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Irene J. Young (1919-2017)

Author and codebreaker.

Photograph of Irene J. Young

Irene J. Young was born in Edinburgh. She was educated at Esdaile (Ministers’ Daughters’ College), and also studied drama and elocution privately. In 1937 she went up to the University of Edinburgh to read English Language and Literature, with special subjects in the Classical and Spanish backgrounds, and graduated MA (Hons) in 1942.

That year she was recruited by the Foreign Office and served at the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), Bletchley Park, dealing with ‘Ultra’ intelligence decrypts. 

As a student, Irene Young had met and become engaged to Leslie G. Cairns. He had left the University of Edinburgh to join the Army in May 1940, being commissioned into the Royal Artillery and seeing service in North Africa, where he fought at El Alamein. He transferred to the Parachute Regiment and then to the Special Air Service (SAS). They married on 29 December 1943. On 18 June 1944 Lieutenant Cairns (who had previously taken a War Honours degree in History) was posted missing on a secret mission behind enemy lines in Eastern France and was presumed killed in action.  

Irene had transferred from the Foreign Office to a department of the Home Civil Service. In 1947 she qualified as a secretary with the intention of working abroad with the British Council. But instead she went to South Africa, supposedly for a year. In Durban she worked in bookselling and lectured for a tutorial college. There, too, she met and subsequently married Reginald S. Brown, a South African-born Natal University graduate and chartered accountant who had served in the Army in Egypt and Libya and who, having been wounded and captured, had been an escaped prisoner of war in Italy. 

Neither of them wished to go on living under the apartheid regime in South Africa, so they moved to Scotland. He requalified and resumed practice as an accountant. She took private tutorial pupils in Latin and English before working in a departmental library of the University of Edinburgh. 

Reginald Brown died suddenly in 1982. Irene, feeling that a story was locked within her, ultimately wrote and published to much acclaim a touching account of her university and wartime days – Enigma Variations: a Memoir of Love and War (1990). A second, expanded edition was published in 2000 with the subtitle Love, War and Bletchley Park. She had written verse from her schooldays, and throughout her life. A selection was published posthumously as A Two-Coloured Skein, edited by her son Dr Iain Gordon Brown: this volume also includes a substantial memoir of his mother.

Related links

Irene Brown Wikipedia article

'From Bletchley with Love: Irene J. Young' blog post