Arrested development: Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1917–2008

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Volume 17

Arrested development: 
Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1917–2008

Niall Meehan teases out some of the contradictions of a man who wrote, made and was the product of history.

August 1961—Conor Cruise O’Brien leads a UN delegation in talks with Moise Tshombe (left), president of the breakaway province of Katanga. His attempt to maintain the territorial integrity of the Congo propelled him into a decade-long opposition to Western interests. (Life)

August 1961—Conor Cruise O’Brien leads a UN delegation in talks with Moise Tshombe (left), president of the breakaway province of Katanga. His attempt to maintain the territorial integrity of the Congo propelled him into a decade-long opposition to Western interests. (Life)

In October 1906 The Times of London noted ‘disgraceful scenes’ at the Royal University of Ireland. The chancellor was interrupted with cries of ‘Sinn Féin’ and ‘God Save Ireland’. The report continued:

‘At the close of the proceedings the organ played the national anthem. This was a signal for an outburst of dissent from a small group in the gallery . . . [L]ighted matches were thrown on the platform . . . In the meantime a number of persons who had failed to gain admission had organised a demonstration outside… Mr Sheehy MP and a body of young men who represented themselves to be students of the Roman Catholic University College arrived in a brake and proceeded to address a large crowd which soon gathered around them. A young man named Cruise O’Brien proposed the following resolution:
“That inasmuch as the rendering of the English national anthem is not an essential portion of academic functions in English universities, the senate’s persistence in retaining it, in the face of repeated protest, as an item in the programme of the conferring of degrees in the Royal University of Ireland can only be regarded as a deliberate insult to that large body of graduates and undergraduates to whom this air is offensive on national grounds . . .”

Remarks in support were made by Mr Skeffington, a graduate of the university, and Mr Sheehy MP.’

These important people, Francis Cruise O’Brien, Francis Sheehy Skeffington and David Sheehy MP, became, respectively, the father, maternal uncle and grandfather of Conor Cruise O’Brien. They made, and continued to make, history. During the 1916 Rising the pacifist Sheehy Skeffington was arrested and executed on the orders of the ‘guilty but insane’ Captain J. C. Bowen-Colthurst. Three months after the death of his cousin, the disillusioned Tom Kettle MP, another O’Brien uncle, was killed while serving with the British Army. Any history of the Irish women’s movement, or of republican women, will reference Sheehy Skeffington’s wife, Hanna. In addition, commentary on James Joyce is enhanced by noting that Miss Ivors, a character in The Dead, is based on Hanna and O’Brien’s mother, Kathleen. There is also a walk-on part in Ulysses for David’s wife, Mrs Sheehy.
In the 1930s O’Brien followed in his father’s, uncle’s and grandfather’s footsteps. With Owen Sheehy Skeffington, his cousin, O’Brien sat while Trinity College, Dublin, persevered with God Save the King. In 1985, however, he joined with unionist MPs Enoch Powell and Ian Paisley in opposing the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In 1996 he joined the UK Unionist Party. O’Brien had spent the previous 40 years arguing against arguing for a united Ireland (apart from a partial wobble in 1969) because it upset unionists who had no intention of budging. O’Brien then suggested, having become a unionist, that unionists would be better off within one.
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.
It has been argued that O’Brien’s commentary tended to diminish the role of socio-economic forces. His politics were literary and his aesthetics political, so much so that in his historical imagination art produced action. O’Brien considered the fate of the 1916 leaders and Yeats’s poetic question about The Countess Cathleen: ‘Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?’ O’Brien answered affirmatively—and, at that stage in 1975, disapprovingly—‘The probable answer is, yes, it did’.

2O’Brien is also seen as portraying religion in politics as autonomous. But that was a later O’Brien, the ‘ideological revisionist’, dating from the publication of the semi-autobiographical-historical-polemical States of Ireland (1972). In Conor Cruise O’Brien introduces Ireland (1969) O’Brien argued that it was ‘not so much the bishops as conservative lay interests who had used the bishops for their own purposes’ to undermine Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme in 1949. The spectre of a free health service haunted doctors (and haunts them still). On joining Labour in late 1968 and in anticipating that ‘the ’70s will be socialist’, O’Brien observed: ‘the church’s influence on Irish politics’, while ‘real, extensive and generally favourable to the social and economic status quo’, has also ‘often been exaggerated’. The role of conservative social forces and the state was missing. Even the then Catholic archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, ‘widely deemed to be a bigot’, was ‘much less to be feared and reprobated than the sophisticated modern bigotry of an Enoch Powell’. He observed that Irish ‘resistan[ce] to racism’ was formed by ‘religious influences and by Wolfe Tone republicanism’. O’Brien was easily elected on the first count in the June 1969 general election, coming second to Charles Haughey. Despite his apprehensions, O’Brien’s divorce and remarriage either exercised indifference or added a degree of lustre in the minds of most of his electors. O’Brien’s public and private life had been in a media spotlight for most of the 1960s.
In 1961 O’Brien’s attempt to maintain the territorial integrity of the Congo, as UN representative in the breakaway province of Katanga, propelled him into a decade-long opposition to Western interests. It caused the UN difficulties and resignation. O’Brien moved into academic life in the University of Ghana in 1962 and then New York University from 1965 to 1969. O’Brien’s output in the 1960s influenced a generation of left-wing students. His stinging attack on British attempts to undermine his role in the Congo, his opposition to the war in Vietnam and his critique of intellectual subservience to US anti-communism brought agreement from Noam Chomsky and like-minded others, as well as solidarity with the Black Panthers and those arrested at the August 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
O’Brien had a radical edge that flowed from the state’s anti-colonial origins, but his 1960s left-wing liberalism grated with the politically conservative consequences of Irish economic liberalism. His contributions in Irish exile did not long survive his return to these shores and the onset of violence in Northern Ireland after 5 October 1968. It was O’Brien’s Committee Room 15. His historical output became inhibited by a Catholic-nationalist construct that supported, caused and interacted with itself. Nationalism and religion were no longer social constructs; they became intertwined, irrational and culturally autonomous. O’Brien as a Labour TD and as minister for posts and telegraphs from 1973 to 1977 shaped the outlook of those who saw symptoms as causes, as transcendent and, in effect, as a-historical. These views supported O’Brien’s use of censorship against Irish republicans and against arguments that might explain, beyond denunciation, reasons for the IRA’s existence. He commented: ‘the impact of the spoken word and image was not just a matter of reason; it was a matter of emotion. You cannot refute the play of emotions by intellectual counter arguments.’ O’Brien suggested that he was confronting an ‘irrational force . . . beyond the reach of argument’. He argued against hearing arguments.
After the personal and political defeat of the 1977 general election, in which O’Brien campaigned on a ‘security’ ticket, Irish republicanism became an ‘infection’, something ‘pathological’, a ‘sub-culture’. He continued: ‘one should not underestimate the capacity of those infected to transmit the infection to the next generation’. In 1979, as editor-in-chief of the Observer, an O’Brien letter chastising Mary Holland over an article on ten years of the Troubles observed that the ‘killing strain’ of Irish republicanism ‘has a very high propensity to run in families and the mother is most often the carrier’. Familiarity produced a repulsive fascination that undermined O’Brien’s capacity for dispassionate analysis.
Familiarity of another kind became evident in O’Brien’s great work The great melody, his sympathetic biography of Edmund Burke in 1992. He brought the conservative opponent of the French Revolution speculatively within his family circle, as he distanced himself from the heritage of his actual forebears. These developments made his move towards support for Ulster unionism explicable.
Conor Cruise O’Brien was a historian who was a product of, maker of and producer of history. Like his country and because of it, his was a case of arrested development. HI

Niall Meehan is Head of the Journalism and Media Faculty at Griffith College, Dublin.

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