Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1917–2008

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Conor Cruise O’Brien, Belfast, Northern Ireland, February 1962

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…

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