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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 19, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    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).

    • Pablo says:

      “We will never see his like again.” You are right. The first time I encountered CCOB was in Boston in the ’60s. He was giving a speech about the Congo, and there were quite a few old Irish ladies in the audience. (In those days it was rare to see an Irish “intellectual” in person; so he filled the hall.) Not long into his talk, he started to attack the Catholic Church, which had nothing to do with the Congo. He insulted the many old Irish ladies, after they paid good money to hear him talk. He could see the audience and would know how many of them felt about the criticism; most of the old ladies and some others walked out.

      I next encountered him indirectly; at that time he was the minister of P & T. I couldn’t even get a trunk call through from Carrick-on-Shannon to Dublin, let alone from a country post office, the service was terrible. In fact, the new manager for the Digital Equipment Company (it was a coup at that time to get such a prestigious firm to locate in Ireland, never mind even in Galway), after waiting over a month, couldn’t get a telephone for his office and had to appeal to Jack Lynch to get one! Instead of attending to business, CCOB was too busy running around the United States and elsewhere condemning the IRA and praising British actions in the North

    • a son of the red saltire says:

      Conor Cruise O’Brien is remembered favourably for his position on the Irish Question, however his greatest legacy is for the disaster of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in which he backed the bad guys and destroyed Katanga and the Central African Federation (CAF). CCO’B and the United Nations stand disgraced for DR Congo. Katanga and the old CAF if allowed to prosper could have spared Africa the terrors that are now associated with Zimbabwe and the former Zaire.

    • Deaglán says:

      Bit of an exaggeration to suggest he is universally praised for his position on the Irish Question, censorship, etc. But he was a very forthright and outspoken individual. I would have thought his stance in the Congo won wider approval than his position on Northern Ireland. Wasn’t Tshombe a bit a lackey of the Belgians? As for his time in Posts and Telegraphs, I think it can be fairly said that his heart wasn’t in it. I recall an interview he did with – probably Henry Kelly – when it was put to him he might have gotten a second stint in the job and he replied rather sardonically, “Two terms as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs – thank you very much!”

    • Cáitlín Ní Ullacháin says:

      It’s interesting to see that in all the various obits of the man, none have asked the hard questions, most have glossed over his political positions of later life, all have been hagiographies.

      It seems the so-called intellectual giant was only so when compared to the pygmies of his peers.

      “Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís” ?… le cuidiú Dé

    • Some Hard questions here says:

      Deaglán mentions a less than hagiographic CCOB obit by Niall Meehan here:

    • Deaglán says:

      You need to insert a link for your second “here”.

    • Joe says:

      “Two terms as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs – thank you very much!”

      Yes Deaglán, it did seem that at the time that CCOB felt that such mundane matters of improving the telephone service etc. were somewhat beneath him.

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