Godley, John Raymond (1920–2005), 3rd Baron Kilbracken of Killegar , pilot, journalist, traveller, landowner and environmentalist, was born 17 October 1920 in Chester Street, Belgravia, London, England, the eldest of two sons (Wynne being the younger) and a daughter (Kathleen) of Hugh John Godley (1877–1950), 2nd Baron Kilbracken, legal council to the lord chairman of committees of the house of lords (1922–44), and Elizabeth Helen Godley (née Hamilton). His parents divorced in 1936 and his father married secondly (16 October 1936) Rhoda Leonara ('Nora') Taylor, who committed suicide in 1948 at the family home, Killegar House, Carrigallen, Co. Leitrim, after which his father never again visited the estate.
Growing up in London and Sussex, John first visited Ireland in 1929. At Ashurst House preparatory school in Sussex, he watched Imperial Airways planes ply the Croydon–Paris route overhead, and saved his pocket money for occasional flying lessons. Attending Eton from 1933, he rowed in the Eton VIII and took pride in his Irish identity, wearing shamrock on St Patrick's Day. When he was apprehended acting as the school bookie to earn money for flying lessons during Ascot week in 1937, his mother banned him from flying and he was caned by the headmaster. Turning his attentions to poetry, he won the prestigious Hervey prize for verse the following month.
Godley entered Balliol College, Oxford in 1939, reading greats/PPE. He co-wrote a volume of verse, Ever for an hour (1940), with Ian Grimble, and wrote for Isis and the Oxford Magazine. After completing three terms before the war interrupted his studies, he began training as a naval pilot in July 1940 and was awarded his 'wings' and commissioned in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (29 March 1941). Flying with RAF Coastal Command on sorties over the English Channel and along the Dutch and French coasts for about eighteen months, he then trained as an ordinance officer and served as a desk officer in Portsmouth. Diagnosed with glandular fever (April 1943) and hospitalised in Basingstoke, he met Penelope ('Penny'), youngest daughter of Rear Admiral Cecil Reyne, to whom he became engaged. They married 22 May 1943 and honeymooned in Ireland before his posting to 836 Naval Air Squadron in Maydown, Co. Londonderry, in September 1943. For much of 1943–4 he flew Fairey Swordfish (obsolete biplanes known affectionately as 'stringbags' by their crews) escorting North Atlantic convoys to deter U-boat attacks. Although Godley felt a deep affection for the ageing slow-flying Swordfish with its assemblage of struts and wires, flying off small carriers converted from merchant ships was a dangerous business, and after suffering total engine and radio failure on patrol off Halifax, Nova Scotia, he and his two crew members were lucky to be rescued by a fishing boat.
From D-Day (6 June 1944) Godley was posted to Cornwall, flying defensive patrols on the southern coastline of England before returning to Atlantic convoys. Promoted to lieutenant-commander (9 January 1945), he was given command of 835 Naval Air Squadron, which flew a mixture of Swordfish torpedo bombers and Grumman Wildcat fighters. Godley led several attacks on German shipping off the Norwegian coast and was awarded a DSC on 29 January 1945. He also flew numerous patrols protecting Arctic convoys to Murmansk. The ever-present danger and brutal Arctic weather (from which the open cockpit of a Swordfish offered little protection) gradually undermined his love of flying. Following the disbandment of 835 squadron in April 1945, he was given command of 714 Naval Air Squadron, an operational training squadron based in Crimond, Aberdeenshire. Rendered unconscious by ether in leaking hydraulic fluid when landing after a test flight, Godley was grounded on psychiatric grounds in June 1945. He had spent three years in frontline squadrons, taken part in sixty-seven operations, made 132 deck landings, flown for over 1,000 hours, and experienced four complete engine failures. By the end of the war he had become terrified of flying, and for years afterwards would not even board a commercial airliner.
Demobbed in December 1945, he returned to Balliol to complete his studies on a shortened two-year course, aided by an ex-serviceman's grant, and graduated with a second-class economics degree (December 1947). Despite interviewing for a City job and passing the Foreign Office entrance exams, Godley eschewed the stable and ordered future before him as his marriage to Penny broke down; they eventually divorced in 1949. From March 1946 he began dreaming of reading racing results in the paper and waking to find similarly named horses running, which he backed (mostly) successfully. He wrote up the first three occurrences into a Daily Express feature (syndicated internationally), and the ensuing book, Tell me the next one (1950), launched his writing career. Joining the Daily Mirror as a cub reporter (December 1947), then briefly racing correspondent (December 1948), he grew tired of the grinding travel involved and moved to the Sunday Express as a sub-editor. Growing comfortable with human-interest stories, Godley found his own life the easiest to mine.
In August 1949 he was invited to attend the centenary celebrations in Canterbury, New Zealand, as lineal descendant of his great-grandfather John Robert Godley (1814–61), the founder of the province. He cajoled a specially modified Morris Oxford from the Nuffield Foundation, and drove the 14,315 miles from London to Calcutta in five-and-a-half months. Flying to western Australia, and driving to the east coast, he then toured New Zealand for two months before arriving in Canterbury. The Sunday Express supplied a £5 per week retainer in exchange for first refusal on ensuing copy, and Godley sold stories of his exploits to newspapers throughout his journey. In Tehran he secured interviews with the shah and the Iranian prime minister, General Razmara; he also interviewed Pakistani Prime Minister Ali Kahn Liaquat in Karachi.
Upon his father's death (13 October 1950), relayed to him in Perth, Godley assumed the title and inherited Killegar. Before Godley had set out, his reclusive alcoholic father, in declining health, had urged him to complete the journey no matter what. He attempted to restore Killegar's economic viability, greatly undermined in his father's last years, and to maintain estate employment as best he could (his father had employed over twenty staff). His writing, drawing on his public persona and escapades, generated income essential to support the dilapidated estate. Attempting to improve its viability, he invested in cattle and exported cream cheese butter to London, but struggled to make a profit.
Having become social columnist for the Sunday Express on his return from New Zealand, he soon lost interest and decamped to Corsica on holiday. Intrigued by tales of Erwin Rommel's treasure being dumped in the sea off Bastia in 1943, he led an unsuccessful search attempt (1962–3). As his fear of flying abated, his exotic travels and peripatetic existence as part of the post-war jet set provided an exciting journalistic perspective. Rebounding between Kitzbühel, Monte Carlo, Paris, New York, and Rome, as well as the staging posts of the British season, Godley published in the Reader's Digest, American Weekly, New Yorker, Evening Standard, Vogue, Punch and Hibernia, and travelled to Cuba, Aden, the Congo and China as a freelance foreign correspondent.
In 1952 he took his seat in the house of lords ('one of the best clubs in London an excellent dining room fine library, free telephone and rather exclusive company' (Living like a lord, 167)), and the next year attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He wrote as an outsider inside the establishment, and his journalistic skill lay in explaining the privileged world he emanated from in a warm, self-deprecating tone. His maiden speech (1961), inspired by his interest in organic farming, urged the labelling of chemical additives in food. Taking the Labour whip from 1966, having sat as a Liberal since 1960, he was the only Irish citizen and resident in attendance in the lords during the 1980s.
When John Huston (qv) was making the film Moby Dick (1956), he asked Godley to audition for the part of Ishmael; he was unsuccessful, but eventually served as an uncredited script doctor and extra. He was later to escort the actress Jayne Mansfield on her four-day trip to London to promote Oh! For a man (1957). His account appeared in the Daily Express and the £100 fee bought two milk cows.
Godley visited Moscow for the fortieth anniversary of the October Russian Revolution for the Daily Express; the ensuing A peer behind the curtain (1959) describes his attempts to interview Premier Nikita Khruschev, whom he eventually met after sneaking into a reception at the Egyptian embassy. Shamrocks and unicorns (1962) collected his Tatler pieces, reworking old tales, and showed the limits of his oeuvre. His account of the Vermeer forgeries perpetrated by Han van Meegeren, The master forger (1951) (reprised as Van Meegeren: a case history (1967)), focuses on the minutiae of the forger's methods, techniques and strategies, and grew out of a chance meeting with van Meegeren's daughter. In 1979 he wrote his war memoirs, Bring back my stringbag, considered a classic account of the life of a wartime naval pilot. He was editorial director of World-Watch magazine (1985). The success of his Easy way to bird recognition (1982), which won a Times Educational Supplement award, led to the extension of the series (altogether selling over 100,000 copies) to cover trees and wildflowers.
Fire seriously damaged Killegar House in 1970. After unsuccessful attempts at forestry, Godley ceased running the estate as a going concern in the mid 1970s and let the land, focusing on writing and politics. The house was eventually opened to the public in 1990 under a tax-incentivised heritage scheme. During the 1970s, Godley's Irish identity became increasingly pronounced alongside a growing sympathy for the nationalist community in Northern Ireland; he supported power sharing and integrated education, and later favoured a consensual united Ireland. In protest at Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972), he renounced his UK citizenship and returned his four war medals. He also offered the peace and tranquility of Killegar to children from troubled parts of the north. Supporting self-determination for colonised peoples across the globe, he was a strong advocate of Kurdish rights, visiting the blighted region a dozen times from the late 1960s, and highlighting their plight in the Ba'athist Iraq, especially the genocidal gassing of villagers at Halabja in 1988. Politically friendly with Lord Longford (qv) and Gerry Fitt (qv), Godley supported the abolition of the hereditary peerage, believing it was indefensible in a mature democracy. He was active in the lords until the late 1990s before his health declined; a stickler for grammatical and numerical accuracy, he captained the house's chess team.
On good terms with his neighbours, who aided his attempts to run Killegar, Godley was a down-to-earth figure who made friends wherever he went. After several years of poor health, he died 14 August 2006 in Cavan. After a co-denominational service, he was buried, in a coffin made from sweet chestnut felled from his estate, in the local Church of Ireland graveyard. His brother Wynne was a prominent Treasury economist, later professor of applied economics at Cambridge University, and a noted critic of monetarism. Godley married secondly (1981) Susan Lee Heazlewood; they divorced in 1989. The elder son of his first marriage, Christopher John Godley, succeeded to the Kilbracken title; the younger son died shortly after birth. John Godley had another son from his second marriage, and an acknowledged daughter from another liaison.