Conor Cruise O'Brien: Irish intellectual with a long career as journalist, politician, literary critic and public servant

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The Independent Online

The author of just two competent stage plays, Conor Cruise O'Brien was the most important public man of letters Ireland witnessed since W.B. Yeats died in 1939.

It will take years to sort out the Yeats from the chaff (of which there was plenty). Nevertheless, Cruise O'Brien's standing as the principal post-war broker between the currencies of literature and politics is undeniable. His impact on international perceptions of "the Troubles" is best measured by the animosity manifest among his fellow-countrymen. I have been hostilely greeted in a rural public house because my jacket resembled "something Cruise O'Brien might wear". Finally, he possessed at his intermittent best a writing style equal to that of George Orwell.

Donal Conor David Dermot Donat Cruise O'Brien was born in Dublin in 1917, the only child of the journalist Frank Cruise O'Brien and his wife Kathleen (née Sheehy). The parents being ostentatiously progressive, the child's baptism as a Catholic might be regarded as an oversight. But the elder Cruise O'Brien's death on Christmas Day 1927 inaugurated a pattern of sombre mythic thinking in the solitary boy which throughout life complemented his mischievous dissent from orthodoxies in both church and state.

After a decent secondary education achieved through much sacrifice on the mother's part, Conor Cruise O'Brien entered Trinity College Dublin in 1936. An unconventional but brilliant student, he took a double First in Modern Languages (French and Irish) and History, and his postgraduate research was published as Parnell and His Party (1957). Already he had embarked on two careers – as civil servant and occasional literary critic.

While Sean MacBride was Ireland's Minister for External Affairs (1948-51), the young Cruise O'Brien argued a strongly anti-partitionist position in some ephemeral publications which his biographer-bibliographer has ignored. His association with MacBride brought a growing awareness of the world outside Ireland as a political arena as well as a cultural resource. In Sean O'Faolain's magazine The Bell, "Donat O'Donnell" had published perceptive criticism of Catholic novelists including Evelyn Waugh and François Mauriac. A collected edition appeared in 1953 as Maria Cross: imaginative patterns in a group of modern Catholic writers. The pressure of diplomatic work delayed further reflective work in essay form, but Writers and Politics (1965) gathered reviews, lectures, and other short pieces. By now, he was a well-known contributor to international magazines and newspapers. He continued to write for The New York Review of Books.

Characteristically, Cruise O'Brien was changing course even as success drew alongside. Among Irish delegates at the United Nations from 1956 onwards, he attracted the attention of the Secretary-General, Dag Hammerskjold. With crisis deepening in copper-rich Congo, the UN sought to play buffer between the great powers (including Belgium) and the new government. In 1961 Cruise O'Brien was despatched as Hammerskjold's personal representative, a situation complicated by the presence of Irish troops among the UN forces and the more personal attendance of another Irish civil servant, Máire Mac Entee.

To Katanga and Back (1962) represents the high point of Ireland's non-aligned commitment in the United Nations, and constitutes its author's best claim to a radical pedigree. His analysis of duplicitous manoeuvrings by Belgium, the UK and the United States gave substance to the suspicions of decolonising Africa. The book also narrates aspects of Cruise O'Brien's private and domestic life, culminating in (Mexican) divorce and remarriage.

While still students, Cruise O'Brien had met Christine Foster, daughter of a Northern Irish classics master and international rugby player. Married in 1939, they had three children. International conflict is not an ideal background for a re-alignment of one's emotional and domestic life. But he and Miss Mac Entee (a poet in Gaelic, and daughter of a government minister) succeeded in the essentials, though not without sharp comment from the Dublin Sunday newspapers. The murder of Patrice Lumumba and the débâcle of UN attempts to discipline the rebel province of Katanga hastened Cruise O'Brien's resignation both from his UN responsibilities and the Irish diplomatic corps.

Africa had been exciting, and he found himself installed as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana in 1962, some months after his second marriage. Disagreements arising about the value of academic freedom, the contract was not renewed. While in Ghana, Cruise O'Brien wrote "Passion and Cunning", an analysis of Yeats's political attitudes and behaviour. Published in a volume of essays celebrating the poet's centenary in 1965, it caused outrage among the professors. A silently modified version was issued in 1988.

Moving from diplomacy to the mango groves of academia, Cruise O'Brien next became Schweitzer Professor of Humanities in New York University. From 1965 to 1969 he contributed vigorously both to the academic life of the city and the growing anti-war movement. A notable product of this period was The Morality of Scholarship (1967), edited with Northrop Frye and Stuart Hampshire.

In Ireland, radicalism was stirring, even in the Labour Party which proclaimed "The Seventies will be Socialist", and recruited a brilliant cohort of intellectuals including Justin Keating and Cruise O'Brien. Having joined the party back in 1937, he was now cautiously groomed for a public role. Some meetings were hosted by Michael McInerney, political correspondent for The Irish Times and a staunch supporter of Noel Browne, soon to be Vice-Chairman of the party. Opinion was sharply divided, and the new member of Dáil Eireann (elected for Dublin North-East in 1968) disappointed neither friend nor foe.

He was now "The Cruiser" whose political career can be personalised as his conflict with Charles Haughey (also a TD for Dublin North-East), geographically identified with Northern Ireland and its constitutional status, or ideologically traced through his implacable opposition to the Provisional IRA. Electoral defeat in 1977 ensured that ministerial experience was limited to one term (1973-77) in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, a period dominated by his imposing a total broadcasting ban on Provos or their supporters.

This heavy-handed censorship cost him liberal friends while it paradoxically refined the Provos' approach to media management, of which they are today's acknowledged masters. Yet Haughey died in disgrace, the Irish Constitution no longer makes claim on the North, and the Provos have signed up to the Good Friday Agreement. So much argues for Cruise O'Brien's success, despite his own loud prophecies of yet more doom.

When the Cosgrave government fell in 1977, he had found a by-road back into politics as a senator representing Trinity College Dublin. His attendance record was deplorable, too much time being spent in London, where he served on The Observer in an editorial capacity (1977-1981). A highly publicised trip to South Africa incensed the international Anti-Apartheid Movement, while domestically his politics swung into a position not just sympathetic to Ulster Unionists but uncritically identical with theirs.

A mere list of his publications would be overwhelming. Though Ireland is everywhere a thematic concern, Cruise O'Brien contributed Albert Camus to the Fontana Modern Masters series, and wrote a study of Israel and Zionism (The Siege, 1986; translated into German in 1991). His refusal to meet or interview Yasser Arafat confirmed for many the emergence of a renegade from radicalism, even a paid stooge of "US-Zionist imperialism". Though the book lacks balance, and indulges in occasional flights of philo-Semitic special pleading, its author could not be accused of sustained pro-Americanism. Excursions into American history (The Long Affair, 1996) generally disguised a larger concern with the legacies of revolution (the French, in particular).

Obsessed as he was by the theme of religion and politics, Conor Cruise O'Brien's place in Irish history will be hotly debated. If governments use certain agents whom they class as "deniables", then Irish public opinion might borrow the term to understand what it sought from this mercurial and dedicated public servant. As the British left once said of Harold Wilson, he may be a rat but he is still our rat. As with Swift, his wit wounded. His gift was to provoke thought, not to persuade. He not only lacked the common touch, he loathed it.

Iconoclastic reviewer, socialist member of the Opposition, tough government minister, Gaelic-speaking revisionist historian and the stranger's best friend, Cruise O'Brien undertook a missionary programme of exploration which no contemporary could have rivalled. And he unquestionably delivered. His findings, like his initial sentiments, were rarely welcome. The wonder is that this messenger was not shot by one or other of those constituencies of passion and cunning to whom he reported.

It is arguable that the traumatic death of his father established psychic needs which were translated into conflictual goals – independence and security, a selective egalitarianism. Certainly, his innovative work on Edmund Burke (The Great Melody, 1992) reveals a strange need to feel Burke's contemporary presence, in the same room with the author. His later years were darkened by the sudden death of his beloved daughter Kate from a brain haemorrhage. His adoptive family were as deeply loved.

In March 2003, Cruise O'Brien attended the annual conference of the UK Unionist Party in Bangor, Co Down. This was not his first endorsement of full integration as a solution to Northern Ireland's difficult relationship with Britain. At 85, it bespoke a persistence in marginalisation strikingly different from the canny manoeuvres of the younger careerist.

He was still a workhorse journalist, not least to keep the taxman at bay, but the puckish humour had become ponderous and sibylline. In December 2003, a long-awaited report on bombings in Dublin and Monaghan drew terse pre-emptive denials that the Cosgrave government had lacked commitment in seeking to identify and prosecute the perpetrators (thought to include "rogue" elements in British security.)

If the rest is silence, it is a rest well earned.

Donal Conor David Dermot Donat Cruise O'Brien, politician, literary critic and historian: born Dublin 3 November 1917; staff, Department of External Affairs of Ireland 1944-61, Head of UN Section 1956-60, Assistant Secretary 1960-61; Vice-Chancellor, University of Ghana 1962-65; Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, New York University 1965-69; TD (Labour) for Dublin North-East 1969-77; Minister for Posts and Telegraphs 1973-77; Pro-Chancellor, University of Dublin 1973-2008; Member of Senate, Republic of Ireland 1977-79; Fellow, St Catherine's College, Oxford 1978-81; Editor-in-Chief, The Observer 1979-81; FRSL 1984; married 1939 Christine Foster (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1962), 1962 Máire Mac Entee (one adopted son, one adopted daughter); died Howth, Co Dublin 18 December 2008.