Conor Cruise O’Brien (3 November 1917 – 18 December 2008) often nicknamed “The Cruiser”, was an Irish politician, writer, historian and academic. His opinion on the role of Britain in Ireland and in Northern Ireland changed during the 1970s in response to the outbreak of ‘the Troubles’ after 1968. He saw opposing nationalist and unionist traditions as irreconcilable and switched from a nationalist to a unionist view of Irish politics and history. O’Brien’s outlook was always radical and the positions he took were seldom orthodox. He summarised his position as, “I intend to administer an electric shock to the Irish psyche“. Internationally, he opposed in person the African National Congress’s academic boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa. These views contrasted with those espoused during the 1950s and 1960s.
During his career as a civil servant O’Brien worked on the government’s anti-partition campaign. At the 1969 general election, he was elected to Ireland’s parliament as a Labour Party TD for Dublin North-East becoming a Minister from 1973–77. He was also the Labour Party’s Northern Ireland spokesman during those years. He was later known primarily as an author and as a columnist for the Irish Independent.
Cruise O’Brien was born in Dublin to Francis (“Frank”) Cruise O’Brien and Kathleen Sheehy. Frank was a journalist with the Freeman’s Journaland Irish Independent newspapers, and had edited an essay written fifty years earlier by William Lecky, on the influence of the clergy on Irish politics. Kathleen was an Irish language teacher. She was the daughter of David Sheehy, a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party and organiser of the Irish National Land League. She had two sisters, both of whom lost their husbands in 1916. Hanna‘s husband, the well knownpacifist and supporter of women’s suffrage Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, was executed by firing squad on the orders of Captain J.C Bowen Colthurst during the 1916 Easter Rising. Soon afterwards Mary’s husband, Thomas Kettle, an officer of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was killed during the Battle of the Somme. These three women, Hanna and his mother in particular, were a major influence on O’Brien’s upbringing alongside Hanna’s son, his cousin Owen Sheehy-Skeffington.
O’Brien’s father (who died in 1927) wanted Conor educated non-denominationally, a wish that Kathleen honoured. O’Brien followed his cousin Owen into Sandford Park School that had a predominantly Protestant ethos, despite objections from Catholic clergy. O’Brien subsequently attended Trinity College Dublin which played the British national anthem until 1939, though O’Brien and Sheehy-Skeffington sat in protest on such occasions. He was elected a scholar in Modern Languages at Trinity in 1937. O’Brien was editor of Trinity’s weekly, TCD: A College Miscellany. His first wife, Christine Foster, came from a Belfast Presbyterian family and was, like her father, a member of the Gaelic League. Her parents, Alexander (Alec) Roulston Foster and Mary Lynd, were Irish republicans and supporters of Irish reunification. Alec Foster was headmaster at the time of Belfast Royal Academy and was later a founding member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and also a strong supporter of the Irish Anti-Apartheid movement. He was a former Ulster, Ireland and British & Irish Lions rugby player, having captained Ireland three times between 1912–1914. O’Brien and Christine Foster were married in a registry office in 1939. The couple had three children – Donal, Fedelma, and Kathleen (Kate), who died in 1998. The marriage ended in divorce after 20 years. In 1962, O’Brien married the Irish-language writer and poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi in a Roman Catholic church. O’Brien’s divorce, contrary to Roman Catholic teaching, was not an issue since that church did not recognise the validity of O’Brien’s 1939 civil wedding in the first place. O’Brien referred to this action, which in effect formally de-recognised the legitimacy of his former wife and children, as “hypocritical … and otherwise distasteful, but I took it, as preferable to the alternatives.” Mac an tSaoi was five years his junior, and the daughter of Seán MacEntee, who was Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) at the time. They subsequently adopted two Congolese children, a son (Patrick) and a daughter (Margaret).
O’Brien’s university education led to a career in the public service, most notably in the Department of External (now Foreign) Affairs. He achieved distinction as managing director of the state run Irish News Agency and later as part of the fledgling Irish delegation to the United Nations. O’Brien later claimed he was something of an anomalous iconoclast in post-1922 Irish politics, particularly in the context of Fianna Fáilgovernments under Éamon de Valera. He considered that those who did not conform to traditional Roman Catholic mores were generally ill-suited to the public service, though that does not appear to have impeded his ascent through it that ended officially at ambassadorial level. He observed,
There was nothing unusual even then about not believing in Catholicism. What was unusual then was to acknowledge publicly that you did not believe in Catholicism…. It is interesting that this did absolutely no harm to my public career around the mid-century – a time when the authority of a triumphant Catholic Church appeared to be overwhelmingly strong, in the media and in public life. But I think many educated people – including many in the public service – already resented that authority and, while being discreet about this themselves, had some respect for a person who publicly rejected it altogether.
In the Department of External Affairs during the 1949–52 inter-party government, O’Brien served under former IRA Chief of Staff republican, Seán MacBride, the 1974 Nobel PeaceLaureate, son of John MacBride and Maud Gonne. O’Brien was particularly vocal in opposition to partition during the 1940s and 1950s, as part of his official duties.
In 1961 O’Brien came to world prominence after secondment from Ireland’s UN delegation as a special representative to Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of the United Nations in theKatanga region of the newly independent Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). As per his understanding of his mission, O’Brien initiated military action to prevent the mineral rich region from seceding by expelling French and other western backed mercenaries. Western powers had been attempting to provoke secession, in particular Britain and the adjoining white ruled Rhodesia. A UN crisis ensued and O’Brien was forced to step down from his UN position and also simultaneously from the Irish diplomatic service in late 1961. Michael Ignatieff asserted that Hammarskjöld, who was killed in Katanga prior to O’Brien’s departure in a suspicious plane crash, had misjudged O’Brien’s abilities as U.N. representative. He further observed that O’Brien’s use of military force provided the Soviets and the US with ammunition in their campaign against the U.N. Secretary General and UN action opposed to the interests of the big powers. O’Brien wrote immediately about his experiences in The Observer (London) and in the New York Times on 10, 17 December 1961, and later in To Katanga and Back(1962), considered a classic of both modern African history and of the inner workings of the United Nations. In 1962, in response to an invitation from the Chancellor of the University of Ghana, and the country’s leader, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, O’Brien accepted a position as Vice-Chancellor of the University. However, his interpretation of academic freedom later differed from that of Dr. Nkrumah, and he subsequently resigned in 1965. Following this he was the first Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University from 1965 to 1969. During the 1960s O’Brien opposed western, in particular US, imperialism and protested against US participation in the Vietnam War. in 1965 O’Brien declared himself “a liberal, incurably … profoundly attached to liberal concepts of freedom… of speech and of the press”
O’Brien also supported the right of oppressed people to use violence. In a debate involving Noam Chomsky, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag and others in 1967, he asserted,
The question has also been raised here about the terror used by the National Liberation Front [in Vietnam], and by other revolutionary movements. I think there is a distinction between the use of terror by oppressed peoples against the oppressors and their servants, in comparison with the use of terror by their oppressors in the interests of further oppression. I think there is a qualitative distinction there which we have the right to make.
O’Brien returned to Ireland and in the 1969 general election was elected to Dáil Éireann as a member of the opposition Labour Party, representing the Dublin North-East constituency,together with three other TDs, including Charles Haughey, whose probity in financial matters he questioned. He was appointed a member of the short-lived first delegation from theOireachtas to the European Parliament. Following the 1973 general election, O’Brien was appointed Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the 1973–77 Labour Fine Gael coalition under Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave.
During this period, after the outbreak of armed conflict in Northern Ireland in 1969, O’Brien developed a deep hostility to militant Irish republicanism and to Irish nationalists generally in Northern Ireland, reversing views articulated at the outset of unrest. He also reversed his opposition to broadcasting censorship imposed by the previous government, by extending and vigorously enforcing censorship of Radio Teilefís Éireann (RTÉ) under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act. In 1976 he specifically banned spokespersons for Sinn Féin and the Provisional Irish Republican Army from RTÉ. At the same time, he attempted unsuccessfully to get Britain’s BBC 1 television channel broadcast on Ireland’s proposed second television channel, instead of allowing RTÉ to run it.
Two additional notable incidents affected O’Brien’s career as minister, besides support for broadcasting censorship.
In August 1976 Bernard Nossiter of the Washington Post interviewed O’Brien regarding the passage of an Emergency Powers Bill. During the course of the interview O’Brien revealed an intention to extend censorship beyond broadcasting. He wished to “cleanse the culture” of republicanism and would like the bill to be used against teachers who allegedly glorified Irish revolutionaries. He also wanted it used against newspaper editors who published pro-republican or anti-British readers’ letters. O’Brien mentioned the Irish Press as a newspaper which in particular he hoped to use the legislation against and produced a file of Irish Press letters to the editor to which he took exception. Nossiter immediately informed Irish Press editor Tim Pat Coogan of O’Brien’s intentions. Coogan printed Nossiter’s report (as did the Irish TImes), republished the letters to which O’Brien objected, and ran a number of strong editorials attacking O’Brien and the proposed legislation. The interview caused huge controversy, resulting in modification of the measure appearing to target newspapers.
O’Brien also supported Garda brutality in this 1973–77 period, though this was not revealed by O’Brien until 1998 in his Memoir. In Memoir: My Life and Themes, O’Brien recalled a conversation with a detective who told him how the Gardaí had found out – from a suspect – the location of businessman Tiede Herrema, who had been kidnapped by group of maverick republicans in October 1975: “[T]he escort started asking him questions and when at first he refused to answer, they beat the shit out of him. Then he told them where Herrema was.” O’Brien explained, “I refrained from telling this story to [ministerial colleagues] Garret [FitzGerald] or Justin [Keating], because I thought it would worry them. It didn’t worry me.” Elements of the Garda Síochána that engaged in beating false confessions out of suspects quickly became known as the “Heavy Gang”.
O’Brien’s Dublin North-East constituency was abolished as part of a government inspired redrawing of boundaries. In the 1977 general election he stood in Dublin Clontarf and was one of three ministers defeated in a general rout of the outgoing administration. He was, however, subsequently elected to Seanad Éireann in 1977 from the Trinity College Dublin constituency, though he resigned his seat in 1979 due to new commitments as editor-in-chief of the London Observer newspaper.
Editor in Chief at the Observer
Between 1978 and 1981 O’Brien was editor-in-chief of The Observer newspaper in Britain. In 1979 he controversially pulped an Observer magazine with an article by Mary Holland, The Observer’s Ireland correspondent. Holland, whose reporting won her a Journalist of the Year award, had been one of the first journalists to explain discrimination in Northern Ireland to a British audience. The article was a profile of Mary Nellis of Derry and dealt with her radicalisation as a result of the conflict. O’Brien objected and sent Holland a memo stating that the “killing strain” of Irish republicanism, “has a very high propensity to run in families and the mother is most often the carrier”. The memo continued, “It is a very serious weakness of your coverage of Irish affairs that you are a very poor judge of Irish Catholics. That gifted and talkative community includes some of the most expert conmen and conwomen in the world and I believe you have been conned. Holland was forced out of the newspaper by O’Brien. She later joined the Irish Times as a columnist. She also rejoined The Observer after O’Brien’s departure in 1981.
In 1985, O’Brien supported unionist objections to the inter governmental Anglo-Irish Agreement. In 1996 he joined Robert McCartney‘s United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP) and was elected to the Northern Ireland Forum. In 1997, a successful libel action was brought against him by relatives of Bloody Sunday victims for alleging in a Sunday Independent article in 1997 that the marchers were “Sinn Féin activists operating for the IRA”. O’Brien opposed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and opposed allowing Sinn Féin into government in Northern Ireland. He later resigned from the UKUP after his book Memoir: My Life and Themes called on Unionists to consider the benefits of a united Ireland to thwart Sinn Féin. In 2005 he rejoined the Labour Party. O’Brien defended his harsh attitudes and actions towards Irish republicans, saying “We do right to condemn all violence but we have a special duty to condemn the violence which is committed in our name”.
Conor Cruise O’Brien’s many books include: States of Ireland (1972), where he first indicated his revised view of Irish nationalism, The Great Melody (1992), his unorthodox biography ofEdmund Burke, and his autobiography Memoir: My Life and Themes (1999). He also published a collection of essays, Passion and Cunning (1988), which includes a substantial piece on the literary work of William Butler Yeats and some challenging views on the subject of terrorism, and The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism (1986), a history of Zionism and the State of Israel. His books, particularly those on Irish issues, tend to be personalised, for example States of Ireland, where he made the link between the political success of the republican Easter Rising and the consequent demise of his Home Rule family’s position in society. His private papers have been deposited in the University College Dublin Archives.
In 1963, O’Brien’s script for a Telefís Éireann programme on Charles Stewart Parnell won him a Jacob’s Award.
He was a longtime columnist for the Irish Independent. His articles were distinguished by hostility to the ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland, regular predictions of civil war involving the Republic of Ireland, and a pro-Unionist stance. O’Brien also abused the Irish tax exemption for works of literary merit by claiming this exemption for his newspaper column.
O’Brien held visiting professorships and lectureships throughout the world, particularly in the United States, and controversially in apartheid South Africa, openly breaking the academic boycott. A persistent critic of Charles Haughey, O’Brien coined the acronym GUBU (Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented), based on a statement by Charles Haughey, who was then Taoiseach, commenting on the discovery of a murder suspect, Malcolm MacArthur, in the apartment of the Fianna Fáil Attorney General Patrick Connolly. Until 1994, O’Brien was a Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin.
- Maria Cross: Imaginative Patterns in a Group of Modern Catholic Writers (as Donat O’Donnell) (London: Chatto & Windus, 1952) OCLC 7884093
- Parnell and His Party 1880–90 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957) ISBN 978-0-19-821237-9 (1968 edition)
- To Katanga and Back: A UN Case History (London: Hutchinson, 1962) OCLC 460615937
- Writers and Politics: Essays & Criticism (London: Chatto & Windus, 1965) ISBN 978-0-14-002733-4 (1976 Penguin edition)
- Murderous Angels: A Political Tragedy and Comedy in Black and White (play) (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968) OCLC 449739
- The United Nations: Sacred Drama with illustrations by Feliks Topolski (London: Hutchinson, 1968) ISBN 978-0-09-085790-6
- Camus (Fontana Modern Masters, 1970) ISBN 978-0-00-211147-8 – released in US as Albert Camus of Europe and Africa (New York: Viking, 1970) ISBN 978-0-670-01902-1
- States of Ireland (London: Hutchinson, 1972) ISBN 978-0-09-113100-5
- The Suspecting Glance (London: Faber, 1972) ISBN 978-0-571-09543-8
- Herod: Reflections on Political Violence (Hutchinson, 1978) ISBN 978-0-09-133190-0
- The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism (1986) ISBN 978-0-671-63310-3
- God Land : Reflections on Religion and Nationalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988) ISBN 978-0-674-35510-1
- Passion and Cunning and Other Essays (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988) ISBN 978-0-297-79325-0
- The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) ISBN 978-0-226-61651-3
- On the Eve of the Millennium (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1994). ISBN 978-0-88784-559-8
- The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785–1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) ISBN 978-0-226-61656-8
- Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 1994) ISBN 978-1-85371-429-0
- Memoir: My Life and Themes (Dublin: Poolbeg, 1999) ISBN 978-1-85371-947-9
Máire and Conor Cruise O’Brien: