Conor Cruise O’Brien: Commentary

Sean O’Casey
Noam Chomsky
F. S. L. Lyons
Seamus Deane
Maurice Hayes
E. Young-Bruehl
Ronan Sheehan
John A. Murphy
Cairns & Richards
Eamon McCann
W. J. McCormack
Tom Paulin
Luke Gibbons
David G. Morgan
Ernest Gellner
Jonathan Bardon
Fergus Pyle
E. P. Thompson
Edward Said
Arthur Aughey
Jerry Z. Muller
Anthony J. Jordan
Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Anthony Roche
Kevin Burke
Larry Siedentop
Garret Fitzgerald
Bernard Bailyn
Tom Dunne
Richard Kearney
Arthur Aughey
Basil McIvor
Declan Kiberd
Theresa O’Connor
Sean Lysaght
Maurice Goldring
Peter Berresford Ellis
Michael Malouf
Mick Fealty
Mary McAleese
Anne McHardy
John Foley
Brian Fallon
Niall Meehan
Conor McCarthy
Mícheál Mac Donncha
Denis Donoghue

Sean O’Casey: O’Casey wrote to Brendan Smith, director of the Dublin Theatre Festival in the period before The Drums of Father Ned was withdrawn amid allegations of clerical censorship: ‘I cannot forget the savage and ignorant reviews appearing when my last play was done by Cyril Cusack, from the lordly lad Dunno O’Donnell Rory O’Moore Cruise O’Brien to the laddo writing in the English Play and Players: it was all an attack on O’Casey rather than a criticism of a play. I am human, my dear Brendan, and like Yeats, don’t like to give a chance to ignorance and venom to provide publicity for themselves.’ (Letter of 6 Sept. 1957; quoted in A Paler Shade of Green, Des Hickey and Gus Smith, London: Leslie Frewin, 1972, p.141.)

Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (1967), quotes O’Brien at some length: ‘In a recent essay, Conor Cruise O’Brien speaks of “counterrevolutionary subordination” which poses a threat to scholarly integrity in our own counter-revolutionary society, just as “counter-revolutionary subordination”, a phenomenon often noted and rightly deplored, has underminded scholarly integrity in revolutionary and post-revolutionary situations. He observes that “power in our time has more intelligence in its service, and allows that intelligence more discretion as to its methods, than every before in history”, and suggests that this development is not altogether encouraging, since we have moved perceptibly towards the state of a “a society maimed through the systematic [23] corruption of its intelligence”. He urges that “increased and specific vigilance, not just the elaboration of general principles, is required form the intellectual community toward specific dangers to its integrity”.’ (Ibid., rep. edn. NY: The New Press 2002, with foreword by Howard Zinn, p.23-24.) Chomsky continues after some discussion of the situation in 1967 - that is, during the Vietnam War when the “new mandarin” class of American ruler was coming into its power: ‘I think that O’Brien is entirely correct in pointing to the necessity for “increased and specific vigilance” towards the danger of counter-revolutionary subordination, of which, as he correctly remarks, “we hear almost nothing”. I would like to devote this essay to a number of examples.’ (Ibid., p.28.)

F. S. L. Lyons, Ireland since the Famine (1971), writes: ‘Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien has written recently that he ‘blushes to recall’ the amount of his professional time that was devoted between 1947 and 1951 to ‘anti-partition’, quoting: ‘The only positive result of this activity, so far as I was concerned [he adds] was that it led me to discover the cavernous inanities of “anti-partition” and of government propaganda generally’ (‘The embers of Easter‘, in Edwards and Pyle, eds., 1916, The Easter Rising, p.233; Lyons, ftn., p.581.)

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Seamus Deane, “Who Began the Killing?”, [response to Conor Cruise O’Brien, “An Ulster Fable”, being a review of Jimmy Breslin, World Without End, Amen 21 Feb. 1974], in New York Review of Books (30 May 1974): ‘Conor Cruise O’Brien [...] contrives to give a version of the situation which is quite as distorted as he claims Breslin’s to be. He is, after all, the minister of Propaganda in the Republic, exercising a severe censorship through radio and television, and a slightly more subtle one through the Government Information Bureau, which he reconstructed by drafting into it men who would faithfully reproduce his own views of events in the North. / He makes the implication that the Provisional IRA began the killing in the North. Not so. It was the Royal Ulster Constabulary who did this, using armoured cars and Browning machine guns on unarmed and unsuspecting Catholic citizens in the Falls Road area in 1969. He also states that the British army’s role in the North is, fundamentally, to protect the Catholic population. This was originally so, but to state that this situation persists is a lie. [...’; see full text in Ricorso Library, Criticism > Reviews, via index, or direct.]

Maurice Hayes, reports on the Irish Republic to the Northern Executive from February 1974 reports inter alia Conor Cruise O’Brien’s attempt to split Fianna Fail over its policy on the North, and incls. a copy of O’Brien’s speech to Waterford Chamber of Commerce (8 Feb. 1974) scotching Desmond Boal’s proposed Federal Ireland scheme. O’Brien said: ‘You either like Sunningdale as a whole or you don’t ... there is no middle way.’ He went on that the Protestant paramilitaries supported Boal because of the simple thought that, once the British army is pulled out, Protestants by their weight of numbers will be able to secure Protestant supremacy’, while ‘Provisionals on the other hand welcome an ally in the work of getting the British army out, but posit quite a different scenario after their withdrawal’ - a scenario for civil war. Hayes speculates on what O’Brien is ‘trying to do’: There is more than a suspicioin that scenting a victory, and divining perhaps the drift of public opinion, O’Brien is now interested in using the Northern Ireland issue to break Fianna Fáil. in this he would probably fail. He could almost certainly break Jack Lynch, who would then be replaced by a more hard line figure - or at least by an equivocator like C. Haughey [...] Conor suffers from a degree of intellectual arrogance and a high degree of competitiveness ... For whatever motive, however, he does seem to be unnecessarily provocative and to be pushing Lynch to the limit.’ (Public Records Office; see Margaret O’Callaghan, ‘Our Man in Dublin’ [on Hayes], in Fortnight, Feb. 2005, p.8-9.)

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl & Robert Hogan, ‘An Appraisal of Conor Cruise O’Brien’, in Journal of Irish Literature, vol. III, No.2 (May 1974), pp.3-47, contains information and quotations, viz., David Sheehy, IRB and Land League; IPP; br. Fr Eugene, Land League priest, taught de Valera in Co. Clare; Hann organised patriotic protest that started Plough and Stars riot; correspondence with O’Casey, in which he shone, led to public debate, in which she shone (Mills Hall, 1 [May].); Katherine Sheehy, sis. of Hanna, m. Conor O’Brien, pseud. ‘Fand O’Grady’ (play, Apartments, Abbey 1923). Maria Cross, ‘individual patterns of several exceptionally vivid imaginations’; find their celebration of the abnormal in Catholicism ingenious and exceptional; find unifying bond in fundamental attitudes, ‘Man remains nailed to his mother when he seeks to break loose, he finds ‘paradise’ in loving another woman he becomes aware of his crucifixion [...] in which the cross suffers equally with the sacrifice, is punished for being the cross, is the only for of love. [Mauriac, Bloy, Greene, Waugh, O’Faolain, Peguy, Bernanos].

Quotes, ‘the Parnell of the split deviated from politics into literature’ (Parnell, p.356); ‘A less austere school might hold, however, that a period which is close enough for us to share many of its interests and assumtpitions and far enough away for us to be able to extricate ourselves at least from its cruder forms of partisanship, may usefully be stdied,and that whether we call this result history or not is of no great importance (Parnell, p.vii.)

‘When Moran and his friends talked of West Britons they had in mind, I imagine, some archetype of a dentist’s wife who collected crests, ate kedgeree for breakfast, and displayed on her mantelpiece a portrait of the Dear Queen.’ (Shaping &, p.19); Writers and Politics notes Irish heritage results in ‘morbid interest in hypocrisy [...] set[ting] great store by irony’; an essay on ‘Michelet Today’ included; led astray on Camus, assuming colonial guilt, and corrected by Yves Courleline, Coll. Writings (Hist. d’Algérie 1969); ‘our ideas about politics are permeated by the dramatic’ (Power & Consciousness, p.11.)

TLS calls Murderous Angels ‘what amounts to a character assassination of Dag Hammarskjold’; shows Hammarskjold and Lumumba, respectively homosexual and hedonist, defeated by Baron d’Auge; Hogan quotes from Concise History on the Boyne and Penal Laws, ‘the tragedy could not have been averted’, each side reacting to the discovery of their historical divergence with ‘that ethnocentric reflex of shock, disgust, and anger, which is among the strongest and most terrible forces in human history. The weaker part was doorn to be oppressed.’

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl & Robert Hogan (‘An Appraisal of Conor Cruise O’Brien’, May 1974) - cont.: O’Brien instances as elements in the tragedy the Reformation and counter-Reformation with its quasi-millenial hopes; dynastic ambitions and fears; quickening consciouness of nationalism, English and Irish. On Northern Ireland: ‘As long as Catholics generally think of unity as ‘the solution’, ‘the only thinkable solution’, so long will groups like the Provisional IRA draw from this general vague conviction their mandate and their licence.’

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Ronan Sheehan, interview with Seán MacBride, in The Crane Bag, 2, 1 & 2 (1977), quotes MacBride, ‘My experience of censorship during Conor Cruise O’Brien’s time ... did not give me much confidence in the judgement of the censors he was relying on’; speaking of the ‘campaign of denigration of 1916 and the independence movement’, he says that ‘Dr O’Brien has an extremely good pen but is essentially divisive; he had probably had to revise his own views on more than one occasion’ (p.302.)

John A. Murphy, ‘Further Reflections on Irish nationalism’, in The Crane Bag 2, 1&2 (1978) and rep. in The Crane Bag Book [1980], pp.304-11: ‘Dr Cruise O’Brien with characteristic pungency and courage, masterfully exposed the wooliness of Southern attitudes towards Northern Ireland and in particular the ambivalence of Southern thinking – or more accurately, feeling – about the Provisional IRA.Because he persisitently compelled peopole to make uncomfortable reappraisals of emotions cosily and lazily cherished, he incurred hostility. He performed then, a very great public service which will one day be appreciated as such. Even after 1973 he occasionally to say penetrating and unpalatably true things about what might be called our national condition, particularly about Souther ignorance of Northern Ireland. I could not agree more ... [with opinion stated ... &c.]; however, Murphy goes on to say that O’Brien has see the Provisionals as Republicanism ‘not as the armed Hibernians they really are’, and has accordingly rejected Irish nationalism out of hand pur sang; criticises his rejection of ‘cultural protectionism’; his disapproval of any expression of an aspiration towards national unity [306], and writes of ‘the kind of xenophobia that [O’Brien] deliberately confuses with healthy nationalism’; calls on him to help exorcise ‘the demon of hiberniaphobia’ through his newspaper [207]; calls his vies simplistic and date; accuses him of indulging a fantasy of Paisleyite proportions in viewing the IRA as the arm of the Irish Catholic Church, in calling the new Primate at Armagh the ‘Ethnarch, politically as well as spiritually, of his people’; ‘notion of O Fiaich as the Irish Makarios will amuse those who know him’; complains that the ‘manner of his saying’ what he says compounds resentment.

David Cairns & Shaun Richards, Writing Ireland, Colonialism, Nationalism and Culture (Manchester 1988), As O’Brien defines “Irish race” it is made up of those who are af native Irish stock, Catholic, and who hold some of the general political opinions of people of that origin and religion, and also those of settler stock and Protestant religion, ‘to the extent that these cast in their lot with people in the first category, culturally, or politically, or preferably both’ (States of Ireland, 1972, p.51) [25]; O’Brien argued that before 1900 Yeats’s politics were ‘popular and active’, but after 1900, became ‘aristocratic and archaising’ (‘Passion and Cunning’, in Jeffares, ed., In Excited Reverie, 1965, pp.207-78; p.222); ‘the poet [Yeats ...] now turned aside from Irish politics [...] his nationalism now become aristocratic and archaizing [...] he was releasing a part of his personality he had been forced to suppress during the years of political activity’; ‘By 1900, with the reunification of the Irish party and the burying of the Parnellite hatchet - which was an anti-clerical hatchet - the clergy had recovered most of their former authority, and life among the nationalists must have become proportionately depressing for Protestants’ (ibid., pp.222-23); with Garret Fitzgerald (Towards a New Ireland, 1972), States of Ireland signifies signals awareness of need to reassess issues of national identity and purpose [141].

Eamon McCann, War and an Iriures: Neighbours (sh Town (1974), [q.p.]; commenting on Cruise O’Brien’s ‘ignorance of the plight of the unemployment’ in Northern Ireland. [Selected in Patricia Craig, Rattle of the North (1992).] Note title of Benedict Kiely, in States of Ireland (1980).

W. J. McCormack, The Battle of the Books (Dublin: Lilliput Press 1986) [?quoting Terence Brown]: ‘Implicit through Cruise O’Brien’s writings in the 1970s was the suggestion that Ireland would have achieved as much as it did had the Easter Rising not taken place, had that “unhealthy intersection” between literature and politics not been fabricated. A mind capable of severity and astringency on other matters became markedly self-indulgent on this issue’. Further laments the ‘unhistorical quality’ of O’Brien’s thinking in this area. (Terence Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922-1972, Fontana 1981, p.290; McCormack, p.47); Further, McCormack continues, ‘it would be sentimental to suggest that Terence Brown, born (albeit in China) of Protestant clerical stock, is innately better equipped for the task of analysing relatiosn between class ans creed in Ireland than Dr. O’Brien with his ecumenical background and socialist credentials.’ (idem.)

Tom Paulin, ‘Conor Cruise O’Brien: The Making of a loyalist’, in Ireland & the English Crisis (Bloodaxe 1984), originating as a Times Literary Supplement review of O’Brien’s Ewart-Biggs Memorial Lect

1978-79); Paulin finds Conor Cruise O’Brien, the ‘loyalist’, playing the part of Enoch Powell, articulating the justification of the Unionist state - qua status quo - and laying the responsibility for political violence on the demonstrators rather than the RUC and the British Army. He analyses the shifting grounds of his political discourse, and accuses him of an excessively solipsistic concern with his own crumbling liberal image - the hallmark of a man in isolation. He makes hay with his autobiographical outings in States of Irelan and other works, as well as showing how he revises texts and events to suit present purposes. COB is son of Kathleen Sheehy and Francis C. O’ Brien, a journalist who had the ‘gift of saying hurtful things in memorable ways’. (Note that Kathleen Sheehy was the model for Miss Ivors in Joyce’s story.)

Luke Gibbons, ‘From Megalith to Megastore’, in Irish Studies, ed. Tom Bartlett et al. (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1988), pp.230-31; discusses Sect. 31 of the 1960 Broadcasting Act and the 1973 amendments introduced by O’Brien are discussed in together with his attempt to introduce a relay signal of BBC to the whole country.

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David Gwynn Morgan, [review], in The Irish Review, No. 6 (Spring 1989), pp.128-130, the following, God’s Land, Refections on Religion and Nationalism (Harvard UP [n.d.]); The Siege, the Saga of Israel and Zionism (Weidenfeld & Nicolson); and Passion and Cunning and other Essays (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). O’Brien defines himself as Homo Candidus Liberalis Pessimisticus; cites from Israel, ‘The Palestinian Arabs have every right to say that they are the indirect and innocent victims of what happened to the Jews in Europe. They are. They are also the victims of the vanity and fantasies of their own leaders; victims also of the Machievellian Arab rulers ... and of illusions prompted by the hollow and far from disinterested sympathy of European leaders.’ Morgan comments, the first sentence is characteristic of O’Brien’s honesty in acknowledging the difficulties on his own side. But the final sentence while doubtless true, is hardly a justification for Israel’s failure to make any territorial concessions.’ (p.129.)

Ernest Gellner, ‘The Sacral and the National’ [1989], Encounters with Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell 1994), Preface: ‘[...] Conor Cruise O’Brien, whose error is to take nationalism for granted as the primary and general social bond, and who then concerns himself with musing on how it can best be retrained from excessive, religiously inspired enthusiasm.’ Chap. 5: ‘The Sacred and the National’ [review of Godland: Reflections on Religion and Nationalism, 1987 ]: ‘[...] almost uniquely qualified to write about nationalism and religion [5] expectations fulfilled only in part [...] [ix] very amusing but seriously flawed. Conor Cruise O’Brien is only only an analyst, but also a victim of nationalist. [...] he has internalised, as initially most of us have, the key nationalist assumption - namely, that the nation, whatever that may be, is the natural political unity. Unlike some of us, he has not liberated himself from taking that assumption for granted. He has not come to see that this is a contingent, historically limited condition, and not a universal, self-evident verity.’ Accuses O’Brien of ‘a touch of intellectual autism’ in that he ignores the participants in the LSE debate (Elie Kedourie, Monogue, Anthony Smith, Percy Cohen and himself) as well as Tom Nairn, Eric Hobsbaum, Michael Hechter, Benedict Anderson, Karl Deutsch, J. Brouilly, and others incl. Weber and Durkheim, remarking: ‘had [he] given attention to the latter thinker he would at least have had to come to terms with the idea that the religious sacralisation of the social is of the very essence of religion; hence what is really distinctive in the modern world is not a new and specially destructive intrusion of the sacred, but the fact thta it attaches itself to a new kind of social object. The main flaw in O’Brien’s argument could however have been avoided only if he had attended to Kedourie’s negative point: the problems of social cohesion and that of nationalism are not identical.’ [Cont.]

Ernest Gellner, ‘The Sacral and the National’ (1989) - cont.: Gellner quotes O’Brien: ‘It is impossible to conceiv of organised society without nationalism, and even without holy nationalism, since any nationalism which failed to inspire reverence could not be an effective bonding force’ (O’Brien, p.40; here p.61), and remarks: ‘in fact it is not merely perfectly possible ... it constitutes the normal political condition of most of mankind. Most of the social and political communities which have existed in the ocurse of human history, and which possessed quite enough “bonding force” to survive for a significant time, wer note based on the nationalist principle, whether holy or sober. City states, tribal segments, participatory communities of all kinds, were generally much smaller than the totality of members of the same culture, or what we now call a “nation”. at the same time, there were also many larger units, dynastic states and empires, whose bouunds generally went beyond the limits of what we call a nation. Rulers of such units were not concerned with whether their boundaries transgressed beyond the so to speak ethnographic limits, or even whether they reached them. They were interested in the tribute and labour potential of their subjects, not in their culture. it is only in modern times that this congruence of political and cultural boundaries becomes a matter of presing concern, and that, consequently, a polity without nationalism becomes well-nigh inconceivable. What we need to explain is how this state of affairs came about, instead of uncritically retrojecting it on to all humanity. O’Brien’s egregious generalisation [...] paralyses the argument which is based on it. [...]’ (pp.61-62; cont.)

Ernest Gellner (‘The Sacral and the National’, 1989) - cont.: Gellner writes that O’Brien poses the question ‘why and to what extent sacralisation and emotional excess really are necessary for adequate social bonding’ and continues: ‘His answer is that they probably are, but that you can have too much of a good thing. Evidentally, he hopes that societies may have just enough of it for adequate bonding, but not so much as to indulge in excesses.’ (p.63.) Later quotes O’Brien: ‘Irish nationalist ideology, Irish Republicanism [...] beneath an increasingly perfunctory pseudosecular cover, is Irish Catholic holy nationalist’ (O’Brien, p.39; here p.67.) Quotes further: ‘Would rationality, self-interest, and pragmatisim continue to hold you together, or would you burst apart, once you had lost the common bond of national religion?’ (O’Brien, p.41; Gellner, idem. - noting that the ‘you’ is an American audience.) Remarks that O’Brien considers the American Revolution a Protestant movement inasmuch as the Americans were more upset about George III’s flirtation with his Canadian Catholic subjects than his attempts at absolutism in relation to themselves. (Gellner, p.68), and quotes O’Brien on McCarthyism considered as ’an engine for the social promotioin of Catholics in America and the promotion of Irish Catholics in particular’ as offering a chance to show that they were an ’especially tough breed of anti-Communist [... &c.’, O’Brien, p.36; for longer extract, see infra; Gellner, p.68]. [Cont.

Ernest Gellner (‘The Sacral and the National’, 1989) - cont.: ‘The argument-by-elimination, which suggests that once deities and kings are de-sacralised, then nations must inherit their aura, simply does not follow. The real problem in understanding nationalism is: why it is that, of the many things found within this world, which in the past often attracted devotion and loyalty, it is precisely large, anonymous categories of people-sharing-the-same-culture, which capture most of the available political affect? An argument from alleged manifest elimination provides a facile and invalid distraction from the main task of tackling the problem of nationalism.’ (Ibid., p.69.) Gellner notes repeatedly that, in his historical account of nationalism, O’Brien adverts to the territorialism of the Old Testament and the reaffirmed territorialism of the Roman Empire and the Protestant Reformation in the wake of the non-territorial religion of the New Testament and asks, ‘how can nationalism be so well-diffused and yet be rooted in the Abrahamic tradition?’ (p.70.) also disputes O’Brien’s view that Soviet marxism is in effect a nationalism and cites current developments as proof; quotes his account of Anglicanism as ‘theological schizophrenia’ (p.72.) Concludes: ‘The idea that the trouble arises from the excessive political intrusion of the sacred as such, but fo which there would be nothing to worry about, is of course natural in an Irish context. It may well be true in Ireland: The Gaeltacht on its own would cause no problems, any more than it does in Scotland. Without a sacralising religious differentiation, ther is no real cultural boundary in Ireland. But this point cannot be generalised for the world at large. [See also remark by Gellner quoted in Conor McCarthy, infra.]

Jonathan Bardon, The History of Ulster (1992), calling Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘an internationally respected intellectual heavyweight.’

Fergus Pyle, ‘Profile’ [interview], in The Irish Times [Weekend] (12 Sept. 1992): christened Donal Conor David Dermot Donough Francis Sheehy Skeffington; the United Nations man in Katanga; Maria Cross (1952); exposed machinations of European powers in To Katanga and Back, written on his resignation from both his UN and his Irish Foreign Dept. posts; Murderous Angels (1968) died in New York when the black actors in the cast were abused by militants for betraying their cause and people in the non-deferential but affectionate portrait of Lumumba; Minister of Posts & Telegraphs in Cosgrave Labour/Fine Gael Coalition govt., three-and-a-half years, 1973-77; introduced Sect 31 of the 1976 Broadcasting Act, prohibiting the broadcasting or representation of the IRA on radio or television; a commission to write a life of Burke followed from his ed. of The French Revolution and other writings; deferred, while he wrote The Siege on Israel, and resumed. Quotes: ‘Burke was one of the most extraordinary people who ever lived, and I think my chief merit is in being able to show, as I believe I do in the book, just how great he really is.’ Notices forthcoming review by Marianne Elliott.

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E. P. Thompson, review of The Great Melody, Times Literary Supplement (4 Dec. 1992), pp.3-4, takes issue with its methods - ‘it is sad that a writer of such wit and distinction should employ the pen as a shillelagh’ - and focuses on the book’s thesis that Burke’s silence about Irish Catholics reveals an obsession with alleviating their distress, and that he identifies with all the others such as Americans and even Indians because he identifies them at the ‘Irish level’. Thompson comments, ‘it is a possible analysis, but difficult to prove.’ Further, ‘So absolute is the identification of author with subject that together they present a single unblemished personage, Conor Cruise O’Burke. He finds that O’Brien ignores questions of political economy, such as Burke’s support for Adam Smith’s market forces view which, perhaps unfairly, Thompson aligns with the causes of the Irish famine. He notes that ‘in a somewhat trashy epilogue’, communists and marxists are brought within a common frame, and tells a story; ‘in New York in 1968, conor Cruise O’brien was kicked by a police-horse while he and the horse were both attending an anti-Vietnam war demonstration.’ He also reproaches O’Brien for assuming that the cause of human liberty cannot be linked with the French Revolution and for connecting the terror with all radicalism.

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto & Windus 1993): ‘The leap to essences and generalisations was accompanied by appeals to an imagined history of Western endowments and free hand-outs, followed by a reprehensible sequence of ungrateful bitings of that grandly giving “Western” hand, “Why don’t they appreciate us, after what we did for them?”’ In a footnote he remarks: ‘This is the message of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s ‘Why the Wailing Ought to Stop’, in The Observer, 3 June 1984.’ (Said, p.24.) Further, ‘in the main it is true that the creation of very many newly independent nation-states in the post-colonial world has succeeded in re-establishing the primacy of what have been called imagined communities, parodied and mocked by such writers as V. S. Naipaul and Conor Cruise O’Brien, hijacked by a host of dictators and petty tyrants, enshrined in various state nationalisms. Nevertheless in general there is an oppositional quality to the consciousness of many Third World scholars and intellectuals [...] Their work in trying to connect experiences across the imperial divide, in re-examining the great canons, in producing what in effect is a critical literature, cannot be, and generally has not been, co-opted by the resurgent nationalisms, despotisms, and ungenerous ideologies that betrayed the liberationist ideal in favour of the nationalist independence actuality.’ (Said, p.63.)

Edward Said (Culture & Imperialism, 1993): ‘The striking parallel between Camus and Orwell is that both men have become exemplary figures in their respective cultures, figures whose significance derives from but nevertheless seems to transcend the immediate force of their native context. The note is perfectly struck in a description of Camus that comes near the end of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s agile demystification of him in a book that in many ways resembles (and was written for the same series as) Raymond Williams’s Modern Masters study of Orwell. O’Brien says: “Probably no European writer of his time left so deep a mark on the imagination and, at the same time, on the moral and political consciousness of his own generation and of the next. He was intensely European because he belonged to the frontier of Europe and was aware of a threat. The threat also beckoned to him. He refused, but not without a struggle. / No other writer, not even Conrad, is more representative of the Western consciousness and conscience in relation to the non-Western world. The inner drama of his work is the development of this relation, under increasing pressure and in increasing anguish.”.’ (O’Brien, Albert Camus, NY: Viking 1970, p.103p here p.209.) / Having shrewdly and even mercilessly exposed the connections between Camus’s most famous novels and the colonial situation in Algeria, O’Brien lets him off the hook. There is a subtle act of transcendence in O’Brien’s notion of Camus as someone who belonged ‘to the frontier of Europe’, when anyone who knows anything about France, Algeria, and Camus-O’Brien certainly knows a great deal - would not characterise the colonial tie as one between Europe and its frontier. Similarly Conrad and Camus are not merely representative of so relatively weightless a thing as ‘Western consciousness’ but rather of Western dominance in the non-European world. […] The Western colonialism that O’Brien and Conrad are at such pains to describe is first a penetration beyond the European frontier and into the heart of another geographical entity [; &c.]’ (pp.209-10). Further, ‘O’Brien further rescues Camus from the embarrassment he had put him in by stressing the privilege of his individual experience. […] Here then is a moral man in an immoral situation.’ (p.210.)

Jerry Z. Muller, reviewing Ian Harris, ed., Burke’s Pre-revolutionary Writings, and Tom Furniss, Burke’s Aesthetic Ideology (both CUP 1994), remarks: ‘It is the merit of Dr O’Brien’s work [is] to have renewed interest in Burke’s great campaign on behalf of the Indian population against what he saw as the depredations of the British East India Company, a campaign that was thought eccentric by many of Burke’s parliamentary contemporaries and was carried out against the inclinations of his own part.’ [Cutting; ?TLS, in 1994.]

Anthony J. Jordan, To Laugh or to Weep, A Biography of Conor Cruise O’Brien (1995), noticed in Books Ireland (Nov. 1995), where the assertion is made that O’Brien permitted Jordan to take passages and material wholesale from the ‘authorised’ biography by Akenson without the latter author’s permission; refers further to ‘that brain’ and O’Brien’s ‘unerring ability to get things wrong’ as wasted qualifications for academe.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, ‘The most hated man in Ireland’, review of Donald Harman Akenson, Conor, A Biography of Conor Cruise O’Brien (McGill-Queen’s UP 1994), 574pp.; Akenson, Conor, Anthology (McGill-Queen’s 1994), 356pp., incl. bibliography; and O’Brien, Ancestral Voices (Poolbeg 1994) [Spectator, 7 Jan. 1995]; gives rather derisive account of the chummy Canadian Professor-author, and cites some Pooterish remarks, ‘Conor slept with the occasional woman friend, but he rather preferred to give his evenings over to research and writing’; ‘alcohol has served the same purpose for him that going to the squash court or doing gardening has served for others’, but for all this Akenson’s book is ‘a remarkable feat of scholarship. Quotes earlier assertion that William O’Brien ‘so rightly’ claimed that ‘violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation’; also quotes his announcement of the failure of the Gaelic revival: ‘high esteem for a language you don’t actually use while holding the one you actually do use in low esteem, is to be in a parlous mental and moral condition.’

See also Wheatcroft, ‘From Congo to the Holy Land - by way of El Vino’s: Conor Cruise O’Brien - author, minister and former editor-in-chief of The Observer - is 90 this week. Geoffrey Wheatcroft surveys an amazing life’ [on O’Brien at 90], in The Guardian, 28 Oct. 2007 - online. Includes the anecdote: ‘Years ago Conor was sharing a drink with Richard Ellmann, the American biographer of Yeats and Joyce, and Terence Kilmartin, for decades the much-loved literary editor of The Observer. “You’re a funny pair,” Terry said, “a Jew who thinks he.s Irish and an Irishman who wants to be a Jew.”

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Geoffrey Wheatcroft on O’Brien, in The Guardian (12 July 2003): ‘In 1960, the Belgian Congo became independent under Patrice Lumumba, and was rapidly engulfed by violence. The southern-most - and much the richest - province of Katanga seceded under Moise Tshombe, none too indirectly backed by Belgian mineral interests. After Lumumba was overthrown and then murdered, O’Brien was sent to head a UN peace-keeping mission to Katanga. He was chosen not so much for his diplomatic skills as because, in another wry twist, Dag Hammarskjöld, the intellectual and introspective Swedish secretary-general of the UN, had read and admired Maria Cross. / Quite how far O’Brien’s close reading of Catholic writers was a qualification for dealing with strife in central Africa was an interesting question, and in any case the unpropitious adventure soon ended grimly. Hammarskjöld was killed in a mysterious air crash, while O’Brien was vilified in the London Tory papers - for whom the UN was “the Red Army in blue berets” - and forced to resign. His revenge on a British government “which had become very sensitive about me” and, according to O’Brien, done what it could to get rid of him, was to write a book, To Katanga and Back, telling as much of the truth as he could about the affair. He later expressed some disillusionment with African nationalism, but that book (as well as a subsequent polemical study of Camus) firmly established his anti-colonial credentials. The truth had not been told before about how far western governments had striven to destabilise Lumumba’s new-born state and O’Brien was one of the first to illuminate this murky episode, writing with an acerbic tone that was no doubt strengthened by his own sense of injustice at the way his career had been ended. / At least Katanga had made him a hero in Africa, and by way of consolation prize he became vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana. It had also brought a climacteric in his personal life. [...]’ (Available - online; accessed 12.05.2014; see full-text version in RICORSO Library > “Criticism” > Reviews - via index, or as attached.) 

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Anthony Roche, Contemporary Irish Drama (Dublin: Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1995), p.258f., identifies O’Brien as the first to draw a parallel between recent events in N. Ireland and Antigone, in the Belfast lecture of Oct. 1968, soon after printed in The Listener and later as Neighbours (1980); further noting the Times Literary Supplement review in which Tom Paulin drew attention to the revisions in O’Brien’s text strongly favouring the outlook of Creon. [See further under Paulin, q.v.]

Kevin Burke, review of The Great Melody, in Studies (Autumn 1993), focusing on the ‘the text which O’Brien ignores, the early treatise on the Sublime & Beautiful’ (acc. John Devitt, reviewing Studies in ILS, Spring 1994, p.36.

Larry Siedentop, ‘The Western Malaise’, review of On the Eve of the Millenium: The Future of Democracy through an Age of Unreason (NY: Free press; Simon & Schuster [q.d.].), Times Literary Supplement, [q.d.], pp.3-4: ‘O’Brien seizes on the most important aspect of British public life, a deep and rapidly growing cynicism about the political system. The danger this holds in store for public life om the next decades fills him with foreboding. He even goes so far as to compare it to the radical undermining of inherited beliefs and practices in France in the decades before 1789 [...]. Drawing on André Gide, O’Brien labels this the decrystalisation of love, recalling how the philosophes subverted the received wisdom to the point where violent revolution and military dictatorship seemed to the clairvoyant Burke the only possible outcome’; the reviewer considers O’Brien is ‘wrong to frame his argument around the future of the British monarchy’, and further traces the animus of the book to the disasterous Cairo Conference in which the Vatican developed a de facto alliance with Islamic countries in opposing measures to stem population (p.3).

Garret Fitzgerald, review of Donald Harman Akenson [Prof. of history at Kingston, Ontario], Conor, A Biography of Conor Cruise O’Brien (1994), pointing to the period when O’Brien was managing the irredentist propaganda of the Foreign Affairs Dept. of the Coalition Govt (Irish Times, 29 Oct. 1994).

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Bernard Bailyn [Harvard Prof. of History], review of Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution 1785-1800 (Sinclair-Stevenson [1996]), 353pp., in Times Literary Supplement (15 Nov., 1996), pp.3-4: [Recounts history of attacks on Jefferson’s reputation as a libertarian]: Now, from afar, his sabre slashing left and right (mainly left) comes Conor Cruise O’Brien,. Having examined, in two stings at the national Humanities Center in N. Carolina, Jefferson’s relation to the French Revolution, O’Brien concludes, amid a barrage of charges more passionate and intemperate than any of the attacks Jefferson’s worst enemies ever hurled at him, that “it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the twentieth-century statesman whom the Thomas Jefferson of January 1793 would have admired most is Pol Pot ... We cannot even say categorically that Jefferson would have condemned the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the destruction of its occupants ... The Ku [sic] Klux Klan was ideologically descended from Thomas Jefferson.”; reviewer notes that approx. a quarter of the book is quotation from commentators on Jefferson, making it an anthology of their supposed delusions about the libertarianism of the subject; O’Brien is arguing ‘first, that Jefferson was a racist; and second, that he admired the French revolution even when its murderous excesses were at their height, and that his Francophile enthusiasm faded not because he was repulsed by the Terror, which for some time he apparently condoned, but because the revolution’s outward impulse proved to be embarrassing in domestic American politics. Neither of these arguments is new. What is new is O’Brien’s intensification and elaboration of them, his elevation of them to a soaring plane of trans-historical abstraction, and the intricacy of the relationship he seems between them.’ [Times Literary Supplement, p.3].

Bernard Bailyn (review of The Long Affair, in Times Literary Supplement, 15 Nov., 1996) - cont.: considers closely question of Jefferson’s supposed concubinal relationship with Sally Hemings, a black girl; finds that O’Brien has misused his source in Malone, and failed to identify the original of the slur in the work of a hostile journalist (Ed. of Watchman, Waverley, Ohio, 1873), and further overlooks the authoritative treatment of the subject in a chapter of Douglas Adair, Fame and the Founding Fathers, 1974); O’Brien’s argument turns on two sentences in the 19,000 or so extant of Jefferson’s letters: ‘it was necessary to use the arm of the people ... blind to a certain degree ... But time and truth will rescue and embalm their memories while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest ... My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free in it, it would be better than as it now is.’ O’Brien calls this the fatal “Adam and Eve” letter, and regards the last phrases as “no isolated flash of hyperbole” but part of what Burke called the “wild gas of liberty”, making Jefferson “prophet and patron of the fanatical racist far right in America”; this is supported by an “Interpolation (Feb.-March 1966), recording O’Brien’s discovery of the link between Jefferson and the paranoid militias in the fact they the Oklahoma bomb suspects had read Jefferson’s famous comment, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”, and further that the CNN wore these words emblazoned on T-shirts; reviewer concludes with Levy that Jefferson’s libertarianism was “considerably less than perfect [and] that his practice flagged behind his faith”, but that he set the highest standards of freedom for himself and posterity to be measured against”, finding that O’Brien fails to detract from this sensible judgement; further quotes Jefferson’s stated preference at a choice for newspapers without government over government without newspapers.’ [4]

Tom Dunne, ‘Unchained Melody’, in Kevin Barry, Tom Dunne, et al., eds., The Irish Review, 13 (Winter 1992/93) pp.165-69, reviews The Great Melody: a thematic biography and commented anthology of Edmond Burke (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992); annotates O’Brien’s scholarship, finds this recent offering intellectually, sympathetic and engaging; highlights the similarities between O’Brien and Burke as well as O’Brien’s use of Vico’s ‘fantasia’ in his representation of Burke.

Richard Kearney, ‘Irish Heritage in the French Revolution: The Rights of the People and the Rights of Man’, in Barbara Hayley & Christopher Murray, eds., Ireland and France - A Bountiful Friendship (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1992), cites Conor Cruise O’Brien’s essay in New York Review of Books (April 1989), in which he pushes his Burkean principles to the point of denouncing the French revolution as the original of a republicanism that overrides the rights of the individual in the name of the nation-state. O’Brien calls the Cult of the Nation ‘the bloodiest of all terrestial creeds’ and finds it ‘already present, already formed, in 1789 in France.’ The ‘distancing of God and consequent delegitimizing of monarchy’ left ‘an unholy vacuum’; henceforth it would be in the name of the nation that men would be most likely to feel it legitimate to hate and kill other men and women and children.’ Kearney comments that what ‘O’Brien says about the evils of German nationalism is characteristically acute [b]ut his attempt to tar the French Revolution with the Nazi brush is as disingenuous as it is incredible.’ (p.41.)

Richard Kearney, ‘Ulysses returns to Ithaca’, review of Memoir: Life and Themes (Profile), in Times Literary Supplement (15 Jan. 1999), p.6; addresses ‘contradictions and controversies which surround him’; notes his composition of anti-partition speeches for the arch-republican Sean MacBride, his horror of Bloody Sunday, his intention to run as Republican canddiate in Ulster in 1969, his unstinted loyalty to Frank Cluckey and Liam Cosgave, as compared with the uncompromising and intemperate unionist, his demonising of John Hume as a Machievellian; notes ‘withering critique’ of Seán MacBride; cameos of figures incl. David Thornley, Noel Browne, Justin Keating, but also Gerry Adams, Bobby Sands, Charles Haughey and Jack Lynch; ‘O’Brien does not merely dislikehis adversaries, he loathes them’; adverts to his own characterisation of O’Brien as ‘an intellectual terrorist’, and O’Brien’s castigation of his own work in 1985; quotes the author’s account of his own split mind in ‘the conditioning of the two cultures winthin which I more or less uneasily grew up. The two culture were the nationalist one, to variants of which all my family adhered, and the post-1920 southern-Protestant culture within which I received most of my schooling’; remarks that ‘in essence, almost all of O’Brien’s work is a reworking of the “national question” … O’Brien can never escape his own ancestral voices’; adverts to ‘the ancient summit where Molly said “yes” and Conor Cruise O’Brien said “no”; ‘parochial obsession - masquerading as cosmopolitan coolness - which makes this memoir compulsive reading’; ‘if O’Brien adopts a prophetic tone in his conclusion, his model is Jeremiah rather than Isaiah’; Ireland’s prophète maudit and manqué; ‘O’Brien’s world is a self-regarding one … a gadfly in our garden, a Banquo at our banquet, a thorn in our side, a blind spot in our eye. If he didn’t exist, Ireland would have to invent him.’

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Arthur Aughey, review of Memoir: My Life and Themes (Poolbeg 1998), and Richard English and Joseph Morrison Skelly, Ideas that Matter: Essay in Honour of Conor Cruise O’Brien (Poolbeg 1998), quotes O’Brien’s proposal of inclusion in a united Ireland - to the annoyance of his former Unionist partners: ‘an inclusion negotiated on terms which would safeguard the vital interests of the protestant community … In the conditions of the late 20th century, no other way to safeguard the cital interests of the protestant community is available.’ Aughey writes: ‘if you think that the British government is intent on destroying the Union […] then the Agreement is a death by a thousand cuts […] a diet of aggravation and cumulative humiliation for the Unionist of Ulster. [...] O’Brien is the logical outworking of this view. Why not make a sweet end of it now. Wed the Irish Republic and get a marriage contract while the going is good.’ Aughey calls the Memoir ‘a great read’ and Ideas Matter ‘a worthy tribute’, quoting aphorism[s] of Lichtenberg, and Edmund Burke (viz., ‘I ceased in the year 1764 to believe that one can convince one’s opponents with arguments printed in books. It is not to do that, therefore that I have taken up my pen, but merely so as to annoy them, and bestow strength and courage on those on our own side, and to make it know to the others tha they have not convinced us.’ ‘It is not what the lawyers tells me I may do; but what humanity, reason, and justice, tell me I ought to do’; ‘It is the nature of all greatness not to be exact.’)

Basil McIvor, Hope Deferred: Experiences of an Irish Unionist (Belfast: Blackstaff 1998): ‘In his book Ancestral Voices, Conor Cruise O’Brien was subsequently to write that he warned the Dublin government in cabinet against emphasis on the Council of Ireland; he also warned that the important thing was to secure the cross-community Executive, and that by piling on a lot of surplus symbolism, we were in danger of capsizing the essential - the powersharing Executive. He criticised Garret FitzGerald - briefed by John Hume - for telling the British cabinet that this danger did not exist and that the Unionist community would accept Sunningdale, Council of Ireland and all.’ [See longer extract in RICORSO > Library > Criticism > History - via index, or as attached.]

Declan Kiberd, Anglo-Irish Attitudes [Field Day Pamphlets, No. 6] (Derry: Field Day 1984): ‘Dr. O’Brien’s contribution to the rewriting of history has one great value. It has exploded the myth of the bellicose Paddy and demonstrated that the besettng Irish condition is not pugnacity but paralysis, not idealism but pragmatism, not passion but cunning.’ (p.17.)

Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (London: Jonathan Cape 1995), pp.558-61: gives an account of O’Brien’s ‘revision of the anti-colonialism of his younger years’ and his change of support from the Sartrean side to Camus’s side in the Algerian debate, summarising O’Brien’s earlier opinion in his study of Camus that ‘if forced to choose between revolutionary justice and his mother, he would in the end opt to save his mother.’ (p.559.) links O’Brien with V. S. Naipaul as one of the sophisticated new analysts who supplied international opinion with reasons for blaming the postcolonial countries slipping into tyranny or anarchy for their own troubles; ‘In Ireland, Conor Cruise O’Brien began to sing the same song, but in the future tense, by way of justifying a continuing British presence in the six counties of the north. he repented publicly of his anti-partition past, becoming a favoured columnist in the London and New York press, “a voice of sanity in the Irish mess”. He translated the mess of Ireland into a rational, enlightenment discourse which made good sense to his international readers. Witty, urbane, amusing, he shared with Naipaul a coolly analytical brain and a mind formed by close study of the European classics. After the outbreak of renewed violence in Northern Ireland, he revises his view of the Camus-Sartre debate and concluded that Camus had been right. The man who had once echoed Lenin’s disappointment that the 1916 rebels had risen too soon to launch an international revolution now made it very clear that he no [559] longer considers the Easter Rising to have been a positive thing. Yet his career, for all its twists, had an inner logic, the same logic which he detected in the works of Albert Camus. Both men found themselves caught on the cusp between Europe and the developing world. Both responded deeply to these twin tugs, because they could feel the pulls deeply within themselves. What O’Brien said of Camus was, perhaps, more applicable to himself: “he belonged to the frontier of Europe, and was aware of a threat. The threat also beckoned to him. he refused, but not without a struggle.’ (pp.559-60); also, ‘Ó Faolain and Cruise O’Brien represented the ideal of a liberal-European Ireland, but free of its problematic past, whose only tense was the present and its needs: but the persistent injuries in Northern Ireland, and the economic underdevelopment of the south, meant that conditions for such transcendence were never propitious.’ (p.560.)

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Theresa O’Connor: ‘Linking nationalism with religion, he [Conor Cruise O’Brien] argues that both creeds serve to legitimate war and blood-shed because both are rooted in the perverse notion that renewal comes through blood sacrifice. It is precisely this belief that Joyce sets out to decode in Ulysses.’ (‘Demythologising Nationalism: Joyce’s Dialogised Grail Myth’, in Vincent J. Cheng & Timothy Martin, eds., Joyce in Context, Cambridge UP 1992, p.100; here 21.)

Sean Lysaght, ‘The Scourge of Nationalism’, review of Ancestral Voices (1994), in ILS (Fall 1995, p.33); ‘From 1971 until now I have been combatting an Irish Catholci 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 do not want.’ (Ancestral voices, p.5)’ ‘There was no support for the idea [of an enquiry into the Haughey-Blaney Arms conspiracy], and no overt opposition to it either. It just died of silence ... It was a silence that indicated that you were outside the Catholic consensus. In Northern Ireland, Protestants would welcome an enquiry of the kind proposed, and Catholics would not. So it suited the consensus that mystery should continue to shroud the origins of the Provisional IRA. (Ibid. p.165); criticises view of John Hume as bearer of ‘implacable and relentless hostility of the seventeenth century (p.92), and ends, ‘let’s try to deprive this old spoil-sport of the satisfaction of saying “I told you so”.’

Maurice Goldring, Pleasant the Scholar’s Life: Irish Intellectuals and the Construction of the Nation State, reviewed by John McGahern in The Irish Times (23 July 1994): ‘In the late 1960s, I had the privilege of attending a conversation between the late Sean McEntee [sic], then the last survivor of the 1916 Rising, and Conor Cruise O’Brien. Conor Cruise O’Brien, as is his wont, provoked McEntee with a sweeping statement: “1916 was a mistake”; he declared. Scan McEntee replied, “Maybe it was, but I’m glad I was part of it.” McEntee’s daughter Maureen added, with superb clear-sightedness, “Conor, your grandfather was a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party. You were part of the elite. My father was the son of a publican. He would never have become minister without 1916. We would not have a fine house, his children world never have been to the best schools: Ruefully, Conor Cruise O’Brien answered, “Exactly, your people pushed mine aside”’. (Quoted in John McGahern, ‘The Forging of the State’, review of Goldring, in The Irish Times, 23 July 1994; also printed in Etudes Irlandais, Spring 1995, pp.239-43; rep. in Love of the World, 2006, p.382.)

Peter Berresford Ellis, A History of the Irish Working Class (Pluto 1996) [rev. edn.]: ‘What is significant is the change of attitudes among politicians in the twenty-six counties. It must be admitted that there have always ben apologists for Britain’s role in ireland among the southern bourgeoisie. Yet during the 1970s political figures such as Conor Cruise O’brien and Prof. John Murphy began to forumale a school of thought which overturned traditional attitudes towards partition: ‘Forgetting the undemocratic nature of the establishment of Northern Ireland, [34] they demanded that the will of the six-county “majority” must be sacrosanct. Anyone who did not respect this will be first, a sectarian; secondonly, a fascist; thirdly, not acting in the best interests of Ireland. This total revisionism of Irish history became centraly not only to the Labour Party but to Fine Gael policy. The Govt. recognises that the aspiration to the unity of the people and territory of the island must be achieved only in peace and with the consent of a majority in both parts of the island.’ (pp.340-41.) Ellils further holds that ‘Northern Ireland was not created out of religious bigotry but that religious bigotry was fostered as a weapon to create it.’ (p.340).

Michael Malouf, ‘Forging the Nation: James Joyce and the Celtic Tiger’, in Jouvert: Journal of Postcolonial Studies [Special Irish Issue], 1, 4 (Fall 1999): ‘When Conor Cruise O’Brien argued in “Passion and Cunning” (1965) that Yeats’s poetics influenced the Blood Sacrifice ethics of the IRA, he was taking part in a critical revision of Yeats that was integral to a larger reinterpretation of Ireland’s colonial past. Yet the nationalist image of Yeats that O’Brien was revising was itself neither unmediated nor continuous but largely a creation of the de Valera post-colonial Free State. In turn, O’Brien’s revisionary argument coincided with the movement away from the protectionist economic policies of the de Valera era toward a more open, free market economy and membership in the European Economic Community. The revised view of Yeats, therefore, was part of a process of repressing Ireland’s colonial past and its attendant nationalism for a less Anglophobic, more Europeanized identity. This relationship between Yeats, nationalism and free market economies is not unprecedented: as a Senator he designed the coinage of the postcolonial state and later his image adorned the twenty-pound Irish note. However, in an ironic turn of events that remarks upon Yeats’s posthumous reputation in Ireland, this note was taken out of circulation when the IRA began circulating forgeries in the early 1990s. The notion of a forgery as a reproduction that devalues the original suggests something of the posthumous life of the artist in society, which is also a process of reproducing a reputation at a higher or lesser value than the original.’ (Available online; accessed 11.10.2010.)

Mick Fealty, David Steven & Trevor Ringland, ‘A Long Peace? The Future of Unionism in Northern Ireland’ (Slugger O’Toole 2003): ‘Despite the cyclical appearance of Northern Irish politics, a comparison with earlier negotiations shows some things, at least, have changed. In 1992, Conor Cruise O’Brien gave the second lecture in memory of lan Gow, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who resigned from Margaret Thatcher’s government over the Anglo-Irish Agreement and was killed by the IRA in 1990. O’Brien saw no prospect for agreement between unionist and nationalist, suggesting the talks of the early nineties were sustained only by each side “manoeuvring to ensure that the blame for the eventual and inevitable breakdown will rest on the other.” He hoped the breakdown, when it came, would be “definitive” exposing the fact that agreement was fundamentally impossible and allowing for a security solution imposed ’without undue sensitivity to the views of those who, for whatever reasons, don’t want security to be strengthened.’ The Union, he concluded, ‘can be strengthened in the wake of the failure of the talks, if the Government draws the correct lessons from that failure, and abandons for good a kind of quest for peace which has, as its sole tangible effect, the encouragement of violence.’ O’Brien’s pessimism was rooted in a belief that few Irish nationalists - north or south of the border - were sincere when they professed that Irish unity can be achieved only with the consent of the majority of the population of Northern Ireland. He argued that there was “a simple empirical test” by which the sheep can be separated from the goats. “Find out how a given person stands on Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution. Those Articles are a naked claim to territory, irrespective of the wishes of the inhabitants. There is no nonsense, in the wording of the Articles, about the consent of the inhabitants. There is not mention of any inhabitants. It is all about territory and jurisdiction. The territory is ours, because we say it is and we must have it?” / In 1998, O’Brien’s test was past. The Republic amended its constitution to recognise that “a united Ireland shall be brought about only by [9] peaceful means with the consent of a mjaority of the people democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions of the island.”’ (pp.9-10; note: “Slugger O’Toole” is a website edited by Mick Fealty [link]; the printed version of this paper was circulated as a supplement of Fortnight [Belfast] June 2003).

Mary McAleese: ‘If ever anyone was a culture shock, Conor Cruise O’Brien was to me. Here was this extraordinarily arrogant man in the process of revising everything that I had known to be a given about Irish history, and he set in motion a way of looking at Northern Ireland that we are only beginning to grow up and grow out of.’ (Transcript of television interview with Vincent Brown [Mon. Sept. 1 1997), printed in Magill (Feb. 1998, p.20ff.). McAleese now adds: ‘thankfully, in later life he obliged me by joining the United Kingdom Unionist Party, which helped enormously, but didn’t give me much comfort in those days.’

Anne McHardy, obituary of Mary Holland, in The Guardian (9 June 2004): ‘[...] Mary soon began writing about ordinary Northern Ireland people - starting with the beleaguered Catholics - and trying to explain the driving force behind the civil rights protests. Her coverage led to a bitter conflict with Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Irish politician and later cabinet minister, that was to flare up into open, verbal warfare when he became joint editor of the Observer in 1979. Mary had written critically about his policies - not least the ban he imposed on Radio Telefís Éireann broadcasting statements by IRA spokesmen. / Shortly after his appointment at the Observer, she wrote a magazine profile of Mary Nellis, now a Sinn Féin councillor in Derry, which infuriated O’Brien so much that he had a critical letter published in the paper. He unsuccessfully tried to sack Mary, but she never fully regained her former position, and her other writing, particular her Irish Times column and broadcasting in both countries, became increasingly important.’

John Foley, ‘A Postcolonial Fiction: Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Camus”, in The Irish Review, 36/37 (Winter 2007), pp.1-13: “A Post Published in 1970, Conor Cruise O’Brien’s book on Albert Camus remains one of the most influential English-language books on the subject and is widely credited with inaugurating the postcolonial critique of Camus in the English-speaking world. Such a criticism as there has been of the book has largely tended to the view that the author did not go far enough in his criticism of Camus’ to Algeria, and Algerian independence in particular. This is the view of Edward Said, for example, whose Culture and Imperialism (1993) is usually understood to have completed the task that Cruise O’Brien began. Said’s contention, which is also the contention of the Irish critics I will discuss later, on, is that Cruise O’Brien’s book fails to the extent that his “agile demystification” of Camus’ supposed colonialist prejudices ultimately falls short of a complete condemnation. Said argues, and the others would agree, that having “shrewdly and even mercilessly exposed the connections between Camus’ most famous novels and the colonial situation in Algeria”, Cruise O’Brien ultimately lets Camus “off the hook”. What I want to do here is offer a sort of counternarrative, which will explain I think why Cruise O’Brien’s analysis is faulty, and then I will briefly consider the curious endorsements his book receives from Declan Kiberd, W. J. McCormack and Tom Paulin. / There is a fatal weakness at the heart of Cruise O’Brien’s argument, in that he pays scant attention to Camus’ journalism, specifically the journalism devoted to Algeria. [...] (p.1) Note that Foley takes his epigram from Whitman’s Song of Myself: ‘Do I contract myself. Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.’ [Accessible at JSTOR Ireland online - accessed 16.10.2011.]

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Brian Fallon [obituary], in The Guardian (20 Dec. 2008): ‘Conor Cruise O’Brien, who has died aged 91, was a natural controversialist, probably the most pugnacious Irish intellectual since George Bernard Shaw. He was a man of so many contradictions that to call him a blend of all these seems utterly inappropriate; rather, they appeared to pull him in many contrary directions at once. He seems posthumously fated to give rise to further controversy, since opinions on his career, his writing, his personality and his public stances vary hugely. [...] O’Brien was a maverick, both as a writer and politician, and to accuse him of inconsistency is beside the point. Some shrewd analysts viewed him as a fine intellectual led astray into public life by ambition and the desire to prove himself a man of action. Others saw him as a courageous radical nonconformist who challenged the forces of obscurantism. It is certainly arguable that, like Burke, he began as a Whig radical and ended up as almost a reactionary. The warring aspects of his personality partly had their roots in old Parnellite and Home Rule politics, which personalised and sometimes embittered public debate, partly in the example of the generation of French intellectuals that emerged after the second world war, partly in the liberal leftism of the 1950s, and partly in 1960s protest politics. But the crucible of all these was his own mercurial, restless personality and intellectual brilliance, backed by a historian’s sense of history and the born journalist’s flair for being in the wrong place at the right time.’ [For full text, see RICORSO Library, ‘Reviews’, infra.]

Niall Meehan, ‘Arrested development: Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1917-2008’, in History Ireland, 2: 17 (March 2009): ‘[...] O’Brien’s history was personal. Ever conscious of his role, he thought that opposition from ‘conservative Catholic/Nationalist’ family members to the marriage between his Catholic mother and agnostic father ‘hinged on my own right to existence’. He was pre-eminent. He commented on the merits of an Ireland shaped by ‘ancestral voices’. ‘Our view of these cannot but be present in our minds . . . when we are trying to look at the shaping process’. He wrote: ‘I feel an overwhelming sense of pathos as I look back at the world of my parents, and of Frank and Hanna, and Tom and Mary [Kettle], in the bliss of that false dawn’. Hardly an event that touched upon his existence passed without reference to his place within it. An Irish Times appreciation of ‘Mrs F. Cruise O’Brien’ in 1938 concluded: ‘She is survived by her only child, Conor, who is reading a brilliant course in Trinity College’. After the death from illness of his father in 1927, O’Brien’s point of reference, as an only child, was three widows: his mother and two aunts. / No history of Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century is possible without considering the contribution of Conor Cruise O’Brien. He was an anti-partition civil servant and managing director of the Irish News Agency, an Irish and UN diplomat, academic historian and politician. He appeared in the guise of propagandist and polemicist. O’Brien traded on, contributed to and felt publicly his own version of the passions he stirred. If difficulties intrude for the literary critic in separating art from the artist, how do we (or do we) disentangle the maker of histories from the history he made? / O’Brien’s Parnell and His Party (1957) confronted the role of his grandfather, David, who divorced himself from Parnell and from Committee Room 15 in the split of 1890 that dominated Irish politics for a generation. It brought out questions of public and private morality and the role of Catholic and Protestant, which tied Irish society in a knot for at least a century. O’Brien’s work explained the role of English and Welsh religious non-conformism in forcing Gladstone to break with an Irish leader who failed publicly to conform to codes of Victorian marriage and morality. British religious hypocrisy set in political motion tentacles that strangled Irish (including religious) indifference to Parnell’s domestic arrangements with Katherine, the wife of an Irish Party MP, Captain O’Shea. The arrangements had been known within the party since 1886. Coupled with Gladstone’s promise of Home Rule without Parnell, Irish reaction was spurred into life. O’Brien summed up the role of one architect of the fall, Timothy Healy. Either he was a ‘salutary plague, speeding the rot of parliamentarianism: clearing the ground for a new and better Ireland’, or, in O’Brien’s view, ‘the destruction of the movement which Parnell had created maimed Ireland in some important ways’. It maimed also his family’s potential role in a Home Rule ruling class within the Empire....&c.’; see full copy - as attached.]

Conor McCarthy, ‘Clues to Understanding the Cruiser’, review of Diarmuid Whelan, Conor O’Brien: Violent Notions, in The Irish Times (8 Aug. 2009), Weekend: ‘[...] O’Brien’s uncritical support for Zionism turned him into a kind of neo-conservative in the eyes of his right-wing American admirers. [...] O’Brien’s admiration for Michelet’s “history-as-art” would suggest a radical historical consciousness, as against “revisionism” of which he is so often held to be the most (in)famous and polemically effective representative. Yet the “siege” has the effect of making O’Brien’s historiography always more responsive to what Christopher Hitchens once called the “agonies of the potentates” that to the truly oppressed. O’Brien’s inclination to apocalyptic vision - his predictions of Irish civl war are matched by his willingness to trace a causal line between the mysticism of Dostoyevsky and the Great War - is seen as a produce of the zero-sum nature of metaphor, whether the “seige” is of Protestant Ulster, Zionist Israel, or of the legitimacy and authority of the Irish Republic. / In the end O’Brien appears as sui generis: subjective, methodologically and philosophically cavalier, given (according to Ernest Gellner) to “intellectual autism” but rarely less than interesting.’ McCarthy censures the careless writing and editing of the volume and criticises the failure to distinguish the evidential status of O’Brien’s papers, his own narrative, and Donald Akenson’s authorised biography, finally pointing to it as ‘a valuable thematic agenda for further work to come.’ (p.10.)

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Mícheál Mac Donncha, ‘Conor Cruise O'Brien - defender of oppression’, in An Poblacht (8 Jan. 2009)

[ Incls. a photo of ‘“The Cruiser” and his wife Máire mac an tSaoi in company with Garret FitzGerald, a close cabinet colleague in the 1973-’77 coalition government’. ]

In 1993 Gerry Adams and John Hume were working intensively to bring together the elements that would make the Irish Peace Process. As they did so a former Irish Cabinet minister was sitting on a witness stand in the Four Courts supporting the ban under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act on a radio advertisement for a book of short stories by Gerry Adams.
 The scene was farcical. A young barrister read out to the court an entire short story from the collection. Then the former Minister, Conor Cruise O’Brien, took the stand to explain how the main character in the story, an elderly woman, was a terrorist and how hearing an advertisement for those stories with the voice of Gerry Adams would threaten law and order in Irish society. Such an ad, said O’Brien, would have a dangerous influence on “people who are poor and who are not so well educated. That is... less educated people who on the whole are more likely to be impressed than more educated people.”
 The ban on the ad was upheld but Section 31 itself collapsed the following year as the Peace Process further exposed its absurdity and injustice. O’Brien was a virulent opponent of the Peace Process. For decades he had anathematised any notion of talking to Sinn Féin or the IRA. Now the Irish government and John Hume were the targets of his invective for doing so. O’Brien predicted that the process would lead to civil war and a dictatorship led by the military forces in the 26 Counties. He joined Robert McCartney’s United Kingdom Unionist Party before falling out with them as well, the last stop on his bizarre political journey.
 That journey began as an Irish civil servant and diplomat. He was seen to have taken a progressive stand as a United Nations diplomat in the Congo in 1961. He embraced the left-wing liberalism of the ‘60s. He was arrested at an anti-Vietnam war protest in New York and spoke on a platform with Noam Chomsky. On joining the Irish Labour Party in 1968 he condemned the Irish government for betraying James Connolly “that great enemy of imperialism”.
 O’Brien expressed support for the Civil Rights movement in the Six Counties and compared the Orange state to ‘Dixie’, the racist Southern US. He was elected as a Labour TD in 1969 when the party ran on the slogan ‘The Seventies will be Socialist’. The ‘60s liberal was beginning to change, however. The views he expressed in his 1972 pro-unionist book States of Ireland caused controversy in the Labour Party and between O’Brien and the SDLP.
 But verbal liberalism was not yet dead. In November 1972 the Fianna Fáil government of Jack Lynch sacked the RTÉ Authority after the station broadcast a report of an interview with IRA Chief of Staff Seán Mac Stiofáin. “In a modern democracy, the autonomy of radio or television was as vital as the freedom of the press or parliament,” declared O’Brien in the Dáil as Labour and Fine Gael opposed the Government’s action.
The following year Fine Gael and Labour won the General Election and O’Brien became Minister for Posts and Telegraphs. O’Brien now imposed political censorship of broadcasting even more stringently than his Fianna Fáil predecessors. He led an assault not only on free speech for republicans but on informed debate about the Six Counties and on Irish nationalism itself. He showed an American interviewer a drawer full of cuttings of readers’ letters printed in the Irish Press and said he wanted to take action against the editor, Tim Pat Coogan.
 O’Brien was a member of the Cabinet Security Committee along with Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, Justice Minister Patrick Cooney and Defence Minister Paddy Donegan. In May 1974 British agents bombed Dublin and Monaghan killing 33 civilians, including two employees of O’Brien’s Department. The Cabinet blamed the IRA for provoking the bombs and O’Brien attacked those who ‘condoned violence’ whether by “a facial expression, an inflection of the voice, by a smile or even by silence”. The effect was to spread fear in the 26 Counties and a turning away from any effort to address the causes of the conflict, aims which coincided with those of the bombers. And it was the same Cabinet that allowed the Garda investigation of the bombings to be wound down in a matter of weeks, turning a blind eye to British involvement.
In 1998 O’Brien admitted that he knew and approved of the assaults on detainees by the Garda Heavy Gang during 1973-’77 but never mentioned it to his Cabinet colleagues Justin Keating and Garret FitzGerald as he feared they would have qualms of conscience. O’Brien lost his Dáil seat in 1977.  He became Editor-in-Chief of the English Sunday newspaper The Observer and he sacked Mary Holland as Irish correspondent after she wrote an article on the situation in the H-Blocks through the eyes of a prisoner’s mother, Mary Nelis of Derry (later a Sinn Féin MLA and now An Phoblacht columnist).
 While O’Brien never held political office again he exercised major influence on the political and media Establishment in the 26 Counties. For conservatives he provided the ideological cover for their retreat from rhetorical nationalism. The privileged classes in the 26 Counties wanted to turn their backs on the North, fearing the implications for them of a united Ireland. O’Brien helped them to do so and he developed an antipathy to people from the North, expressed well in a radio programme after O’Brien’s death by Co. Down-born RTÉ broadcaster Derek Davis who said as well as imposing censorship O’Brien simply did not like Northerners as he found out when he interviewed him.
 Lauded as an intellectual, it was the repressive forces of the State and not the force of his intellect that O’Brien used to get his way. The problem for the 26-County Establishment was that he was often too outspoken. It was not that he did things of which they disapproved it was that he gave the game away. His refined version of broadcasting censorship was renewed by every Government until 1994, including Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. They all co-operated with British policy in the North and demonised republicans until the start of the Peace Process. That process could well have begun many years earlier but for the policies championed most prominently, but by no means exclusively, by Conor Cruise O’Brien. [End]

Available online; accessed 23.10.2022.

Denis Donoghue, Irish Essays (Cambridge UP 2011) - Introduction: ‘[...] Those peaceful days ended in 1965 when Conor Cruise O’Brien published an essay called “Passion and Cunning”, a revisionist survey of the work and life of W. B. Yeats [...] in a collection off essays called In Excited Reverie edited by A. Norman Jeffares and K. G. W. Cross to mark the centenary of Yeats’s birth. O’Brien interpreted Yeats’s life and work - some of us thought invidiously, indeed maliciously - to show that the poet was always of an incipiently authoritarian and indeed cunning disposition, even before he was attracted to Mussolini and, on Irish ground, to General O’Duffy; and that even his best poems were incorrigibly marked by that disposition. Those of us who wrote about Yeats could not ignore an attack so vigorous. Nearly every critic of Yeats, from the early days of Louis MacNeice, Austin Clarke, and Stephen Spender to [Richard] Ellmann, had adverted to Yeats’s last years and tried to account for his authoritarian rage, but none had presented a comprehensive portrait of the artist as a deplorable man, as O’Brien did. I had tried to take Empson’s line, that one hoped that writers would rise above the prejudices of their time but if they didn’t, there was no merit in pulling a long face about it. I’m not sure I convinced anyone. Ideological strife could not be avoided, especially when it started taking violent form in Northern Ireland in 1968, and more generally in Europe and the USA. ’ (p.3.)