John le Carré, the great embodiment and chronicler of Englishness, saved his greatest twist not for his thrillers but the twilight of his own life: he died an Irishman.
The creator of the quintessential English spy George Smiley was so opposed to Brexit that in order to remain European, and to reflect his heritage, he took Irish citizenship before his death last December aged 89, his son has revealed.
“He was, by the time he died, an Irish citizen,” Nicholas Cornwell, who writes as Nick Harkaway, says in a BBC Radio 4 documentary due to air on Saturday. “On his last birthday I gave him an Irish flag, and so one of the last photographs I have of him is him sitting wrapped in an Irish flag, grinning his head off.”
Le Carré, the author of acclaimed thrillers including The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, had long made clear his opposition to Brexit, but his embrace of his Irish heritage was not fully known until now.
He visited Skibbereen in Cork, where his grandmother came from, to research his roots and was embraced by a town archivist, Cornwell says in the documentary. “She said: ‘Welcome home.’”
The visit catalysed an “emotional shift”, a new awareness of history and self, said Philippe Sands, a lawyer and author who made the documentary about Le Carré, and who was his friend and neighbour.
Born as David Cornwell, Le Carré worked for the secret services while studying German in Switzerland at the end of the 1940s. After teaching at Eton he joined the British Foreign Service as an intelligence officer, recruiting, running and looking after spies behind the iron curtain from a back office at the MI5 building on London’s Curzon Street. Inspired by his MI5 colleague, the novelist John Bingham, he began publishing thrillers under the pseudonym of John le Carré
Britain’s vote to leave the EU compounded his disenchantment with Britain, he told the Irish writer John Banville in 2019. “I think Brexit is totally irrational, that it’s evidence of dismal statesmanship on our part, and lousy diplomatic performances. I think my own ties to England were hugely loosened over the last few years. And it’s a kind of liberation, if a sad kind.”
In the documentary, Sands digs into the author’s life and his relationship with his native country. Sands learned about the Irish citizenship only recently, he said in an article in the Times.
“This I did not know, not when we were together, not when I entered the archives just a few weeks ago, imagining a journey around the writer and his country. In the end, there were three countries: the country of his home, the country of his soul and the country of his forebears.”
The “country of his soul” was Germany, which awarded Le Carré its Goethe medal, for individuals who “have performed outstanding service for the German language and international cultural dialogue”, in 2011.
“At the age of 16, I decided that 11 years’ hard labour in the English boarding-school gulag was enough for anyone, and in 1949 – only four years then after the war’s end – I bolted to Berne in Switzerland, determined to embrace the German soul,” the author said in 2010. From 1959, Le Carré worked in Bonn at the British embassy, and as an agent for the British secret service.
The success in 1963 of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, astonished its author. The manuscript had been approved by the secret service because it was “sheer fiction from start to finish”, he said in 2013, and so couldn’t possibly represent a breach in security.
“This was not, however, the view taken by the world’s press, which with one voice decided that the book was not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side, leaving me with nothing to do but sit tight and watch, in a kind of frozen awe, as it climbed the bestseller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing.”
A Writer and His Country is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday evening.