Obituary: Terence de Vere White

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Terence de Vere White, writer, editor: born 29 April 1912; Literary Editor, Irish Times 1961-77; married 1941 Mary O'Farrell (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1982), 1982 The Hon Victoria Glendinning; died London 17 June 1994.

TERENCE DE VERE WHITE was the author of 26 books - biography and fiction - and literary editor of the Irish Times from 1961 to 1977, a time when the mood and willingness of that paper was to involve itself with things Irish rather than look always to London as its spiritual home, as it had done for many generations.

This was the period when Irish writing became recognised for what it was and is and was no longer dismissed as harmless effort on the part of the struggling peasants. And as the author of a highly acclaimed work The Anglo- Irish (1972), White was the right man at the right time to oversee that change. He was one of the first to publish a Seamus Heaney poem in a national newspaper, and he was a source of encouragement and hope to many struggling Irish writers. Many of those whom he helped were totally unaware of the enormous span of his own works. White was neither a Protestant nor a man of independent means, as most people in Ireland always believed him to be. He was in fact the Catholic son of Frederick de Vere White, solicitor to the Railways in Ireland, and his childhood, far from being a silver-spoon existence, was marked by tragedy. In 1917, when he was five years old, his elder brother aged nine was killed in a school accident, and then five years later Terence's father died suddenly in London. He got into a London taxi and died while on his journey. The body was brought by the taxi-driver to the nearest London hospital, where by chance the brother of the deceased happened to be the visiting clergyman that day. Terence said that if you were to try and write such an incident in fiction, people would dismiss it as preposterous.

Terence's widowed mother took in what were never called 'lodgers' but always 'paying guests'. At the age of 15 he joined a solicitor's office to serve his apprenticeship. He enrolled as a student in Trinity College, but he always claimed that he had no salad days to look back on. He had to work in the office where he was indentured and take his vacation only at the times when he had to sit examinations. He hardly attended any lectures but he studied hard and was the youngest graduate of his time, at the age of 19. Then he began to practise as a full-time solicitor. Well-read and interested in all aspects of literature, he toyed with the idea of writing, but needed a spur to goad him into it. That was a short-story competition organised by the Irish Academy of Letters. When he won it, he admitted that he was now bitten by the bug, but never thought of abandoning his day-job. Instead, being a writer meant that he had to get up at 5am and get three hours' work finished before going off to his office.

Soon there was hardly any aspect of artistic and literary life in Dublin where he was not invited to participate. He was a Trustee of the National Library of the National Gallery and of the Chester Beatty Library, a member of the Arts Council, a director of the famed Gate Theatre and also a Member of the Irish Academy of Letters and Professor of Literature at the Royal Hibernian Academy. When he became literary editor at the Irish Times he had been an acknowledged author since 1945, when his first biography, a life of Isaac Butt, was published, but he said he never dared to make the plunge into full-time writing and journalism. It seemed almost a perilous step when thinking back to the straitened days of his youth. His humility in never wanting to believe that he could define himself a 'writer' was as real as it was touching. His gentle irony and mockery about the world around him was directed mainly towards himself.

White's own works seemed to interest him much less than the works of others. He said it was almost like tempting fate to take himself too seriously; for all his genial and gentlemanly approach to life, he had an inner seriousness. He had the additional sorrow of losing a second brother to a tragic accident in the river Liffey. It made him feel that life was not to be taken lightly and that we all had a living to earn and that there was a danger that writing might just be an indulgence. But he applied this only to his own writing. To the rest of us he was a wildly enthusiastic friend and supporter, believing that there were no obstacles that couldn't be beaten down.

He had the satisfaction of seeing many of his earlier works reprinted in the Eighties, and looked on in genuine bewilderment at the large paperback sales of novels like Prenez Garde (1962), The March Hare (1970) and The Radish Memoirs (1974). His biography of Kevin O'Higgins (1948), and The Parents of Oscar Wilde (1967) have never been out of print.

His first marriage was in Ireland, where his three children grew up, and I knew him then as the father of one of the girls at school, gentle, admiring, enthusiastic, unaware that everyone was in awe of him as a literary figure. He moved to London in 1977, where he married the critic, biographer and novelist Victoria Glendinning in 1982.

Last night at the Irish Times people remembered a man who could write an editorial on almost any subject at speed and with enormous fluency. A Renaissance man who knew about everything. He would dismiss that praise: a man who knows a little about everything ends up knowing everything about nothing, he once said, trying to turn aside the compliment.

He told me once that he had a fantasy. He said he thought he was a precocious 12-year-old, and that people thought he was promising. That is what motivated his life, he said, the belief that he was promising. To his friends, he delivered every promise.

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