Conor Cruise: we shall not see his like again
Deaglán de Bréadún
Conor Cruise O’Brien had a very fine mind. He wrote like an angel. He was courageous and uncompromising in argument. He was right about some things and wrong about others but his passing last night means a light has gone out all over the island.
Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917-2008)
As a young journalist in The Irish Times in the early 1980s I had the unique privilege of sub-editing his weekly column for the paper. The features editor at the time, Paul Tansey – who also sadly died this year – was a great admirer of “The Cruiser” and approached him to write for us on a weekly basis.
The Editor, Douglas Gageby, had reservations about the good Doctor – they went back a long way – but he hired him anyway. His one stipulation was that, even if O’Brien was only writing about walking his dog on the Hill of Howth, the column would still have to go to the lawyers so they could vet it for libel.
I need hardly say that his prose required little or no “subbing”. He was word-perfect. If memory serves, I had the pleasure of looking after that famous column published on 24 August 1982 in which he coined the GUBU acronym based on Charlie Haughey’s comment that events in the Malcolm MacArthur murder case were “Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented”.
The columns were stunningly well-written – classics of their kind – and even republicans of my acquaintance looked forward to them, they were such fun to read. Sadly for the paper, he was poached by our rivals across the Liffey and, although he continued to write well for them, The Irish Times was his natural home. He was a great loss.
When the North erupted, O’Brien was initially sympathetic to the civil rights movement. But when the Provisional IRA restarted the Anglo-Irish War, he distanced himself very quickly. Never a man to do things by halves, it seemed to many that he went too far in the other direction. From being strongly criticised in Britain for his role as UN representative in the Congo, he rapidly became something of a favourite because of his trenchant critique of Irish republicanism.
As Minister for Posts and Telegraphs he gave the impression of wanting to suppress republican ideology completely. There was a famous controversy with Irish Press Editor Tim Pat Coogan after the “Cruiser” indicated to a visiting US journalist that, when letter-writers to the papers took the wrong line, the editor of the publication in question would be prosecuted. Coogan took up the cudgels and, for once, Conor Cruise lost a battle.
I recall the late Jim Mitchell of Fine Gael saying once, “I wish sometimes Conor Cruise O’Brien would just shut up.” The Fine Gael-Labour coalition of 1973-77 certainly suffered because of O’Brien’s outspoken views and he contributed to their electoral downfall, not to mention his own.
Later, he teamed-up with some of the more uncompromising elements on the unionist side in Northern Ireland. It could be argued that, in forcing people to justify and even rethink their positions on the North, he contributed indirectly to the peace process, but he was a strong opponent of the moves to bring the republican movement in from the cold. He gave me a rather sad interview at his home in Howth, the day he resigned from the Robert McCartney’s UK Unionist Party.
Politically, he ended up in the wilderness, which was a great pity considering his enormous talents. He continued to write brilliant, scholarly and highly-readable books. Just the other day I bought his monumental tome on Israel, entitled The Siege and I can’t wait to read it. He always trusted me as a journalist, knowing I would report him accurately and fairly.
Conor Cruise was great company, a brilliant mimic and wit. The untimely passing of his dear daughter Kate in 1996 must have broken his heart. Now he has gone himself and all our lives will be the poorer. Our sympathies must go to his equally-talented wife Máire Mhac an tSaoi, the celebrated poet and writer, and all those close to him. Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís (We shall not see his like again).