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by Bamber Gascoigne

Brian Cleeve (1921-2003)


Irish author and TV broadcaster, whose popular fiction ranged from hard-boiled crime stories to Regency romances. In his later life, Brian Cleeve wrote mystical books. The House on the Rock (1980) was a bestseller in Ireland. Cleeve was described as the "quintessential Irish gentleman."

"Behind the political Ireland which fought for and at last won its independence lies nothing else but Irish literature. Within it are all the forces which gave Irishmen pride in being Irish and a determination not to be English; religion, faith courage, remembrance of greatness, sorrow for defeat, and a way of looking at the world, at a bird in the sky, at a girl by the roadside, at an old woman or an empty mountainside or a tree, that has grown out of this soil and could grow out of no other." (from Dictionary of Irish Writers. Volume Three, 1971)

Brian (Brendan Talbot) Cleeve was born at Thorpe Bay, Essex, the second child of Josephine Cleeve (née Talbot) and Charles Edward Cleeve, a businessman, one of the family that had owned the Cleeves toffee factory in Limerick. Cleeve's mother died when he was very young and he was brought up by his maternal grandparents. Cleeve's father remarried a wealthy widow named Eleanor Halifax, who had three children from a previous union. The marriage ended in divorce seven years later. Eleanor was an alcoholic with a violent temper.

Cleeve was educated at Selwyn House, Broadstairs, Kent (1930-35), and St. Edward's School in Oxford (1935-38). At the age of seventeen he ran away to sea, and joined the crew of the RMS Queen Mary. He then joined the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders as a private soldier.

When the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union broke out in 1939, Brian Cleeve volunteered to take part in an expedition to fight with the Finns against the Russian invaders. At that time he was undergoing officer training in the British army. Cleeve was sent to the French Alps for ski training but the war on the Finnish front ended before the expedition could be mounted.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Cleeve was sent to Kenya. He was court-martialled for expressing his disgust of the way an African prisoner was treated. After being offered parole from Wakefield Prison in Yorkshire, he worked for the British Intelligence as a counter-spy, sailing as an ordinary merchant seaman to cover his true mission.

Cleeve converted to Roman Catholicism for a time, but he kept it secret from his Protestant family. In 1945, Cleeve married Veronica McAdie. They had two daughters, Berenice and Tanga.  With his family Cleeve settled in 1948 in Johannesburg, where he worked as a freelance journalist and salesman; with his wife he sold horoscopes and perfume in Johannesburg. Cleeve received his B.A. from the University of South Africa in 1953. An outspoken critic of Apartheid, he was expelled from the country in 1954 as a result of publishing the novel Birth of a Dark Soul (1953), which concerned with the relationships between the different races in pre-Apartheid South Africa.

Cleeve returned to Ireland, where he studied at the National University of Ireland, Dublin, obtaining the Ph.D. degree in 1956. His thesis dealt with the origin of Shakespeare's tale of Hamlet. He also contributed short stories to the Saturday Evening Post. His hobbies were fencing, reading history, and collecting miniature bronzes.

Assignment to Vengeance (1961) Cleeve's first mystery novel, was reviewed in The Observer: "Don't miss. Fast, exciting, and by no means incredible chase-thriller...." The story told about an ex-British Intelligence agent, who is called back into service to track down a former Nazi officer. The book was published by Hammond. Like Graham Greene, who had worked for the SIS during the war, and Ian Fleming, who was an ex-Naval Intelligence officer, Cleeve drew on his own experiences. Vote X for Treason (1964) introduced the ex-Irish revolutionary Sean Ryan, who is recruited by the British intelligence. Other books in the Sean Ryan series include Dark Blood, Dark Terror (1965), The Judas Goat (1966), and Violent Death of a Bitter Englishman (1967).

Death of a Painted Lady (1962), another Hammond thriller, appeared in the Cloak and Dagger Mysterys series, which featured writers such as S.H. Courtier, George Harmon Coxe, Frances Crane, Dorothy Gardiner, and Craig Rice. Cleeve's interest in history led him to publish Regency romances, Sara (1976), Kate (1977), and Judith (1978). Originally Cleeve planned to focus on a historical family saga covering the 19th century, but the heroine of Sara inspired him to write three other novels with vaguely similar themes. In these works Cleeve followed a feminist tradition – his female protagonists struggle against multiple yokes of oppression, but they eventually manage rise above the downward pull of circumstances. Cleeve produced also a number of short stories, of which 'Foxer' was collected in Best Detective Stories of the Year 1966, edited by Anthony Boucher. Cleeve himself compiled only one collection, The Horse Thieves of Ballysaggert (1966), published by Mercier Press. 'Mr. Murphy and the Fallen Angel' (1995) was included in Great Irish Tales of Horror (1995), edited by Peter Haining.

From 1962 to 1973 Cleeve worked for Telefís Éireann, which had started its regular television broadcasts on New Year's eve 1961. In 1964, he won the prestigious Jacob’s Television Award for his contribution to Discovery, a documentary television series, which he scripted. Cleeve was dropped as presenter of the series in 1966 because his "Ascendancy" accent was considered unsuitable for broadcasting.

During the years he stepped on some big toes, but he had a loyal following among viewers. When he sought prior approval of a script dealing with child abuse by Catholic clergy, the program was dropped. Cleene explained that his aim "was to combat in some small way the recent and not so recent allegations made against what was being done for these children in Ireland." ('Media and Culture in Ireland, 1960-2008' by Maurice Walsh, in The Princeton History of Modern Ireland, edited by Richard Bourke & Ian McBride, 2016, p. 266) After the current affairs show 7 Days began its broadcasts in 1966, Cleeve joined the team. With Brian Farrell and John O'Donoghue he was one of the presenters. Cleeve left the team in 1971. His career as a broadcaster closed on a sour note two years later – Telefís Éireann did not renew his contract. 

The House on the Rock and The Seven Mansions (1980) could be described as meditations on certain spiritual and religious themes. Before going into mysticism, Cleeve had been more or less an agnostic from his thirtees. Although his views were unorthodox, they were not totally contrary to Catholic doctrines. Arguing that "a mother is a better image of the Creator than a father," he defended the ancient idea that God can be regarded as feminine. The Fourth Mary (1982) looked at the Crucifixion through the viewpoint of a Sado-Masochist cult. According to Cleeve, Sado-Masochism is the Black Mass of Love.

Fearing libel suits, Cleeve's publisher Cassell & Co. hesitated to publish Cry of Morning (1971), dealing with a real estate manipulation and politics in Dublin. Eventually the book was issued by Michael Joseph, London.  In the  foreword Cleeve stated that there is "no connection whatsoever between [the]  realities of Irish life and their parallels in this work of complete fiction."

Cleeve's works of non-fiction include the three-volume Dictionary of Irish Writers (1967-72). Its second edition, edited with Anne M. Brady, came out in 1988. It has been estimated that Cleeve's unpublished writings are more numerous than those that have been published. (Faithful Servant: A Memoir of Brian Cleeve by Jim Bruce, 2007, p. 259)

After Veronica died in 1999, Cleeve married Patricia Ledwidge. Cleeve died of a heart attack on March 11, 2003. He was buried in Shanganagh cemetery beneath a tombstone that reads "Servant of God". His last novel of mysticism was A Woman of Fortune (1993). Cleeve lived in Shankill, County Dublin, from 1999 until his death.

For further reading: 'Cleeve, Brian' by Virginia Macdonald, in Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by John M. Reilly (1985); 'Cleeve, Brian' by Gina Macdonald, in Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, ed. by Aruna Vasudevan (1994); Servant of God: A Memoir of Brian Cleeve by Jim Bruce (2006); Faithful Servant: A Memoir of Brian Cleeve by Jim Bruce (2007) 

Selected works:

  • The Far Hills, 1952
  • Portrait of My City, 1952
  • Birth of a Dark Soul, 1953 (US title: The Night Winds, 1954)
  • Assignment to Vengeance, 1961
  • Death of a Painted Lady, 1962 (aka The Portrait)
  • Death of a Wicked Servant, 1963
  • Vote X for Treason, 1964 (as Counterspy, 1966)
  • Dark Blood, Dark Terror, 1966
  • The Judas Goat, 1966 (US title: Vice Isn't Private, 1966)
  • The Horse Thieves of Ballysaggert, and Other Stories, 1966
  • Violent Death of a Bitter Englishman, 1967
  • Dictionary of Irish Writers. Volume 1: Fiction, Novelists, Playwrights, Poets, Short Story Writers in English, 1967
  • You Must Never Go Back, 1968 (aka Shadow of Gold)
  • Exit from Prague, 1970 (US title: Escape from Prague, 1973)
  • Dictionary of Irish Writers. Volume 2: Non-Fiction, 1970
  • Cry of Morning, 1971 (US title: The Triumph of O'Rourke, 1972)
  • Dictionary of Irish Writers. Volume 3: Writers in the Irish Language, 1971
  • W.B. Yeats and the Design of Ireland's Coinage, 1972 (editor)
  • Tread Softly in this Place, 1972
  • The Dark Side of the Sun, 1973
  • A Question of Inheritance, 1974 (US title: For Love of Crannagh Castle, 1975)
  • Sara, 1975
  • Kate, 1977
  • Judith, 1978
  • Hester, 1978
  • The House on the Rock, 1980
  • The Seven Mansions, 1980
  • 1938: A World Vanishing, 1982
  • The Fourth Mary, 1982
  • A View of the Irish, 1983
  • A Biographical Dictionary of Irish Writers, 1985 (rew. ed. with Anne M. Brady)
  • A Woman of Fortune, 1993

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