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Lehane, Brendan

Brendan Lehane

Elected: 1999

Year of birth: 1931

Year of death: 2021

Author of Obituary: James Moran

Obituary :

Brendan Lehane, who wrote more than 10 non-fiction books and numerous journalistic articles, died in November 2020 at the age of 84.

Lehane was born in west Finchley and attended school in Barnet. From there he became one of the first boys to gain a bursary from grammar school to attend Eton College, a place in which he expressed lasting interest.

In 1975, nearly two decades after he had left Eton, Lehane described how the less formal, post-Beatles generation of students inhabited ‘an even saner, nicer, more civilised Eton’, and he wrote that the institution provided the best ‘way to dispose, for five years, of a son’. After Eton, Lehane won a scholarship to study Classics at King’s College, Cambridge, graduating in 1959 after a period of national service.

Lehane’s father, Christopher, was a teacher from Ireland, and Lehane spent time there during the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, he was so ‘in love with old Ireland’ that he rented a cheap Dublin flat that turned out to be entirely flea-ridden, which inspired his 1969 volume The Compleat Flea, which traces ideas about fleas from antiquity, via Donne and Samuel Johnson, to the role of such mites in pornography and in the flea circus.

Lehane maintained a fascination with Ireland, even when one might not have expected a one-time member of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry to have felt fondly towards the country.

Nonetheless, Lehane’s Companion provided an engaging and well-researched tour of Ireland, describing the beauty of natural features such as the Burren and the Giant’s Causeway and paying expert attention to the built environment.

He also included telling anecdotes, such as Yeats’s comment, ‘With statues of O’Connell, Nelson and Parnell...a single Dublin street commemorated three of history’s best-known adulterers’. Irish poet Derek Mahon found the volume ‘admirably comprehensive’, with a complete absence of the ‘mild inaccuracies’ that he expected such a guide to contain.

By contrast with media reports about the Troubles, Lehane’s volume repeatedly accentuated the kindness to be found ‘in all parts of Ireland’, emphasising the help he had received.

Lehane also noticed the first growls of the Celtic Tiger: by 1982 he pointed to Ireland’s ‘new breed of executives and advertisers and middling middle managers’. But by contrast with those who yearned for Dublin’s emergence into the world of finance and high-tech innovation, Lehane largely based himself in a Dorchester cottage, and showed an increasing appreciation for the natural world, as conveyed in volumes including The Power of Plants (1977), The Northwest Passage (1981) and Wild Ireland (1995).

In addition, he repeatedly returned to religious themes, publishing The Quest of Three Abbots (1994, later reissued as Early Celtic Christianity) and Dorset’s Best Churches (2006). He also contributed to several newspapers and magazines, and his long-standing focus on the natural environment makes his writing feel freshly relevant as we encounter ecological crises in the era after his death.

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Fellows are nominated by peers and elected by our Council of writers – our governing Board. Being elected a Fellow of the RSL is a lifetime honour. This role gives them the opportunity to support other writers, readers and the future of literature. The RSL connects writers in the Fellowship to one another, and to a wider readership.