Obituary: Kevin FitzGerald

David Cox
Thursday 18 November 1993 00:02 GMT

Kevin Columba FitzGerald, writer, businessman, mountaineer: born London 19 June 1902; married 1931 Vida Lamb (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1942 Janet Quigley (died 1987); died Chinnor, Oxfordshire 9 November 1993.

KEVIN FitzGERALD was a man of fine physique, 6ft 3in tall and strongly built. In his youth he played rugby football for Staffordshire for seven seasons. He revelled in the physical labour of farm work when he visited Manitoba one summer in the 1920s, and still more in the combination of strength and artistry required for a day's horse- drawn ploughing on his father's 980-acre farm at Synone in Tipperary.

But books - a taste inherited from his father - were his lifelong passion. He once claimed (and one does not doubt it) that until his last years he bought at least one book every week of his adult life and that he read every book he ever bought. His memory was highly retentive, and he was a master of the apt quotation. For many years he was a member of an exclusive literary group, the Sette of Odd Volumes, with whom it was a rare pleasure to dine as his guest. He was also a long-standing member of the Athenaeum.

He himself was a gifted and highly entertaining writer, although the thrillers which make up the bulk of his published oeuvre would now seem badly dated. Indeed, he himself never took them very seriously. But quite late on, when he was over 80 and was rapidly losing his eyesight, he produced a small masterpiece, With O'Leary in the Grave (1986), which was ostensibly the story of his own early life, but also gave a brilliant picture of his eccentric father, and of life in Ireland - and in Tipperary in particular - during the 1920s.

Originally his father's intention had been for him first to manage the Synone estate and eventually inherit it. For this reason Kevin spent four years at Seale-Hayne Agricultural College, in Devon, only to discover that his father had changed his mind. The knowledge acquired at Seale-Hayne, however, served him well when he joined the Agricultural Department of ICI, for which company he worked with distinction for the next 35 years until his retirement in the mid-1950s.

Apart from one or two skiing holidays in Norway, mountains meant little to him until he was well over 40. It was when he was ICI's General Manager in Ireland soon after the Second World War that he discovered that overnight trips on the Holyhead mailboat made North Wales easily accessible for weekends, and from that time he became a great lover of the Welsh hills and rock-climbing - indeed of anything to do with mountaineering or mountain literature. In a way he was an improbable convert, since he had terrifyingly little aptitude for even the easiest climb, and it was a considerable tribute to his intense love of mountains when having absolutely none of the normal qualifications he was elected to membership of the Alpine Club.

He was once a serious alcoholic - so serious that he was warned that, unless he stopped drinking, he had only a few months to live. He showed extraordinary strength of mind in giving up alcohol immediately and without treatment of any kind; and later he gave much of his time to being a helper in Alcoholics Anonymous.

FitzGerald was an Irishman through and through, with all an Irishman's charm, generosity and flow of conversation. He was a considerable scholar and a master of words, whether spoken or written, serious or humorous. Just before the war two chance meetings, one of them with JB Priestley, resulted in his giving many readings and unscripted talks on the BBC, all through the war and afterwards. Another more personal link with the BBC was his marriage to Janet Quigley, who virtually created the radio programme Woman's Hour which is still running today.

Towards the end of FitzGerald's life his eyesight began to fail seriously, and from about 1986 he was totally blind. His courage in facing this condition was quite remarkable, and his mind remained perfectly clear - witness his dictation of an authoritative article on Ford Madox Ford for a literary magazine when he was just short of 90. Not many people could do that.

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