One of the effects of great longevity is that even without ending as the proverbial forgotten man, someone may seem a relic from a very remote age. Most people reading this won’t even have been born in 1946, when The Bell, a Dublin little magazine, published a clever, sharp essay titled “The Pieties of Evelyn Waugh” (so clever that Waugh was moved to respond with an ingenious letter of his own, including the memorable line “I think perhaps your reviewer is right in calling me a snob”), by an unknown writer called “Donat O’Donell.” This was in fact the pen name adopted for literary moonlighting by Conor Cruise O’Brien when he was an official of the Dublin government. He was not quite thirty.
By the time O’Brien died a week before Christmas at the age of ninety-one, it was thus over sixty years since his literary career had begun—and nearly fifty since he became internationally famous. In 1960 he was plucked from the Irish delegation at the United Nations and sent to Africa with the thankless task of dealing with the secession of Katanga from newly independent Congo. By one of the many ironies in his often unlikely story, he had been chosen partly because Dag Hammarskjöld, the cerebral Swede who was secretary-general of the UN, had admired Maria Cross, O’Brien’s collection of essays on Catholic writers.
After O’Brien was removed a year later under pressure from the British government, egged on by the right-wing London press, he did his best to settle the score with both, by writing To Katanga and Back, in which he exposed the machinations of the London and other Western governments, and by taking a swipe at British popular journalism, with its “cockiness, ignorance, carelessness, prurience, innuendo, and lip-service to the highest moral standards.” That was in one of his first essays for The New York Review, to which he contributed almost from its birth, and which he adorned for many years.
Not only its length made his career so astonishing: very few people have combined literature with public life at such a high level. How many historians have also been proconsuls (at least since Macaulay)? How many literary critics have served as cabinet ministers (at least since Léon Blum)? He might have been a giant from another age. Indeed, when The Great Melody, O’Brien’s late-flowering masterpiece about Edmund Burke, was published in 1992, Alan Ryan reviewed it here, rightly calling it a wonderful book and, while quoting Johnson’s famous words about Burke, “You could not stand for five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever seen,” added that this tribute could without absurdity have been paid to O’Brien.
That book had an additional interest. Burke shifted his political position on the French Revolution, and his many venomous foes accused him of insincerity or inconsistency. O’Brien’s own life also saw a sometimes perplexing but sometimes heroic intellectual and political journey, and he was comparable with Burke not only in intellectual weight but in the obloquy he inspired. When he defended Burke, and insisted on his underlying consistency and integrity, he was writing about himself.
In his own land, O’Brien would come to be called unpatriotic (or “unnational,” as they used to say in Germany), but he was Irish to the core, born in Dublin in November 1917 and formed by a country to which he was devoted despite everything, and which he never spent a year of his life without revisiting. His own little platoon was the emerging middle class, Catholic and nationalist, though neither enthusiastically Catholic nor nationalist in the case of his father, Francis Cruise O’Brien, who died when Conor was a boy. Francis was a gifted, eccentric journalist and a friend of Yeats’s, whom he teased about his enthusiasm for the Italian dictator “Missolonghi.”
It was a remarkably literary milieu to be born into. Conor’s mother Katherine was the daughter of “Mr David Sheehy MP,” a real-life character whose wife converses briefly with Father Conmee in Ulysses, and she was herself the model for “Miss Ivors” in Joyce’s great story “The Dead,” who tells Gabriel Conroy she’s ashamed of him writing for the Daily Express and adds reproachfully, “I didn’t think you were a West Briton”: an accusation that would be leveled against Katherine’s son.
Some of the family were constitutional nationalists, the people who would be written out of the script of modern Irish history, others were more intransigent. One of Conor’s uncles was killed in British uniform on the Western Front in 1916; another, Francis Sheehy Skeffington, a socialist and pacifist, was murdered by a deranged British officer during the Easter Rising that year, and his widow became a fiery republican.
Conor was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, the Protestant university that Catholics attended in defiance of episcopal ban and where, after a brilliant if dissipated undergraduate career, he began a dissertation that was eventually published as Parnell and His Party. It remains an excellent book, written with a wit belying its doctoral origins. (After Parnell was named in the divorce suit that ended his career, his supporters’ “addiction to the tu quoque,” one footnote observes, “would not have helped the cause much either. In a London church when a clergyman at this time condemned Parnell’s moral lapse, an interrupter loudly asked, ‘What about the Prince of Wales?’”)
O’Brien might have entered academic life, but “I found no welcome there,” he once told me. Seen from one side, his freethinking family weren’t Catholic enough, from the other too Catholic: even under the Free State, Dublin remained in some ways a hegemonically Protestant city, when it came to such institutions as the Bank of Ireland, Guinness & Co, The Irish Times, and Trinity College. And so he joined the Irish civil service, transferring after a few years to the foreign service, which in the 1950s took him to Paris, New York, and then Katanga and back, writing all the while.
Until he was well into his fifties he was loved by the left and abhorred by the right; by his seventies it was the other way around. O’Brien had made his name very much on the anticolonialist and anti-anti-Communist platform, denouncing European imperialism, protesting against the Vietnam War, and conducting a long battle with the cold war liberals. This was the time when Malcolm Muggeridge sneered at him as “the playboy of the eastern world,” and when he was baited by Encounter, the famous liberal anti-Communist magazine. Its columnist “R”—the coy initial disguising that fascinating, sinister, and doomed figure Goronwy Rees—called O’Brien “the Joe McCarthy of politico-cultural criticism, hunting for CIA agents beneath the beds of Stephen Spender, Irving Kristol, Melvin Lasky and Frank Kermode” (the editors of the magazine), which prompted O’Brien to sue successfully for libel. R’s words weren’t only malicious but reckless since—as plenty of people guessed, as a few knew, and as became clear beyond denial shortly after this episode—Encounter was indeed subsidized by the CIA through the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
And yet this feud wasn’t the happiest phase of O’Brien’s life. He was never a Marxist (he later said that the nearest he came was as an undergraduate when he had read little Marx) or a fellow traveler, but he was certainly an anti-anti-Communist. Although a very good magazine, Encounter was compromised not only by the surreptitious subsidy but also by its inclination, which O’Brien perceptively noted, to overlook race relations and other American shortcomings.
All the same, O’Brien wasn’t blameless himself, and his 1965 collection Writers and Politics can now read like a period piece. It illustrates on a superior intellectual level the tendency known as moral equivalence, ritually acknowledging the failings of what he persisted in calling “the socialist world” but suggesting that the West was just as bad in its way. He foolishly praised Sartre for “reserving his ammunition for use against the richer and more plausible mendacities of the Free World.” He admitted that “the communisant intellectual swallows a lot, but other intellectuals—the capitalisants, shall we say—have swallowed quite a lot too.” And he derided the idea that, for understanding communism, “the best guides are supposed to be ex-Communists.”
Well, that was a long time ago, the “socialist world” has vanished, and by now it is effortless to point out how empty these equivalences were, or that, as Tony Judt has said, former Communists truly did write some of the most penetrating accounts of their age. O’Brien also deserves a pardon of sorts. For all his cosmopolitan learning, he was in some ways literally very insular. He grew up in an Ireland that had cut itself off from the rest of the world, and he barely left Dublin in his twenties, while the Irish Free State sat out “the Emergency” (as World War II was euphemistically called there) in sullen neutrality. One consequence was that he had very little personal knowledge of the great battles over communism, the explosive effect of the Moscow Trials, or the savage brawls among the New York intellectuals, whose residue continued into the cold war.
If anyone should have come to sympathize with those penitent former Bolsheviks it was O’Brien, since he undertook a comparable personal pilgrimage. Part of his disillusionment came early. After Katanga, and as a kind of reward, he became vice-chancellor of Ghana University, only to find the country succumbing to Kwame Nkrumah’s personal dictatorship and rampant corruption. He later wrote a brutally funny description of the great leader addressing parliament, insisting with the straightest of faces that no Ghanaian politician should ever send money to a foreign bank, while the assembled legislators audibly giggled.
Some of O’Brien’s twists and turns had their droll side. In one piece for The New York Review, he called Albert Schweitzer “a tragic anachronism” who personified “the most irritating, if not the most noxious, aspects of the white man in Africa”; the following year he became Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University. He ridiculed the leaders of the Irish Labour Party as “dismal poltroons, on the lines of O’Casey’s Uncle Payther”; after four happy years in New York, he returned to Ireland in 1969 to become a Labour member of parliament.
This was the real turning point in his life, which would eventually mark a great shift in his outlook and reputation. He came home to Dublin a proclaimed socialist, and was for years the only avowed agnostic to sit in the Irish parliament. But he was also still an Irish nationalist, albeit civilized and learned. In 1986 he wrote here about the neoconservatives’ “obsessive reductivism,” exemplified by Norman Podhoretz’s chiding Albert Camus for his failure to stand up for the United States as Sartre had stood up for the Soviet Union. The idea, O’Brien wrote, that Camus, a French-Algerian writer,