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Conor Cruise O’Brien at 100

David Levine

As he liked to remind us, Conor Cruise O’Brien was born on the day after the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917. He might have added that he made his entrance four days before the Bolshevik Revolution, as well as during the closing stages of what Winston Churchill called “the ghastly crime of Passchendaele,” and the collapse of the Italian army at Caporetto; as Lady Bracknell might have said, November 1917 was a month crowded with incident. And he was born in Dublin, at a time when Ireland was in turmoil following the Easter Rising the year before. 

The legacies of every one of those events—the Great War, the Rising, the October Revolution, and Balfour—played a part in Cruise O’Brien’s career. His own life was crowded with incident to a startling degree, as critic, historian, diplomatist, pro-consul, politician, and journalist, which included writing for The New York Review of Books for many years. While he was an official of the Irish government in the 1940s and 1950s, he moonlighted as a literary critic, writing as “Donat O’Donnell,” the pen name under which he published his first book, Maria Cross, a collection of essays on Catholic writers. 

More important was his first book as an historian, adapting his doctoral dissertation into a study of the great nineteenth-century leader of Irish Home Rule, Parnell and His Party (1957). I recently took part in a symposium to mark the centenary of Cruise O’Brien’s birth, at his alma mater, Trinity College, Dublin, and it opened with a discussion of “O’Brien and the Writing of History.” Despite its detailed scholarship, that book is still colored by the author’s nationalist sympathies—in particular, toward republican illusions about the causes of partition—despite the fact that Cruise O’Brien knew, partly through his first wife who was from a Belfast Presbyterian family, more than Parnell the patrician Protestant about the reality of Ulster, where, then and now, the Protestants were a community, not a class. This was something that Cruise O’Brien came to understand better than most southerners.

Not long after his Parnell book was published, Cruise O’Brien’s life was changed by a dramatic episode that made him internationally famous, both revered and reviled—something that became a persistent theme in his life. He was an Irish delegate at the United Nations in New York in 1961 when he was plucked from obscurity by Dag Hammarskjöld, the cerebral Secretary-General of the UN (and “one of the very few people who had read Maria Cross,” Cruise O’Brien observed drily), and sent to deal with a crisis in the newly independent Congo, involving the secession of the mineral-rich southern provinces of Katanga with barely disguised support from Belgium, the former colonial power. With the CIA also playing a sinister role in the affair, the UN assignment was challenging, to say the least. Doomed or not, the operation quickly turned into a fiasco: a painful one for Cruise O’Brien, and a tragic one when Hammarskjöld himself was killed in an air crash in suspicious circumstances. Michael Kennedy, the editor of “Documents on Irish Foreign Policy,” an initiative of the Royal Irish Academy, was highly critical of the part Cruise O’Brien played in the UN mission. The official role of the small number of Irish troops responsible to him was the thankless one known as peace-keeping. But when they found themselves surrounded by vastly superior forces, Cruise O’Brien ordered them into action. It was an episode that demonstrated that military leadership was one of the few talents he did not have. Kennedy was also unimpressed by the account of the mission Cruise O’Brien gave in To Katanga and Back, the 1962 book he wrote to defend himself and settle scores. 

At least the termination of his diplomatic career meant that Cruise O’Brien could resume his literary and journalistic one. At that time, he became a darling of the left—later to be much disappointed—when he stood, or wrote, on the anti-colonialist and anti-anticommunist platform. In 1966, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, Cruise O’Brien was still writing about it as an unfulfilled dream. He quoted with approval Franz Fanon’s defense of cleansing revolutionary bloodshed, as well as the Irish nationalist William O’Brien who said that “violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation.” And in his 1970 book on Albert Camus, Cruise O’Brien attacked the French writer for his equivocations over Algeria. 

“Whatever Happened to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Camus?” asked Max McGuinness of Columbia University, and “Whatever Happened…?” was a question often asked about Cruise O’Brien, as his political position shifted and some who had once cheered him then jeered. After an interlude as a professor in New York, Cruise O’Brien returned to his native Dublin and entered Irish politics. At first, he was “almost a rock star,” as Stephen Kelly of Liverpool Hope University put it, among the everyday politicians of the Irish Labour Party when he entered parliament, in 1969. By then, as the Troubles were beginning, Irish politics were dominated by “the North,” even more so when Cruise O’Brien joined the cabinet of Liam Cosgrave’s coalition government from 1973 to 1977. In 1972, Cruise O’Brien had published States of Ireland, a book that influenced a generation by the way it dissected and demolished the ritualistic “United Ireland” nationalism that the southern Irish had learned under the long rule of Éamon de Valera. That critique and his resolute opposition to any compromise with violent republicanism meant that Cruise O’Brien was, as he lamented, “altogether out of tune with my [cabinet] colleagues over Northern Ireland.”  

His career in politics came to an abrupt end in the 1977 election, when the Cosgrave government was defeated and he lost his seat. Returning to journalism, Cruise O’Brien worked for an eventful few years as the editor of The Observer in London, when he was again out of tune with some of his colleagues, and still more with Tiny Rowland, the shady financier who bought The Observer in 1981. After Cruise O’Brien left the paper, on which he had bestowed some of his best journalism, he was a columnist for a variety of English and Irish papers. Throughout, he maintained not only a bitter hostility to the IRA, but also a sustained critique of the republican ideology to which almost all Irish people of Catholic-nationalist origin paid at least lip service. In a brilliant 1982 essay for The New York Review, he called it “a lie that clings to us and burns, like the shirt of Nessus.” 

Although Cruise O’Brien denounced nationalism in his own country, he adopted another’s in the shape of Zionism, which led to his absorbing, if one-sided, book The Siege (1986). He accepted the premises of Zionism somewhat uncritically, and paid too little attention to the Palestinian Arabs, who had been the majority population of Palestine when Zionist settlement began, and to the possibility that they had suffered an injustice. This unlikely displacement of patriotic feeling sprang partly from his own philo-semitism, and partly from his tendency to conflate all terrorists (notably, the IRA and the PLO), but also from an undoubted esprit de contradiction: he took up the cause of Zionism and Israel just as the liberal left turned against them. 

Partisan as he was, Cruise O’Brien adhered to his own code of intellectual honesty in his study of Israel. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Zionist movement was split between the Labor Zionists under David Ben-Gurion and the right-wing Revisionists led by Vladimir Jabotinsky (the forebears of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party). Cruise O’Brien pointed out in an essay published in his 1988 collection Passion and Cunning what many liberal supporters of Israel have tried to overlook—that in their attitudes toward the Palestinian Arabs, the only real difference was that Jabotinsky expressed himself with a public candor that seemed impolitic to Ben-Gurion.

By the end of the two-day symposium at Trinity, there was a more measured and nuanced appreciation of this extraordinary man than there had been during much of his life, or even at the time of his death. Cruise O’Brien has been called one of those people whose role it is to be brilliantly wrong. He was certainly wrong some of the time, as in his anti-anti-Communist days when he speciously downplayed the character of Soviet tyranny, or later when he, likewise speciously, opposed a boycott of South Africa, which gave his enemies an opportunity to label him, wrongly, as an apologist for apartheid. But the two most impassioned speakers suggested that he was right often enough. The Ghanaian writer Cameron Duodo said that, whatever else may be said about the Katanga episode, Cruise O’Brien’s memory was revered in Africa to this day as the man who had stood up to the European imperialists and the Americans. And the Irish writer and columnist Eoghan Harris, an erstwhile republican himself, praised Cruise O’Brien for the courage he had shown in his opposition to violence. 

Although some of Cruise O’Brien’s gloomy prognostications about Northern Ireland appear to have been belied by events, the latest impasses—over devolved government there and over the border after Brexit—suggest that a dose of pessimism is still in order. But in Africa and Ulster—those locales of the defining episodes of his life—was he wrong at the right time, or right at the wrong time?