Books: The Cruiser, Right or Wrong Memoir: My Life and Themes by Conor Cruise O'Brien Profile Pounds 20
Gearty, Conor, The Independent (London, England)
Some 20 years ago, an extraordinary event took place at the Literary and Historical Society in University College Dublin, the Irish equivalent of the Oxford and Cambridge debating unions. My cousin was auditor (or president as it would be in Britain) during that year and he had determined that his hero Conor Cruise O'Brien should be made a Vice-President of the Society. These appointments were usually made on the nod; there were many such functionaries, retired civil servants, judges, well-known writers and the like. But O'Brien was different. A full-scale meeting was required, at which a packed chamber debated in a raucous manner and for the whole evening the merits and demerits of this particular nominee.
The house was bitterly divided. The key contribution was a long speech from the greatest student orator of his generation, not praising the man in florid terms (of which we all knew he was capable and to which we had looked forward) but instead slowly, almost turgidly reciting the bare bones of O'Brien's extraordinary curriculum vitae: from his birth in 1917 and his early Trinity College scholarship, via the Irish foreign service, the United Nations, the UN crisis in Katanga in 1961, the Vice-Chancellorship of Ghana University and the Albert Schweitzer professorship at New York University, back to Ireland and service as a government minister in the then immediately recent past. As the powerful monotone reminded us, all this had been accompanied in every decade by writing of the very highest quality, with plays, literary criticism, historical works and political analysis all flowing consistently and elegantly from O'Brien's prolific pen. None of this was why the man was controversial, of course. It was that segment of himself that he had devoted to Northern Ireland and to rethinking Irish nationalism that had turned the Irish part of O'Brien's world inside out, and made that meeting angry and emotional. It was all the crowd cared for, but maybe subliminally they were trying to punish him for being a broader as well as a different kind of Irishman. "The Cruiser", as he was always called, just squeaked home.
O'Brien is an easy but dangerous man to hero-worship. His original but brilliantly incisive analysis of the Irish troubles at the start of the 1970s weaned a whole generation from addiction to a debilitating nationalism which had outlived its meaning, while at the same time seeming to have given birth to a new "terrorist" generation. Having garnered these disciples, O'Brien later made fools of them, when he dismissed the whole peace process as an IRA ruse and launched himself enthusiastically into Robert McCartney's tiny unionist faction in Northern Ireland. Now even this band have had to sack their famous patron after his argument (made in this book) that the unionist would after all be better off in the Republic. So O'Brien seems to be back more or less where he started decades ago, as a pluralist Irish nationalist of a very particular sort. To look for consistency in O'Brien is however to miss the point. He has never been cut out for the dullness of holding to the straight line. There is a flamboyance in him, and a self-awareness and humanity that come through almost all of this book. At a private dinner in honour of a very senior British newspaper figure some years ago, I happened to be sitting next to O'Brien. By now he had added yet another layer to his life, as a former Editor-in-Chief of the Observer. Meeting him for the first time, I said that though I had idolised him for years I felt he was now completely wrong about Ireland, Israel, South Africa and much else. He whooped with delight at the …
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Publication information: Article title: Books: The Cruiser, Right or Wrong Memoir: My Life and Themes by Conor Cruise O'Brien Profile Pounds 20. Contributors: Gearty, Conor - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: December 13, 1998. Page number: 13. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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