A two-day symposium was held in Trinity College Dublin on November 2nd and 3rd, 2017 to mark the centenary of the birth of Conor Cruise O’Brien. The event was more a celebration than a sustained critique of the remarkably varied career of a man who, from the beginning to almost the end, always demanded and frequently deserved attention.
Conor Cruise O’Brien was a strong literary-critical voice in 1940s and ’50s Ireland; he made his mark both as a young historian and as a civil servant; and his UN performance for the Department of External Affairs brought international attention. When, with imperial powers and big business operating in the background, the mineral-rich province of Katanga attempted to secede from newly independent Congo, O’Brien didn’t shirk a role as UN representative. No matter what he did or didn’t do, this was bound to win him enemies. The attacks on him were so intense that he was discreetly nudged towards the trapdoor – whereupon he published an interesting, if self-justificatory, memoir.
He then took on a challenging university role in newly independent Ghana, where he made a stand for the independence of the university when that came under pressure. His record now brought him to a university post in New York and to participation in the liberal literary-intellectual world. Like many of his peers, he opposed the Vietnam War. He continued to take an interest in Irish matters, however, referring to Ireland in essays on international politics, producing a lengthy and still much-discussed essay on Yeats in 1965 and analysing the failures of independent Ireland in 1966 for the New Left Review and The Irish Times.
For a sophisticated and gifted Irish intellectual growing into adulthood in the 1930s and ’40s, a career trajectory away from Ireland into international institutions and into the heart of American intellectual life might have appeared a consummation devoutly to be wished. To choose to reverse direction and come back to Ireland was a dramatic decision. O’Brien was invited to run for a seat in the Dáil by the Labour Party, which felt the winds of change blowing and, spurred on by an influx of bright young talent, declared that the Seventies would be socialist.
As it happened, with the accelerating gradualism of the Southern version of progress coming up against the explosive release of blocked energies and aspirations in Northern Ireland, the move back home would lock O’Brien into decades of trench warfare on the national question, in dramatic contrast with the shorter-term commitments of his earlier career. As a strong voice within the Labour Party, as a spokesman on Northern Ireland, as an outspoken minister in the 1973-77 Fine Gael-Labour coalition government and as the author of States of Ireland, a book that set the terms of debate on Irish nationalism for a generation while also reaching a wide readership, he became one of the leading public figures of the 1970s.
When the Coalition, to its great surprise, was rejected by the electorate, O’Brien was forced away from the levers of power and returned to his role as an opinion-shaper. He accepted an important role with The Observer in London, wrote frequently for The New York Review of Books, participated in intellectual gatherings and contributed essays to various publications. While continuing to criticise American foreign policy (notably, US efforts to overthrow the Sandinista government) and to question foundational American myths, he became a sympathetic historian of Zionism and, increasingly, an uncritical supporter of Israel, going on in later years to support the idea of the Middle East as the main theatre of a war of civilisations. Towards the end of the 1980s, the quality of his writing began to deteriorate and to become undisguisedly partisan. His use of evidence became increasingly questionable and, when the course of events did not conform to his wishes, he reacted with denunciation and predictions of disaster. In Ireland, the Hume-Adams talks, the growth of Sinn Féin as a party, North and South, and the slow steps towards compromise in Northern Ireland drove him to distraction – and led him to improvise a series of shifts in political position, including a near embrace of a still uncompromising Paisley. This last was what eventually lost him the public support, if not always the personal affection, of many of his admirers. By the time he advised unionists to consider a united Ireland as a way of maintaining their traditions and identity as part of a guaranteed anti-Sinn Féin majority in the Dáil, he had lost all influence. By this time too, his opinions were rarely sought or published outside the pages of the Sunday Independent.
Such a variegated career does not lend itself to rapid summary or assessment. Focus on the personality is one way of gathering disparate worlds into a unity, but this approach may lead us to avoid examining what the real contemporary legacy is. The search for thematic unity across O’Brien’s writings and activities runs up against the fact that few of his large-scale works have had great staying power. States of Ireland has little or no direct influence today: it lives more indirectly through the influence of those whose thinking it once shaped or stimulated or through the diffusion of its perspective on Irish politics and history into the public world in the 1970s and 1980s. It is those years of ideological trench warfare – lives and deaths, and the shaping of the political future of the island of Ireland were at stake – that make O’Brien a still troubling and divisive presence in Irish political-intellectual life. We shall see whether the symposium – organised by invitation rather than through a general call for contributions – faced up to enough of the hard questions posed by O’Brien’s remarkable career trajectory. To summarise every paper or session would risk creating an excessively discontinuous experience for the reader, all the more so as the forcing of many papers into a limited number of themed boxes will almost always involve an element of the arbitrary. For this reason, some major themes and preoccupations will be grouped roughly as they arose chronologically in O’Brien’s life. Others, including some of high quality – notably Susan McKay’s passionate analysis of the causes of the present institutional vacuum in Northern Ireland, the failure to respect past agreements and the continued sidelining of women’s voices – fall outside the lines of this overview and critique.
That the overall thrust of the event was towards positive appreciation was clear from the choice of opening speaker and of the principal speaker in the public event on the evening of the first day. Thus, matters kicked off with a talk – an appreciation, under five headings – by Donald Akenson, a historian but also a friend, admirer, editor and biographer of O’Brien. He noted that O’Brien appreciated strong and intelligent women and that, from an early age, he had needed and managed to live on his wits. Akenson also suggested that it was because O’Brien exposed the unspoken codes in Irish society that he aroused so much hatred, one written example of which he quoted at impressive length.
A similarly admiring note was struck by Frank Callanan in the evening. Mary Robinson had opened proceedings. Speaking in a more informal and humorous vein than usual, she recalled that, though O’Brien had at one point accused her of dancing to the tune of the IRA, his presence was one of the factors that drew her to join the Labour Party in 1976. (She would leave the party over its support for the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which she considered provocative to unionists.) Before departing – she had just landed in Ireland after a long journey – she also threw in an unexpected line: that O’Brien drank less than people imagined but was easily intoxicated.
An admirer and friend of O’Brien’s, and a historian-cum-biographer of the Home Rule period, Frank Callanan was so devoted to the master that, by his own admission, he could never bring himself to say a critical word to him during his lifetime, even in private. (He was in fact teased on this account by Garret FitzGerald during a Saturday lunchtime panel discussion on RTÉ Radio 1 in the mid-1990s.) In a talk which contained very little that might have displeased O’Brien, Callanan offered a commented overview of his friend’s life, personality and intellectual history. He concluded with a video-clip of a relaxed O’Brien reciting by heart from Yeats’s “Blood and the Moon”. As he moved from the line about the heart in Swift’s “blood-sodden breast” to the next (“Goldsmith deliberately sipping at the honey-pot of his mind”), the change in vocal register (and even in the shaping of his lips for the word “sipping”) demonstrated both a quiet theatricality and intimacy with the text. Callanan had earlier pointed out how Yeats had always mattered to O’Brien, whereas he had never been drawn to Joyce, whom in some ways he resembled.
Callanan’s talk was followed by a panel discussion and questions, with the historian Patrick Geoghegan as moderator. The panel – comprising former Labour Party minister Ruairí Quinn, the historian Margaret O’Callaghan and the intellectual historian David Bromwich – showed some diversity of tone and approach. Quinn (whose ardent admiration stood out throughout the symposium) described the rock-star aura surrounding O’Brien as it affected Labour activists and said that O’Brien relished the gregarious nature of a party conference. At another point, he rather generously proposed that exposing the abuse of power was “the great melody” in O’Brien’s career – a viewpoint that requires some editing of the record of the Coalition, as was vigorously pointed out by a member of the audience. Quinn went on to acclaim O’Brien for ridding Ireland of nauseating Four Green Fields rhetoric and moving us towards playing a confident role in an open Europe.
The second panel (titled “Writers and Politics”) allowed contributors to address the O’Brien of the pre-Labour Party years in context. Marion Kelly spoke of O’Brien and existentialism – not unreasonably, considering that, whatever the criticism it has been subject to, his study of Camus (1970) remains one of his sharpest and most readable works. Kelly’s observations were remarkable for their reductive idea of the admittedly restricted intellectual life of the Free State period. She failed to see that the young author of Maria Cross could be viewed as one of the finer (and more critical) representatives of French-centred Catholic intellectual culture in Ireland. For other examples, one need go no further than the family of O’Brien’s wife, the formidable poet and scholar Máire Mhac an tSaoi. One of her uncles, Monsignor Pádraig de Brún, in addition to being a distinguished mathematician, had command of numerous languages, ancient and modern, and of their literatures; in an effort to provide Irish-language culture with some of the resources and range of expression of which it had been deprived by conquest and colonisation, he translated Dante and other classics into Irish. Journals such as Studies, the Dublin Magazine and indeed the Capuchin Annual featured intelligent artistic and literary criticism and displayed a broader knowledge of non-Anglophone cultures in the original language than many of today’s intellectual outlets. To imagine that the only valid forms of intellectual life are those that prefigure the dominant modes of our own day is to risk falling into a complacency that, where intellectual and cultural history are concerned, can be seriously disabling.
In the discussion period that followed, the supposedly more enlightened nature of French Catholicism was mentioned as a possible explanation for O’Brien’s interest in the writers to whom most of Maria Cross was devoted. There were indeed figures in French Catholic life (from writers to trade unionists) who would today be considered enlightened, but it was Catholic writers with a metaphysical dimension or who seemed to embody a battle between imagination and belief that most attracted O’Brien at this time. One has only to look at the Catholic church in France, Italy, Spain or Croatia to see the inadequacy of the dark Ireland/enlightened Europe model where politics are concerned. It is not surprising that Irish Catholic intellectuals looked to France for a generally richer range of literature and intellectual stimulation, but French Catholicism also contained a strong reactionary and authoritarian stream that became openly fascist in the 1920s. That Charles Maurras’s Action française was finally condemned by Pope Pius XI in 1926 is an indication of how far this very influential movement had gone towards espousing a militant and physically threatening religion of the nation.
WJ McCormack was quick to point out that the French authors examined by O’Brien would not be considered enlightened. He cited Léon Bloy, whom he described as antisemitic. Just as the English Catholic writers Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton were widely read and admired in Catholic Ireland but have now faded from sight, Bloy is one of a range of French Catholic writers who have undergone a similar process of cultural forgetting. There is no need to argue for their revival but it is important to register their existence, as failure to do so only adds to the all too common oversimplification of the history of cultural life in the Free State years. It may be that the range of Catholic writing produced in Ireland was narrower than in other countries; it was also – and this is not in any way to forget such systematic antisemites as Fr Denis Fahey – generally less overtly extreme and abusive. Bloy is a case in point. To describe him as McCormack did is rather to narrow the range of this peculiar mystic’s hatreds: almost the entire membership of the Catholic clergy was subject to relentless denunciation, along with comfortable middle class society. And if Bloy could be a racist antisemite, he could also be theologically philosemitic, seeing salvation as coming through pain and abjection, a condition he saw as exemplified by the Jews. One might assume that Bloy would, like much of Catholic France, have taken an anti-Dreyfus stance in one of the most divisive controversies of pre-Great-War France. On the contrary, he supported Dreyfus and denounced the systematic Jew-hater Édouard Drumont. This put him on the same side as Émile Zola, the renowned novelist and author of the pamphlet “J’accuse”. But soon Bloy was penning a polemic of his own, “Je m’accuse”, which, in a kind of ecstasy of abuse, denounced the novelist’s compromising and complacency:
Les imbéciles eux-mêmes commencent aujourd’hui à entrevoir la magnificence avec laquelle on s’est payé leurs figures, et combien Zola s’est foutu de la Vérité et de la Justice, dont il osa polluer les vocables de sa main merdeuse. (Even the imbeciles today are beginning to realise how magnificently they’ve been had, and how Zola never gave a toss about Truth and Justice, whose syllables he dared to pollute with his shitty hand.) [my translation]
Not surprisingly, Bloy had trouble finding mainstream publishers.
In the light of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s later turn to Zionism, and of the philosemitism ascribed to him by several contributors to the symposium, the absence of any mention of antisemitism in his chapter on Bloy is noteworthy. O’Brien was a man of his generation in his focus on the flaws and contradictions in the moral and political conscience of writers who interested him, be they Catholics like Mauriac or existentialists like Camus. In a study published by the Catholic Book Club in 1970 (Is Ireland Dying? Culture and the Church in Modern Ireland) Michael Sheehy strongly criticised the anti-intellectualism of the Irish church. A similar but updated and broadly comparative study may be needed today.
It would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that O’Brien’s own moral and political conscience remains at the heart of debate over his role in Katanga, the theme of another session. The speakers were the historian Michael Kennedy and the former civil servant Noel Dorr. Kennedy managed an impressive run-through of complex material he has previously presented at greater length. He used the archival record to demonstrate how O’Brien’s memoir of the episode, To Katanga and Back, tended to downplay his own role where things had gone wrong, did not acknowledge that he had acted beyond his permitted powers on occasion and left other important matters (such as an atrocity committed by UN troops) unsaid. The effect was undoubtedly to offer a diminished image of O’Brien’s role in an episode where he has generally been seen as having behaved creditably. What emerged from Noel Dorr’s paper and from the general discussion that followed was a sense that Kennedy’s focus on Irish diplomatic records and on the memoir had done O’Brien something of an injustice. (Kennedy would be denounced in what appeared to be wounded tones by film-maker Gerry Gregg). It is almost impossible to expose the complexities of an episode such as the Katangan secession in twenty minutes but Kennedy could have saved himself some unnecessary bother if he had made even a one-sentence gesture towards a point that is almost unarguable: that in taking one of the key positions in the UN’s attempt to prevent the secession of mineral-rich Katanga from newly independent Congo (now Zaire), O’Brien had walked into a lion’s den.
First of all, in a situation involving improvisation and unavoidable deceit, exceeding one’s mandate was unavoidable; this would not matter if the action was successful, but would be punished if it failed. Secondly, Britain, France, Belgium and Rhodesia were, behind the scenes, pursuing their own interests in backing the creation of what would most likely have become a corrupt, corporate-friendly puppet state. No assessment of O’Brien’s role could exclude the broader imperial/corporate forces at work and the whispering campaigns that were amplified into full-scale press campaigns against him. (The Belgian satirical magazine Pourquoi Pas?, we were told, called O’Brien “Le roi des connards” [“king of the eejits” would be a mild translation into Hiberno-English] on its front page.)
If Michael Kennedy saw a stark contrast between the weaknesses and misjudgements of the O’Brien of the Congo and the masterful and arrogant O’Brien of the UN in New York, the contrast itself might encourage reflection on the difference between expressing opinions and the job of managing with inadequate means and little relevant experience a dangerous and almost impossible mission in an unfamiliar and distant land. O’Brien’s subsequent history does not suggest that humility was the lesson he drew from the experience. Rather, a readiness to encounter and leave his mark on a new domain would remain his modus operandi. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to imagine that memories of the violence and political chaos of the Congo may have fed into his later political choices.
That O’Brien’s memoir of the Katanga episode is, to a degree, self-serving is hardly a surprise. What political memoir isn’t? What disappoints today, more than half a century later, is that To Katanga and Back does not sufficiently rise above its occasion to speak of power and empire, of the intertwining of government, newspapers and big business (or corporate power in today’s terminology), of the manipulation of the decolonisation process to recolonise by other means – all themes as relevant today as then. And did the lives of ordinary Africans then (or of Palestinians and others later) ever matter greatly to O’Brien? Was he not more stirred by the battle of ideas or by conflicts among elites? Would anyone seeking an understanding of the murderous mess that is the Congo today need to read To Katanga and Back? It reads too much as a participant’s over-detailed and self-justifying chronicle of an uncontrollable situation.
Nonetheless, even if there are those (including members of the Irish Army who were part of the UN peace-keeping force) who continue to speak ill of O’Brien, what he attempted to accomplish was undeniably more honourable than what was sought by several other parties and powers. This was the belief that animated Cameron Duodu’s talk in the session that followed. Having encountered O’Brien as a courageous battler for intellectual independence in Ghana, Duodu continues to see him in the light of his youthful hero worship: “He taught us to be brave. He feared nothing.” Duodu said that apartheid South Africa and the money that went into supporting it had had a particularly damaging effect on post-colonial Africa. He also made it clear that in later years he would have disagreed with O’Brien on the Palestinian question.
Little enough of O’Brien’s essays and edited volumes of the 1960s and early ’70s were addressed at the symposium. If David Bromwich was right in saying that the best of O’Brien is in his essays, this is a little unfortunate. The essay on Yeats seems to have continuing appeal or (for those of a different view) provocative power. Likewise, the introductory essay to a 1968 edition of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is already looking more durable than The Great Melody, the full-scale study that came twenty years later. The general consensus is that, in The Great Melody, under the brush-strokes seeming to portray an eighteenth century Burke we discern an insufficiently concealed portrait of the twentieth century Conor Cruise O’Brien. Curiously, though Burke has little place in general public consciousness in Ireland (and does not compete with famous poets and dramatists on pub walls and literary tours), he has been the subject of studies by major intellectual figures such as Luke Gibbons, Seamus Deane and, most recently and most massively, Richard Bourke. More may follow.
One of the key areas in which Burke speaks to Irish history lies in the fact that, though he believed in gradual change and wise government from on high, he saw the power structure in Ireland as too crude and cruel, too neglectful of its duty to the populace, to be granted the legitimacy it asserted for itself. The failure to create quickly enough the conditions for legitimacy meant that the nineteenth-century United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland never became a reality, but always hovered somewhere between aspiration and imposition. Thomas Moore’s Captain Rock and his biography of Lord Edward Fitzgerald could be seen as variations on Burke’s message, but in another key. (In the absence of a new selection, a cheap reprint of Matthew Arnold’s edition of Burke’s writings on Ireland could usefully be made available.)
On the second day of the symposium a panel was devoted to O’Brien in relation to Burke, the Enlightenment, and the founding fathers of the United States. As I am focusing more directly on O’Brien’s own career and its implications here, full justice cannot be done to the learning and command of sources that were on display, as one would expect, from Richard Bourke and David Bromwich. Bourke tracked Burke’s presence in O’Brien’s thinking through his career. The Great Melody, in its emphases, portrayed an Irish Burke but elements of this perspective had already been present in the 1960s, with Burke being read through the lens of Yeats’s phrase. O’Brien’s interest in Burke made sense as he was reflecting on revolution, Ireland, ancestral allegiance and indeed on his African experience – this last aspect underlined by a reference to AA Mazrui’s 1963 article “Edmund Burke and Reflections on the Revolution in Congo”. Richard Bourke suggested a thread of thinking about community that linked Maria Cross with O’Brien’s later thinking about Pearse and the Provisional IRA. O’Brien always brought his present preoccupations to his intellectual activities in any case.
David Bromwich’s talk took the form of a close reading of three texts. In the process, he showed us a very human Burke negotiating between his own beliefs and those of the electors of Bristol or, as when his receipt of a government pension was attacked, arguing for his personal and intellectual integrity. In its quiet way, this talk, more than any other in the symposium, offered meticulous textual analysis as a road to revelation.
Had Conor Cruise O’Brien not become involved in the Irish situation; had he not been mauled by it and done some mauling of his own, it is unlikely that a centennial symposium would have been held in his honour in 2017. His PhD on Parnell and his party had been published in 1957; he had edited a (still valuable) collection of lectures on the 1891-1916 period (1960); he had written short essays and reviews on history and historians (many collected in Writers and Politics ). Where Irish public life is concerned, these activities matter little, however, when weighed against his role as writer, politician and minister in the 1970s. The observer, analyst and critic threw himself into the fray at a dramatic moment in Irish history. There were already questions to be asked of some of O’Brien’s comments on historians and adherence to the evidence. He had once endorsed the idea of the historian as artist. What then was to stop artist-historians (Michelet was one whom he admired) from shaping their raw material to whatever end pleased them? (Diarmuid Whelan raised issues of this kind in a book that received no attention at the symposium.) In his talk, the writer David Rieff, exclaiming over O’Brien’s “bewilderingly various views”, asked one pertinent question: to what extent can O’Brien’s denunciation of myth and romanticism be reconciled with his view of history as an art? And, we might add, if the O’Brien of the 1970s was a myth-breaker, were distortion, elision or erasure of the available evidence justifiable as necessary steps in the pursuit of the arts of state? It is hard to see how an assessment of O’Brien’s achievements can be considered as in any way comprehensive if it does not face up such issues.
It would have been interesting to hear the dominant voice in Irish history of the post-States of Ireland generation reflecting in depth on O’Brien’s legacy. However, Roy Foster’s talk took a less challenging path: it took in Parnell’s own politics (here given a distinctly conservative coloration), some speculations on his posthumous influence on political traditions and (through Griffith) on the nature of the Free State, and his presence in O’Brien’s life and work, including of course the essay on Sean O’Faolain’s Parnellism in Maria Cross. It concluded with the affirmation that figures like O’Brien are still needed today.
Foster’s talk made passing reference to Ancestral Voices (1994). By referring to this book now, almost a quarter of a century after publication, without a warning or distancing statement, Foster was implicitly granting it the status of a serious contribution to intellectual life. It never was and is not now. It is sloppily written, littered with solecisms and inaccuracies, and lacks any sense of responsibility to the available information. How can a book that barely mentions the sectarian structure of power in eighteenth century Ireland, or that fails to analyse the causes and effects of the decades of delay in granting Catholic Emancipation, be said to constitute a study of “religion and nationalism in Ireland”, as the subtitle reads?
On its publication, Roy Foster went so far as to call Ancestral Voices stylish and historically accurate. Loyalty or blindness may have played a part then, but at some point the need to distinguish between true achievement and dross must be asserted.
O’Brien’s continuing hold on a generation of historians, the sense that a breach in the defensive wall cannot be countenanced, is to be felt in the inability or unwillingness of generally fastidious historians and commentators to acknowledge this book for what it is. The explanation almost certainly lies in O’Brien’s role in triggering their original belief in the importance of a certain vision of history, in the loyalty of veterans to their leader in battle and in an unwillingness or inability to acknowledge that some battles were not fought on the right ground.
Ultimately, it was in its reluctance to address the way in which O’Brien negotiated the tensions between truth-telling and crusading or realpolitik that the symposium showed a lack of nerve. Paul Bew did suggest that States of Ireland was liberating through what it said about nationalism, not unionism. Margaret O’Callaghan (in discussion) spoke of the dumping of Northern Catholics in the cause of the preservation of the Southern state. But there was no sustained examination of the structure of thinking underlying States of Ireland or of the legacy of this work.
The fact is – and to argue that this was an entirely reasonable choice at the time is itself reasonable – that States of Ireland addressed the weaknesses, myths, evasions and blindnesses of Irish nationalism largely in order to avert the dangers of a unionist backlash against unwanted change that would dwarf the then prevailing, already horrific, level of violence. The weaknesses, myths, evasions and blindnesses of unionism were not addressed. They were taken as being unmodifiable: any attempt to change them was pointless. Better then to concentrate on weakening nationalism within the Republic, on reducing identification in the Republic with Northern Catholics, on encouraging moderate Northern Catholics into acceptance (with increased rights) of a role within the United Kingdom and on enforcing a “security” solution on those who refused. As British power had to be the main agent (even behind the scenes) in this process, there was no point in addressing British weaknesses, myths, evasions and blindnesses where Ireland was concerned (or indeed, pressurising the British to uncover and tell the truth about the Dublin/Monaghan bombings). This is the political logic that drove Conor Cruise O’Brien from the 1970s on. Yet even his best efforts at his polemical peak and powerful revulsion in the Republic against the violence in Northern Ireland were not enough to create broad and continued acceptance of his vision.
The history of the next quarter of a century would be much messier, much more a thing of stops and starts, and of reversals. After the 1977 election, O’Brien would never again be in a position of direct influence on government policy. Even if a withdrawal from emotional involvement in the bloody political world across the border did occur, this was not a simple matter of conversion to a statist twenty-six-county ideology, but a complex mix of impatience, gradual erosion of belief, resentment, economic self-interest and a rethinking of the national narrative that was rarely as thoroughgoing or as conceptually tidy as Conor Cruise O’Brien would have wished. John Hume’s insistence on initiating and maintaining talks with Gerry Adams was an overt rejection of the cornerstone of O’Brien’s thinking: the rigid exclusion of militant republicanism from the political process. The years of talks, eventually encompassing the British and Irish governments and the signing of the 1998 agreement, ran entirely counter to O’Brien’s vision, doubling the frustration he had suffered through the decade after the fall of the coalition in 1977. This, with whatever personal factors, cannot but have had an effect on the tone and content of his writing, on the quality of his argumentation, on his respect for evidence, and on his aggravated doom-saying.
Some would argue that the task that O’Brien undertook in the 1970s – decommissioning the prevailing form of Irish nationalism – was a necessary one in the circumstances of the time. Understandably, a significant section of the Irish historical-political world admired and continue to admire the O’Brien of the 1970s. It is naive to imagine that politics is a clean game or that transparency, however desirable in some circumstances, can be expected or demanded. In what he considered a great cause – and it was a matter of life and death on a grand scale – O’Brien was willing to bend the truth here, to suspend analysis there. Writing for him was often a form of activism – and if, as time went on, making grand statements, disregarding evidence and simplifying or evading complex realities seemed necessary in the service of the cause, so be it. O’Brien’s intellectual and rhetorical procedures here are one thing, however, and those of historians and intellectuals who, within the limits of their fallibility and perceptiveness, seek to do justice to all available evidence and ideas are another.
With his removal from the centre of politics by the electorate, O’Brien could consider that he had been personally let down but also that, more seriously than when he had indicted the Republic in the lead-up to fiftieth anniversary of 1916, Ireland had failed to live up to the ideals on which it claimed to be founded. It is hardly coincidental, then, that in this period of disappointment, he turned to another state (Israel) that was more completely founded on an idea (Zionism), had carried that idea through to near completion and had even succeeded in making an ancient language the working language of the new state. If raison d’état demanded the erasure of Palestinian history and rights, this was entirely acceptable in the service of a great idea. By the 1990s, he was almost gleeful in his caricaturing of Palestinians and in his support for the crushing of their resistance. Just as the derailing of his project for Ireland led him into a flurry of increasingly unrealisable solutions accompanied by apocalyptic denunciations, his reading of politics on a global level through an Israeli prism led him to endorse the notion of a battle of civilisations.
Onto this ground too, few of his Irish admirers have followed him. Perhaps when the time for another symposium on Conor Cruise O’Brien comes around, there will be a greater willingness to undertake a more systematic analysis of his flaws as well as his achievements.
Other work published by the author relating to the themes of this essay:
1 “Control Keys”, Graph, 11, Winter 1991-92 (analysis of O’Brien article in NYRB).
2 “Jump Cuts”, in Graph, 2nd series, 1 (analysis of Ancestral Voices and Roy Foster’s review of same).
3 “The Celtic Tiger’s media pundits”, Reinventing Ireland (Pluto Press 2002), pp 146-47 (CCOB’s influence on Fintan O’Toole et al)
4 Diarmuid Whelan, Conor Cruise O’Brien: Violent Notions (Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2009) reviewed in Saothar Vol. 34, 2009.
Barra Ó Seaghdha is a lecturer and writer