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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 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,

might have been more interested… in the Franco-Algerian war, then raging, and in his own painfully conflicting feelings about that, than in either the United States or the Soviet Union, does not occur to Mr. Podhoretz even as a possibility.

Maybe O’Brien, even when he was writing about the cold war, might in his heart have been as interested in his own country, with feelings not so much conflicting as painfully evolving. His brilliant essay “Passion and Cunning” backhandedly marked Yeats’s centenary in 1965 by showing that the poet had not merely a misplaced affection for “Missolonghi” but true fascist sympathies, linked moreover to some of his greatest poetry. But O’Brien still saw Yeats from a nationalist perspective, just as a year later, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, he wrote about it as an unfulfilled ideal (and, to be sure, Ireland today is not the land Connolly and Pearse died for, nor for that matter are the Irish now those Eamon de Valera once extolled as “a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit”).

When he first thought of returning to Dublin, O’Brien could not have guessed that this would coincide with the explosion of violence in Northern Ireland. In fact he knew “the North” better than most southern Irishmen, not least because his first wife, Christine Foster, was an Ulster Protestant. He had rightly deplored the treatment of the Ulster Catholics as second-class citizens in the old Unionist statelet, and the brutal repression of a peaceable civil rights movement. But at the moment he entered Irish politics he watched the birth of the murderous new Provisional IRA, armed with the clandestine help of Dublin government ministers. Ever after, he conducted a campaign on two fronts: politically against the IRA and its apologists; intellectually against the cult of patriotic gore that sustained it, and what Fintan O’Toole has called the Irish self-pity that breeds violence.

In 1973 a coalition government took office and O’Brien joined the cabinet inappropriately as minister for posts and telegraphs, rather than as foreign minister, which he had wanted, and he now became the most unremitting public enemy of the IRA. He had recently published a book more influential than any other he wrote. As O’Toole says, States of Ireland had enormous value by speaking to a generation about to emerge from the shadow of the de Valera years with their backwardness, clericalism, and a regressive nationalism which had simply failed to recognize that, deplorable as that Unionist statelet was, the Ulster Protestants might after all have their own point of view and their own democratic rights.

In effect O’Brien became godfather to the “revisionist historians,” who reexamined the founding legends of Irish nationalism—and thereby provoked some wonderfully revealing responses. “What revisionism has done,” says Gerry Adams, the IRA leader and friend of Hillary Clinton, “is tell people they can’t be satisfied with what they come from. That’s putting things you thought of as constant under attack,” while Mary McAleese, the president of the Irish Republic, called O’Brien an “arrogant man…in the process of revising everything that I had known to be a given and a truth,” and that would never do.

We first met in 1976 when I went to write about the Irish political scene for The Spectator and took the minister to lunch at the Royal Hibernian Hotel of happy memory, now obliterated like so much of old Dublin. There was a palpably tense atmosphere that I couldn’t at first explain, until I realized that a couple of tables away sat Charles Haughey, one of the ministers who had armed the IRA, and a man O’Brien treated with unflagging contempt for his ugly politics and his corruption. Alas, at the 1977 election, the coalition was heavily defeated and O’Brien lost his own parliamentary seat. He came to lunch at The Spectator soon afterward and said a little morosely that if the voters had taken against him personally, it wouldn’t have been because of his opposition to the IRA but because of the telephone service. “And God forgive me for saying so, Conor,” the Irish journalist Mary Kenny interjected, “but you can’t blame them” (words which will be understood by anyone who remembers the telephones, or any other part of the decrepit Irish infrastructure, more than thirty years ago). Two years later Haughey was prime minister.

By then O’Brien had arrived in London as editor in chief of The Observer, one more episode that ended in tears, although he wrote a terrific column for several years, dissecting republican mythology there as well as here. One New York Review essay looked at a grotesque hagiography of Bobby Sands, the IRA terrorist who killed himself by starvation in 1981. Apart from examining the repulsive, not to say blasphemous, nationalist perversion of religion (“it seemed as if the Republican Movement,” wrote the hagiographer, “had reached its Calvary with no Resurrection in sight”), he censured Irish-Americans—not only the brutish IRA supporters in South Boston but the “soft version” of Senators Edward Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—and pointed out that although the Protestant belief that they were under attack “from virtually the entire Catholic population of the island” was oversimplified, “it contains more truth than most clerical or lay spokesmen for the Catholic community would admit.” And another essay ended unforgettably by saying that the official Irish ideology, “in relation to what we actually are and want, is a lie. It is a lie that clings to us and burns, like the shirt of Nessus.”

By now O’Brien’s esprit de contradiction sometimes seemed to have taken him over. He incurred more displeasure when he visited South Africa in defiance of the official academic boycott (although it was opposed as well by the noble South African anti-apartheid politician Helen Suzman, who has also just died at ninety-one), and he found a new enthusiasm in the form of Zionism and Israel, the subject of The Siege. While a work of scholarship in its way, this wasn’t his best book, and it evinced a curious form of transference from a man who had discarded his own national creed, as his friends noticed. O’Brien was sitting in a Fleet Street bar once with Richard Ellmann, the American biographer of Joyce, Yeats, and Wilde, and Terence Kilmartin, for many years literary editor of The Observer, who said genially, “You’re an odd couple, a Jew who thinks he’s Irish and an Irishman who thinks he’s a Jew.”

His final important book was The Great Melody, in which he explored with great learning but also deep feeling Burke’s work against British rule, or misrule, in America, India, and Ireland. O’Brien not only revered Burke but identified with him, and defended Burke’s reversal of his originally sympathetic view of the French Revolution. This might seem like the notorious shift to the right, in both their cases, although if the left disdained Burke and O’Brien because they—unlike Jefferson, who became O’Brien’s bête noire—authentically abhorred the Terror, that might say more about the left than about them.

By now O’Brien could write simply, “I have ceased to be an Irish nationalist.” And that, with his hatred of murderous violence, explained what some thought his regrettable last hurrah. In 1998 he went to Northern Ireland to campaign against the Belfast Agreement alongside Ian Paisley, the old Orange demagogue. That was a parting of the ways for someone like O’Toole. His generation had learned from O’Brien to repudiate Irish tribal myths, “and now there he was in Belfast helping to promote one of those myths.” There was some truth in that, and O’Brien had forgotten ” non tali auxilio…,” the need to choose allies with care. Paisley is a bigot and bully who bore a heavy responsibility for the wounded condition of Northern Ireland. More than that, O’Brien was demonstrably wrong in his role as Cassandra, with his repeated insistence that the “peace process” was going to collapse, right up until two years ago when he assured me that Paisley would never enter into government with Sinn Fein, as of course he did.

All the same, he might have been right in other ways, quite apart from his courage, physical as well as moral: he used to shrug off elaborate security precautions, saying that if the IRA were determined to kill him, they would. From his return to Ireland, O’Brien grasped several things. Not only was the IRA waging a campaign of communal sectarian violence against Protestants as such, which made Wolfe Tone’s stale phrase about “Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter” discarding those identities for “the common name of Irishman” absurd as well as contemptible; the official rhetoric of nationalism, in which all those who inhabit the island are “equally Irish,” had been self-exploded by Dublin politicians intoning that they must protect “our people in the North,” meaning the Catholics. And as a foe of imperialism, O’Brien now opposed another “imperialist enterprise: the effort to force the Protestants of Northern Ireland, by a combination of paramilitary terror and political pressure, into a United Ireland that they don’t want.”

As to the settlement, which resulted from heavy American pressure and led to such an orgy of self-congratulation, leave O’Brien aside and listen to two other Irish writers, John Banville and the contrarian Belfast journalist John O’Farrell (neither a Protestant Unionist by origin). Banville has expressed his revulsion as one who had “always regarded the IRA, and indeed Sinn Fein, as neofacist.” And when the settlement made the former IRA leader Martin McGuinness minister of education, it meant, as O’Farrell says, that “the children of Northern Ireland will have their futures in the hands of a man who, if he were a Serb, would be indicted at The Hague.”

All of that is to speak of O’Brien the writer and politician, but some of us also remember with deep affection Conor the man. He wasn’t always easy, but he was good company, and good value. His convivial habits inspired many merry anecdotes, and for anyone lucky enough to have shared long lunches and longer evenings with him, there’s no use pretending that Conor was an abstemious man. He wasn’t a sip-sipper, like Churchill, but a gulp-gulper; as a colleague at the Observer said, he drank heavy red wine as if it were lemonade at a summer picnic. One symptom was the way that his voice would rise in pitch as the evening wore on, a third, a fifth, a full octave. When he started addressing one as “Party comrade” it was time to call it a day and call him a cab. Then again, as he would say in his singsong tones, “Three doctors have told me that if I did not stop drinking I would die. All three doctors are themselves now dead.”

If his last years saw vexations, he was sustained by his wife, the distinguished Gaelic poet Máire MacEntee, who had dramatically joined him in Katanga, their two adopted children, his two surviving children from his first marriage, and the memory of his beloved daughter Kate, who died of a brain tumor aged forty-nine. When I first wrote about him more than thirty years ago, I called him “the most hated man in Ireland,” which was journalistic piffle. His eighty-fifth birthday party in 2002 amid family and friends was a very happy occasion; as he wrote himself, “I live and move in the best of company.”

He also lived to enjoy some most gratifying victories. At the end of one long lunch he said with feeling, “It is not pleasant living in a country whose political culture you despise,” and he thankfully survived the disgraced crook Haughey, even if he didn’t quite see him buried at the crossroads with a stake through his heart, which alone, Conor had said, would persuade him that Haughey’s career was over. And he witnessed the scandal-ridden eclipse of the Catholic Church, although this lifelong anticlerical said once that he would always choose Holy Mother Church over Cathleen ni Houlihan, with her crueller kind of sterile blood-sacrifice.

Still, he could see the funny side of those scandals. Some years ago we learned that one Irish bishop was a regular visitor to Bangkok, and it was alleged that he took an unhealthy interest in young girls. His office rejoined that the real reason for these visits was that His Lordship had an alcohol problem. But as I said at lunch with Conor, while raising my wineglass in puzzlement, one thing you can’t complain about in Ireland is that it’s a difficult place to get a drink. If it wasn’t something more sinister, just why had the bishop gone to the East? “Perhaps,” suggested Conor, slowly and in that rising pitch, “he wished to make a study…of comparative religion.”

Well dug, old mole.