THE MYSTERY OF THE PATRIOTISM OF CONOR CRUISE O’BRIEN by Frank Callanan
With death of Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ireland has lost its greatest twentieth century public intellectual. It has lost also its last tenuous link to John Redmond’s Irish parliamentary party and beyond that to the Ireland of Parnell.
The Parnell connection was mediated through David Sheehy, Cruise O’Brien’s maternal grandfather who was an Irish Party M.P., and an anti-Parnellite in the split; and through Henry Harrison who had just been elected an Irish Nationalist M.P. in 1890, and was a Parnellite in the split and loyally sought to advise and assist the distraught Katharine Parnell on the death of her husband in October 1891. It is to Sheehy and Harrison that Cruise O’Brien’s magnificent Parnell and his Party (1957), still fresh a half century later, is dedicated.
The diversity of Cruise O’Brien’s careers as Civil Servant, Irish Diplomat, Representative of the Secretary General of the U.N. in Katanga academic, Dail Deputy, Minister, Senator, Editor in Chief of the Observer newspaper, writer and journalist is astonishing. When Conor’s election as Vice President of the Literary and Historical Society in University College Dublin was contested, Patrick Healy, the most formidable student speaker of the time, resorted in a fraught debate to intoning scripturally Conor’s entry in Who’s Who to an audience which became hushed and still.
It was in the 1970s that Conor’s influence on contemporary Ireland was greatest and most enduring. Conor was by no means alone among the leading politicians of the state in meeting the challenge of the Provisional I.R.A. and in contesting its insidious claim to act on behalf of Irish Nationalists. It was Conor’s mordant sarcasm towards the I.R.A., the agility of his historical imagination and his readiness to question the received pieties of nationalism, which provided the intellectual cutting edge.
Conor’s opposition in the nineties to the peace process and his embrace of Robert McCartney’s U.K. Unionist Party provoked exasperated public bewilderment, and a degree of muted despair among many of his friends. Being Conor, he had not merely to declare himself pro Unionist, but to avow himself a Unionist: it was characteristic that he should have sought to destabilise the tribal assumption that one was born a Nationalist or a Unionist. It was no bad thing that the fiercest and most formidable critique of the peace process should have come from within the Republic. Conor’s position reflected deeply held convictions and instincts, and in an infinitesimal degree, a bravura Yeatsian flourish of delinquency in old age.
Conor’s relationship with Ireland has always been complex. He told Fergus Pyle of The Irish Times in September, 1992 a couple of months before his seventy fifth birthday:
Let’s put it this way. I have never spent an entire year outside Ireland, in every year of my life I have been able to come back here for some part of the summer. What the lawyers call the animus revertendi. It’s quite strong.
But if a law was passed, as under our legal system it well might, [that] you won’t be able to get out of Ireland at all, I’d get out of Ireland before that law came into force. I can’t be happy unless I spend a lot of time here, and a lot of time outside it. Which has mostly meant Britain and America, and more often America than Britain.
A consummate internationalist, Cruise O’Brien’s engagement was throughout with Ireland. That is what informed the approach to Edmund Burke, in the work of which he was most proud, The Great Melody (1992), where he wrote: “In studying Burke, I have often found that, whenever there is an unexpected silence, a failure to refer to something obviously relevant, or cryptically guarded formulation, the probable explanation is usually to be found at ‘the Irish level’: the suspect and subterranean area of emotional access to the forbidden world of Roman Catholicism”.
He was in nothing more Burkean than in his sense of what Burke called “the little platoon”: “to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections”. The sense of family was enormously important to Conor and his and Maire’s household displayed the cohesiveness characteristic of Irish political families.
One of Conor’s most striking characteristics was his deep respect for the mainstream tradition of Irish politics. He had a highly acute sense of what has become so dangerously depreciated in Ireland in the course of the last two decades: the continuities of Irish politics antedating the state, the absolute dependence of the Irish state on the integrity and independence of its political leaders and public servants, and the necessity for intellectual rigour in a parliamentary democracy. Conor was a public servant for longer than he was a politician. No one was prouder to hold ministerial office in Ireland than he. Conor remained at heart a man of the Labour Party, which he rejoined under Pat Rabbitte’s leadership.
He was ludicrously amusing, an exceptionally versatile linguist and eerily exact mimic. Michael O’Leary told me he was in Northern Ireland on a political delegation with Conor, meeting Northern Irish politicians. It was early in the troubles, and there was a danger of assassination. Someone declared that his greatest fear was being shot by the I.R.A. and not being finished off. Others made observations on the subject but when it came round to Conor he brought the conversation to a close by stating that his greatest fear was being kidnapped by the Provisional I.R.A. and having to listen to their conversation. Conor’s writing brings him immortality in an unusual form in preserving the highly distinctive cadences of his speaking voice.
Conor has written a short study of George Washington’s two terms as President, that draws on his earlier book on Thomas Jefferson, entitled First in Peace, which is to be published by Da Capo Press. A republication of his books and articles is planned by Robert West and Joseph Morrison Skelly through the (now American) imprint of Maunsell.
Conor will be mourned exuberantly and missed terribly by his family. Modern Ireland has been rendered signal service by this most brilliant of her sons.
Conor Cruise O’Brien died on 18th December 2008.