Books: The Cruiser, right or wrong

Memoir: My Life and Themes by Conor Cruise O'Brien Profile pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
Some 20 years ago, an extraordinary event took place at the Literary and Historical Society in University College Dublin, the Irish equivalent of the Oxford and Cambridge debating unions. My cousin was auditor (or president as it would be in Britain) during that year and he had determined that his hero Conor Cruise O'Brien should be made a Vice-President of the Society. These appointments were usually made on the nod; there were many such functionaries, retired civil servants, judges, well-known writers and the like. But O'Brien was different. A full-scale meeting was required, at which a packed chamber debated in a raucous manner and for the whole evening the merits and demerits of this particular nominee.

The house was bitterly divided. The key contribution was a long speech from the greatest student orator of his generation, not praising the man in florid terms (of which we all knew he was capable and to which we had looked forward) but instead slowly, almost turgidly reciting the bare bones of O'Brien's extraordinary curriculum vitae: from his birth in 1917 and his early Trinity College scholarship, via the Irish foreign service, the United Nations, the UN crisis in Katanga in 1961, the Vice-Chancellorship of Ghana University and the Albert Schweitzer professorship at New York University, back to Ireland and service as a government minister in the then immediately recent past. As the powerful monotone reminded us, all this had been accompanied in every decade by writing of the very highest quality, with plays, literary criticism, historical works and political analysis all flowing consistently and elegantly from O'Brien's prolific pen. None of this was why the man was controversial, of course. It was that segment of himself that he had devoted to Northern Ireland and to rethinking Irish nationalism that had turned the Irish part of O'Brien's world inside out, and made that meeting angry and emotional. It was all the crowd cared for, but maybe subliminally they were trying to punish him for being a broader as well as a different kind of Irishman. "The Cruiser", as he was always called, just squeaked home.

O'Brien is an easy but dangerous man to hero-worship. His original but brilliantly incisive analysis of the Irish troubles at the start of the 1970s weaned a whole generation from addiction to a debilitating nationalism which had outlived its meaning, while at the same time seeming to have given birth to a new "terrorist" generation. Having garnered these disciples, O'Brien later made fools of them, when he dismissed the whole peace process as an IRA ruse and launched himself enthusiastically into Robert McCartney's tiny unionist faction in Northern Ireland. Now even this band have had to sack their famous patron after his argument (made in this book) that the unionist would after all be better off in the Republic. So O'Brien seems to be back more or less where he started decades ago, as a pluralist Irish nationalist of a very particular sort.

To look for consistency in O'Brien is however to miss the point. He has never been cut out for the dullness of holding to the straight line. There is a flamboyance in him, and a self-awareness and humanity that come through almost all of this book. At a private dinner in honour of a very senior British newspaper figure some years ago, I happened to be sitting next to O'Brien. By now he had added yet another layer to his life, as a former Editor-in-Chief of the Observer. Meeting him for the first time, I said that though I had idolised him for years I felt he was now completely wrong about Ireland, Israel, South Africa and much else. He whooped with delight at the prospect of controversy, thanked the host for putting "one of my enemies" beside him, and we settled down for an evening of argument. Then when the speeches came he heckled, shouted and practically had to be held back. If only we could all have an old age like this, I thought.

It is not the politics I mainly remember though; it was his talk of family and his interest in mine. There is an unbearably moving preface to this book about the death of his daughter Kate who had read most of it in draft and to whom the work is dedicated.

O'Brien's life is a product of his unique dialogue between heart, head and spirit, made unusually transparent by the quality of his writing which is invariably superb. With an almost haunting sense of detachment, he describes his lonely childhood, his father's early death, and the steep decline in his family's status that followed the establishment of the new Irish political order after 1922. His time as a member of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs included a stint answering to an ex-IRA chief of staff, the foreign minister Sean MacBride, and this hilarious mismatch is played back here as a kind of existential farce.

The core of the book gives O'Brien's side of the great UN crisis of the early 1960s, involving the secession of Katanga from the Congo, in which the Cruiser was intimately involved as Dag Hammarskjold's special representative, and which drew savage criticism upon his head from many quarters. His few pages setting the scene for this drama describe the politics of the UN in the 1950s in a way which reminds the reader of how penetratingly radical O'Brien's anti-imperialism could be. His description of how the United States dressed up its self- interested management of the world in moral terms is particularly riveting and has a contemporary ring.

Katanga was a huge turning point in O'Brien's life. Maybe this was the straight line that he really wanted but which was denied to him, with the UN becoming an inhospitable home after Katanga. The front cover and jacket of the book both contain rather similar photographs of a young O'Brien, probably taken during the 1950s, almost as though this was the phase of his life in which he was keenest to locate himself. (The effect of this little piece of self-indulgence is however to give the uninformed browser the impression that the book is about the defeat of ageing by a contemporary Dorian Gray.) Perhaps international politics was this polymath's true destiny, denied to him by being caught up in a crisis which he was intelligent enough to comprehend but too junior to control. If this is the case, then as ever O'Brien was ahead of his time. It has been only in recent years that Irish men and women have reached beyond their past to take their place in a world larger than the dreary ethnic quarrel and the bitter religious anger that has held them back for so long.

Other Irish people have perhaps done more to achieve their country's renaissance than the ever-argumentative, mercurial, contradictory Cruiser: by engaging with Ireland's dull reality and respecting its backwardness while seeking to move the people on, Mary Robinson, Dick Spring and above all Garret Fitzgerald deserve to be celebrated as the towering political heroes of Ireland's resurrection. But who other than the Cruiser ever sent to every Irish boy and girl growing up all over that island in the long dark decades of church, nationalism and corruption the simple message: "You don't have to take any of this. Be yourself." It is for the revolutionary example of his life and words that O'Brien will go to the grave loved and hated in equal measure. There are worse ways to live and die.