Inglis, Brian St John (1916–93), journalist and historian, was born 31 July 1916 at 89 Lower Baggot St., Dublin, the only child of Sir Claude Cavendish Inglis (qv), civil engineer in Poona (latterly Pune), India, born in Dublin but of Scots-Irish presbyterian stock, and Vera Margaret St John Inglis (née Blood), whose family had settled in Ireland in the seventeenth century. From the ages of two to four Brian lived in Poona, but was then taken back to Dublin by his mother. When he was five, she returned to India and he was sent to St Catharine's School, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, which was geared to what were called Anglo-Indian children; thence, at nine, to the Dragon School, Oxford; and at thirteen to Shrewsbury.
Inglis rarely saw his parents; home was with his widowed maternal grandmother, Sophie, a snob with ‘a lack of sensibility accompanied by a disposition towards malice’ (Downstart, 21), in Ballykilty, Malahide, Co. Dublin, which Inglis would describe as a typical English village where the protestant ascendancy lived as if the treaty of 1921 had never happened, though during the civil war constantly fearful of attacks by the IRA. He had friends from people ‘in our set’ (West Briton, 18) and played golf enthusiastically and well at the Island Golf Club, which had been founded by his grandfather Blood, and which at the time excluded catholics and families in trade as far as was possible. In trying to explain in adulthood his childhood conditioning, the notoriously egalitarian and affectionate Inglis told how, when he was nine, his response to being kissed goodbye by the cook, whom he liked, was to slap her face: ‘a nanny could kiss; not a servant.’ (Downstart, 25).
Inglis's loyalties – to ‘our set’, to the crown, and to Ireland – were further confused at Magdalen College, Oxford (1935–9) – where he was both a ‘Hearty’ (golf, rugger, squash) and a leftward-drifting ‘Intellectual’ – when his tutor recommended he enter for the Gladstone Essay prize: ‘The influence of Irish economic problems on English domestic politics, 1815–1848’. His research made him furious about the ‘ugly compound of stupidity, duplicity, indolence, and cant’ (West Briton, 59) of successive British governments; now he wanted above all to be Irish. Although he failed to win the prize and secured only a second, on the basis of his thesis G. N. Clark said he was the only candidate with ‘the makings of an historian’ (Downstart, 77).
A meeting with W. F. Casey (qv), later editor of The Times, who had been a suitor of Vera Blood in the Trinity Players, pushed Inglis towards journalism. After meeting Robert Smyllie (qv), editor of the Irish Times, at golf in Malahide, to the horror of Inglis's ‘set’, he was offered a reporter's job (initially unpaid). His background, accent, pronunciation, and unfamiliarity with Irish names and jargon offended some colleagues (discovering that ‘Westm'lnd’ street was normally pronounced ‘Westmoreland’ was an occasion of deep embarrassment), who thought him an ascendancy snob, but his willingness to work and his facility as a writer made him a valued employee. His new-found sense of Irishness and his enjoyment of journalism did not dissuade him from acting true to his roots and his hatred of fascism, by joining the RAF in 1940, where he rose to the rank of squadron leader piloting flying boats for Coastal Command in west Africa.
Smyllie took the more confident and sophisticated Inglis back in 1946. Although his war service alienated some republican diehards, Inglis's intelligence, clubbability, and diffident charm made him innumerable friends of many political and religious persuasions, including Todd Andrews (qv), Patrick Campbell (qv), Erskine Childers (qv), Paddy Lynch (qv), Jim McGuinness (ex-IRA), Conor Cruise O'Brien (1917–2008), and Desmond Williams (qv). He was, said his colleague Cathal O'Shannon (qv), ‘the most effortlessly capable journalist that my generation in the Irish Times can ever have known. It was nothing to him to be, at one and the same time, Pro-Quidnunc; the dáil sketch writer; the writer of a parliamentary piece for Radio Éireann, and still find time for the odd “special” or third leader’ (Irish Times, 19 Feb. 1993). Yet it became clear that his wartime absence had spoiled his chances to progress far in the paper, so, in 1948, he moved first into a caravan and then into a derelict former gate lodge in Dundrum, Co. Dublin, and, under T. W. Moody (qv), wrote for TCD a doctoral thesis that would be published in 1954 as The freedom of the press in Ireland, 1784–1841. He supported himself by working as a freelance for the Irish Times and as a researcher on Lynch's history of Guinness until in 1950 he returned to full-time journalism. He worked first with the Irish News Agency and then with the Irish Times to cover the 1951 general election, after which he was asked to become dáil sketch-writer. Part-time lecturing at TCD did not tempt him to contemplate an academic career, as he found the environment stuffy and the common room depressing.
Inglis's previous commitment to the Irish Labour Party had ceased because of what he considered its craven behaviour over the mother-and-child affair, but he became hon. secretary to the Irish Association of Civil Liberty in alliance with Owen Sheehy-Skeffington (qv); Sean O'Faolain (qv) became a guru. Yet he realised that though many of his friends were Irish mavericks, he would always be perceived as a West Briton, and so when Fleet Street beckoned, he succumbed; in 1953 he improbably took a job with the tabloid Daily Sketch, where he was prized because he could write a ‘pup’ – a 500-word light leader – in twenty minutes and was generally affable and extremely pubbable. He left after a year, wrote an unpublishable novel, and joined the Spectator as assistant editor in 1954, becoming editor in 1959. Though gregarious, Inglis was primarily a listener, observer, and encourager, all qualities that helped make him a wonderful friend as well as a brilliant editor; among the careers he launched were those of such Fleet Street legends as Alan Brien, Bernard Levin, Cyril Ray, and Katherine Whitehorn. His Spectator was liberal on divorce, homosexuality, and capital punishment, and when in 1962 its owner, Ian Gilmour, announced his ambition to be a Conservative MP, Inglis realised he was an embarrassment to his proprietor and resigned.
From 1956 Inglis had been one of the writer/presenters of ITV's ‘What the papers say’ (for which he worked until the mid 1970s), so he was a natural in 1962 to take over ‘All our yesterdays’, a weekly look at events from twenty-five years earlier, illustrated by clips from Pathé newsreels; this lasted until 1973. He had time to become a prolific author on a range of subjects that would include the deficiencies of conventional medicine (of which he was deeply suspicious and which he never used) and the strengths of complementary medicine, which he did much to popularise. Later, under the influence of Arthur Koestler, came his exploration of the supernatural and the paranormal, for Inglis was ever intellectually open-minded and curious, and completely unperturbed when his peers dismissed his ideas as cranky.
Ireland remained of central interest: The story of Ireland had appeared in 1956, and in 1962 West Briton, a book that so moved Dan Breen (qv) that he wrote to Inglis regretting that Ireland had lost people like him. A TV programme the following year called ‘The troubles’ looked at problems dogging the Republic and was so well received both sides of the border as to inspire the director general of RTÉ, Kevin McCourt (qv), to offer Inglis the job of programme controller: he rejected it out of hand, knowing it would have been hell to deal with pressure groups and that like all high-profile returning Irish, he would be savaged by the Irish media. Yet his concern for Ireland was evident in his involvement in founding the British Irish Association in 1972; although initially he regretted that what had been envisioned as a cultural body became focused on a politically orientated annual conference, he remained on the committee and came to see the BIA as a lubricator of progress.
Inglis's biography of Roger Casement (qv), published in 1974, helped resolve for him some of his problems with Ireland; he sympathised with Casement for cracking under the three-way pull: unionism in the British sense, the protestant nationalism that was Ulster unionism, and home rule. He could have been similarly caught himself, reflected Inglis. ‘I had been spared from having to make the disturbing, and eventually destructive, decisions which divided loyalty can demand – as it would have demanded, if there had been a British invasion of Ireland in 1940’ (Downstart, 271).
Inglis adored women and had many affairs, which usually fizzled out because of his lack of commitment, as did the marriage he had made (1958) to the journalist Ruth (‘Boo’) Woodeson, whose two-year-old daughter Diana he loved. They had a son in 1962 but separated in the late 1970s, with Inglis leading a happy and sociable life at the centre of many loving friends of both sexes, whom he entertained generously and informally. The joy and tragedy of his later years centred round his relationship with the Financial Times political correspondent Margaret van Hattem, whom he met in 1984; they were so perfectly matched (their shared interests included Ireland, cooking, and deep-sea fishing) that friends shrugged over the thirty-two-year age gap. She died of brain cancer in 1989, having been devotedly nursed by Inglis through terrible times.
Inglis died as he would have wished, suddenly and of a heart attack, on 11 February 1993, on his way to the post-box with an old friend's obituary. He was cremated. There are innumerable press photographs. His estate came to £194,229.