Imaginary Cassandra?: Conor Cruise O'Brien as Public Intellectual in Ireland

By Garvin, Tom | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Autumn-Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Imaginary Cassandra?: Conor Cruise O'Brien as Public Intellectual in Ireland


Garvin, Tom, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


Conor Cruise O'Brien has probably been the most conspicuous Irish public intellectual of his time, and, perhaps, the most influential such voice in Irish politics. In particular, O'Brien has been a crucial critic of the Irish political tradition generally and rather inaccurately labelled 'physical force republicanism'. The qualifier is more accurate than the noun; the republicanism of many Irish republicans is, to put it mildly, rather tenuous and certainly takes second place to an uncompromising all-Ireland separatist nationalism. Many soi-disant Irish republicans are actually anti-political and therefore anti-republican in their real political stance, despising electoral politics, free speech, and the popular will as expressed through the ballot box. Theoretically nonsectarian, historically they have been almost monolithically Catholic, often with a strong sectarian tinge. Irish republicans of the Provisional Sinn Fein variety declare their cause to be that of the last allegedly legitimate government of Ireland, that appointed by the Second Dail in 1921. Like African dictators, they think the Irish electorate got it right in 1918 and 1921 by voting for Sinn Fein and have been wrong ever since; as de Valera famously said, the majority have no right to do wrong. Irish republicans solve the problem of democratic legitimacy by arrogating to themselves the right to decide when the electorate was wrong or right. Incidentally, the Second Dail was by-and-large not elected by anybody, but rather appointed by Michael Collins and Harry Boland to uncontested seats. Nevertheless, that historical fact has never worried Irish republicans unduly. Neither does it worry them that the Second Dail ratified the Anglo-Irish Treaty that set up the democratic Irish Free State which these republicans detest. Some republicans are socialist in ideology, some are quasi-fascist; others are a strange and opportunistic blend of the two. Historically they were both pro-Nazi (during the Second World War) and pro-Soviet during the Cold War; they are rather good at backing unattractive losers.

O'Brien gained a local and even international notoriety or fame for repeatedly pointing out these and other contradictions at the heart of the physical force tradition in an eloquent and often witty way, most vividly in his 1972 semi-autobiographical book, States of Ireland. (1) He is well-known for his prophecy, most vividly proffered in States of Ireland, that the determined pursuit of Irish reunification by Irish governments in effective tacit alliance with the IRA would lead to civil war on the island between Orange and Green. This was a prophecy which he feared might, like Cassandra's, not be believed, and might be fulfilled.

His own background, so vividly sketched in his writings, qualifies him well to deliver critiques of Irish nationalists; he is an ideological insider. O'Brien was born in 1917 into a well-known net of Catholic middle-class nationalist families; his uncle, for example, had been a gun-runner in preparation for the 1916 Rising and many close family connections had been conspicuously active in the independence movement. A remote ancestor was a Father Nicholas Sheehy, framed and hanged for whiteboyism (agrarian agitation) in the late eighteenth century in what amounted to an exercise in judicial murder. This Catholic priest was afterwards seen as a national and religious martyr in the popular Irish imagination. A great-uncle, Father Eugene Sheehy, taught Eamon de Valera, later President of Ireland, and Dev reminisced fondly about him in Irish, 'It is he who taught me love of country' (Eisean a mhuin an tir-ghra dhom). His aunt on the Sheehy side of his family was married to Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a pacifist and socialist murdered by a supposedly crazed British officer in the aftermath of the Rising.

On the other hand, his family was, like many Irish families, divided ideologically and emotionally between different strands of Irish nationalism. …

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