that reviewed the events of a quarter century in the past, reaching its glory days in the period 1964-70, when it covered the WWII years.
Henry Fairlie is sometimes credited with coining the term “The Establishment” in the pages of The Spectator, and Inglis was in many ways a quintessential Establishment figure. Yet Brian chafed against such labels. His investigation of unorthodox healing, Fringe Medicine (Faber and Faber, 1964) was considered so controversial that the publisher included a preface by a well-regarded surgeon to reassure anxious readers. On The Spectator, Brian brought in younger columnists, often on the political Left (Alan Brien, Bernard Levin); yet in so doing he deliberately overlooked the magazine’s historic ties with the Tory Party, an affiliation never forgotten by the magazine’s proprietor. Inglis’s resignation, facilitated by the prospect of a top job in TV, soon followed. Inglis’s generous contract with Granada Television allowed him to pursue his own intellectual interests and, when AOY came to an end in 1973, Inglis was not sorry to return to full-time writing. Why?
As the host of a top-rated WWII documentary in the 1960s, Inglis was never free to speak his mind. On camera, he shared his insights with millions of armchair historians all over the country, for whom the war was a recent and vividly remembered experience. Network television was not the proper forum for shocking audiences with revelations (Inglis could not have mentioned the Ultra/Enigma programs, were he aware of their existence, as seems certain). One day, Brian vowed to slough off these restrictions. A return to freelance status would allow him to be a revisionist historian, and to return to the topics dearest to his heart, including Irish history. With the dawn of a new decade, Brian seized his chance to remind the world of his intellectual independence and his gifts as a historian.
Brian Inglis never forgot his roots. In The Story of Ireland (originally published by Faber in 1956, and released by Endeavour in e-book form in 2016), Inglis is a spirited spokesman for his people, telling their story for British audiences in a manner reminiscent of Josephus advocating for the Jews two millennia beforehand. Inglis’s account is notable for its verve and enthusiasm, as well as its sympathy for the Irish way of life at all levels of society, including among the rural poor (in whose company, it must be said, Inglis spent little time). Anticlericalism is surprisingly absent—more than once Inglis intones that the Irish regarded the Church of England as “heretical”—and it is only when the subject turns to the notorious Board of Censorship that Inglis’s loyalties as an author can be suppressed no longer.
Were Inglis alive today, he would agree that Ireland’s 1916 rebels deserved a more nuanced portrayal in light of recent scholarship. Brian undertook such a task himself with his landmark biography of Roger Casement (originally published by Hodder & Stoughton, 1973), broaching the subject of Casement’s homosexuality, still a taboo subject with Ireland’s gay marriage referendum lying decades in the future. In Casement, the Christ-like figure beloved of the Republican imagination is revealed as an agent of Empire, valued by the Foreign Office for his unique intelligence-gathering abilities in hardship posts, and indulged by the Crown until his collusion with enemy powers could no longer be tolerated.
Described as “the father of twentieth-century human rights investigations,” he had been honored in 1905 for the “Casement Report” on the Congo rubber trade and knighted in 1911 for his important investigations in the field. His knighthood reminds us that if Casement was by inclination a rebel against the Empire, he remained a rather quiet one for long periods. His reports and dispatches back to London, if never quite perceived through their author’s own highly personal lens, were acknowledged for their power, bravery, and perceptiveness, and they made a lasting impact on public and official attitudes and on the welfare of suffering peoples.
Casement is not easy to pigeonhole, and is in many ways a far more multidimensional figure than his advocates allow. In an authorial decision that may have cost him friends and colleagues in Ireland, Inglis quotes regularly from Casement’s “Black Diaries,” accepted as authentic by Inglis (he would not have quoted from them otherwise), but deplored to this day as fiction or forgery by Casement’s vocal admirers. For Casement, human feeling was meant, in theory at least, to take precedence over market value in human relations (“a people once hunted themselves, whose hearts were based on affection as the root principle of contact…”). The transactional encounters described in RC’s private diary entries provide an interesting counterpoint to his more public assertions.
After he retired from consular service in 1913, Casement’s involvement with Irish republicanism became less abstract and more active. Soon, he sought German support and weapons for an armed rebellion in Ireland against British rule during the Great War. He was not welcomed everywhere with open arms. The Irish Times (April 14, 2014) takes up the story:
Casement visited the camps [for Irish prisoners] in early 1915 claiming to be the “right-hand man of the Kaiser”. According to an account by Private John Cronin from Co Cork, the men were furious when Casement denounced John Redmond [Irish politician and supporter of Home Rule] as a “traitor” and the Home Rule Bill as a “pretence”. “As soon as the men realised who he was and what was his aim, they set upon him, and he was only saved by the German sentries from serious injury.” As a result of their behaviour, rations were stopped for the Irish prisoners of war for three days.
How German involvement was meant to benefit Casement’s beloved Ireland was never made clear; and the unspoken conclusion of Inglis’s book is that Casement was naive and hopelessly out of his depth. He was also, by any logical definition, a traitor; and capture and prosecution for treason was a predictable consequence.
Thus, despite his own strong sympathy for Irish romantics and his own demonstrated fondness for polemic, Brian Inglis cannot quite bring himself to whitewash his subject. It is the author’s intellectual honesty, analytical precision, and mastery of the material that makes “Roger Casement” Inglis’s greatest achievement, as well as one of the very finest biographies of the 20th century.
It is fitting that this profile should end on an optimistic note. Inglis, to use his own phrase, always favored constitutional means as a way to progress toward a better world. And in later years, Brian became involved with the British-Irish Association, at whose events policymakers and talking-heads came together—peacefully—to discuss Irish issues, including the perennial topics of Partition and “The Troubles”. Inglis, whose family roots were in Ulster, strove to be fair on these occasions. Inglis numbered among his many friends not only supporters of Irish Unification, but also commentators hostile to Sinn Fein. He would have welcomed the perceptible easing of tensions in the immediate aftermath of the GFA in 1998, as exemplified by Ian Paisley’s restrained reaction to the transfer of Aer Lingus transit business from Shannon to Belfast in 2007. And while accepting that challenges have re-emerged (as a result of Brexit and other policy developments in Northern Ireland and the ROI), Inglis would always be happiest when reforms were achieved at the ballot box.
"The Power of Prose"