Conor Cruise O’Brien: A old curmudgeon who did give a damn…

Over at the Guardian I’ve dashed down some first thoughts on the death of Conor Cruise O’Brien. I hadn’t time to pick up on the many fascinating bits of writing thrown up in his passing. But this line comes to the fore from William Hazlitt, if only because the Cruiser was such an unremitting admirer of Burke: “It has always been with me a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.” If he was not Ireland’s greatest politician, he was almost certainly one of its greatest reactionary prophets.And in many ways Burke was the key to a man who became editor of Britain’s oldest newspaper without ever forsaking the shores of Ireland. In the Atlantic, to which he was a frequent contributor, he wrote of his fondness for Eamon DeValera:

Dev was not a neutralist in principle. He had valued the League of Nations, provisionally. Ireland was a member of the League. The League’s Covenant, if observed, offered protection to small countries. Dev therefore thought strict observance of the Covenant to be in Ireland’s interests. For that reason he supported sanctions against Italy after Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia.

This was a courageous policy for an Irish leader: the opposition in the Dáil denounced Dev for “stabbing Catholic Italy in the back.” If sanctions had been seriously applied–specifically, if Britain had closed the Suez Canal to Italian shipping–war might well have resulted. Ireland, having supported the sanctions, would have been part of that League war.

The same would have been true if war had broken out in 1938 as a result of France’s adherence to its commitment to defend Czechoslovakia. That would have been a League war too. But after Munich the League and its repeatedly violated Covenant no longer counted. Apart from the actual course of events, the document that started the Second World War was a unilateral British guarantee to Poland.

To bring Ireland into war over a unilateral British guarantee to another country was never a possible option for De Valera. If he had tried to move in that direction, he would have had his own party against him, along with most of the rest of the country. So Ireland was neutral, by force in part of its history and in part of the circumstances in which the war broke out. We couldn’t just follow Britain into war.

De Valera took care, however, to maintain relations with Britain as good as were possible in the circumstances. He assured the British that he would never allow Ireland to be used as a base for attack on Britain. This meant clamping down on the IRA, which Dev did with a will, interning most of its members and hanging some.

The IRA, in its efforts to help Nazis and get them “to help Ireland,” was acting on Wolfe Tone’s dictum “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.” Tone was the father of Irish Republicanism, the ideology common to Dev and the IRA. But in governing Ireland, Dev ignored ideology and paid heed to circumstances and interests.

This was a sound Burkean position, though Dev was not consciously a Burkean. Much later, after having had some experience of how Dev’s mind worked, I once asked him whether he had been influenced by Burke. He looked shocked and said, “Of course not. Burke was not a Republican.” In spite of that non sequitur, his mind was more like Burke’s than Tone’s. This, of course, meant that I liked Dev.

Simon Hoggart, a former colleague at the Observer remembers one night when he stayed to the bitter end with the Cruiser in the pub one night in London:

He was a great toper, but made more sense when drunk than most of us while sober. His great theme, brilliantly expatiated, was the corrosive effect of Irish national mythology on the politics of the present day. I remember seven or so of us having a terrific session in the new El Vino’s in Blackfriars. The Cruiser had reached the stage that he had stopped drinking, but he always insisted on receiving another glass of red at each round.

My colleagues slipped away home before closing time, 8.15pm, and we were left alone. He solemnly drank the half dozen glasses in front of him, while distributing fascinating insights into the Northern Ireland problem as casually as crisps. Then he tottered to the door with me behind, waiting to catch him. Thank heavens, the orange light of a taxi loomed up, and I thought I had better find out where he was staying. “With my son,” he said gravely. “I know your son,” I said, “he’s a very nice bloke.”

Suddenly the red mist came down. He grabbed my lapels and stared at me, eyes blazing with anger. “I. Know. That!” he shouted, then gave a perfectly coherent address to the cabbie and climbed safely aboard.

Despite his reputation for reactionary politics (not surprisingly earned for his use of state censorship under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act), he was a inveterate popper of Irish public conceits. As Robert Fisk noted recently, it was the Cruiser who outed Yeats as a brief contemporary supporter of Italian fascism. His intention, by his own admission was to “administer a shock to the Irish psyche”.

Sean Coleman on the Normblog ends a short but erudite blog obit by noting the concluding paradox of his life:

A man who poured his ferocious, pugnacious energy into changing Ireland, and who dedicated much of his public life to making Ireland a less provincial, less narrow place, dies in a country that has become, extraordinarily, among the most globalized and liberal in Europe – indeed, much more liberal than O’Brien himself. He remained, to the last, an unsettled, unsettling figure. Beyond the richness of the work and the eventfulness of the life, his legacy contains, in no small part, a deep involvement in the lasting transformation of Ireland. For that, we should be grateful. Slán abhaile.

David Vance concludes that he was a great Irishman who also supported the Union. It’s a vein of seeming contradition he once teased out in detail and with typical candour in another Atlantic piece in the early 90s:

The source of the anguish was not the “loss” of eastern Ulster–not by any means. Few Catholics and nationalists in what is now the Republic of Ireland have ever cared all that much about what is now Northern Ireland, and my parents were no exception. The source of the anguish was the impact on us, inside the Catholic and nationalist community (of what is now the Republic), of the tragic and unexpected flaw that became apparent at the very moment of the seeming triumph of the Home Rule cause. The Partition of Ireland compromised the constitutional nationalists in the eyes of their own constituents. And the fact that Partition had been conceded only after a show of force by unionists was seen, by an increasingly influential group, as legitimizing recourse to force on the nationalist side. The creation and arming of the Irish Volunteers (Catholic nationalists) followed on the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (Protestant unionists).

Moderate nationalists and extreme ones interpreted the sequence of transactions in much the same way. As my father put it, speaking of Ulster Protestants and unionists, “The Orangemen brought the gun back into Irish politics.” Patrick Pearse, who was to provide the inspiration for the Easter Rising of 1916 (to which I shall come in a moment), put this thought with a significant difference, but the principle is the same. Pearse was replying to certain nationalists who were jeering at the Ulster Volunteers for their military posturing. Pearse said, “I think the Orangeman with the rifle a much less ridiculous figure than the Nationalist without a rifle.”

As I say, I share, or rather inherit, my parents’ feelings about the transactions of 1912-1914 (as distinct from their intellectual interpretation of the source of their grief). I am their son, after all, and my grandfather’s grandson. I have what Irish Republicans (extreme nationalists) used to call “the bad parliamentary drop.” The “drop” there is a drop of blood, meaning that Republicans detected, in the families of members of the old Irish Parliamentary Party, a genetically transmitted inclination to be pro-British.

They had a point, of sorts. The members of the Irish Parliamentary Party, including my grandfather, were pro-British by comparison with the Brit-hating Republican tradition, from the Fenians to the modern IRA, and I, too, am pro-British, in the same sense. When I listen to such Republicans going on about the Brits, and quite often about me personally, I comfort myself by recalling the neat verdict on such as these pronounced by an unidentified wit: “He has a mind like an unripe gooseberry–small, bitter, fuzzy, and green.”

When my father said that “the Orangemen brought the gun back into Irish politics,” he was omitting the nationalist contribution. It was the nationalist insistence on including the Orangemen in a united Ireland against their known and fervently declared wishes that made the Orangemen “bring back the gun.” But no nationalist, however constitutional, could ever manage to see it that way. I see it that way now because I have ceased to be an Irish nationalist.

He was a man of passion as well as a man of vision and principle. But at times, particularly later in life that principle often skewed his appreciation for larger projects. Few bloggers have captured it better than Conall, who notes in GUBU is dead long live GUBU:

His blinding hatred of Sinn Fein got in the way of compelling argument. Most days Bob McCartney and he looked more like the Statler and Waldorf, the grumpy old men from the muppets, then serious players. At times it was all a bit GUBU, but then politics on this island seems destined to be so.

And I leave you with Will Crawley who has an interview with the man he calls one of “post-war Ireland’s most significant (and, yes, controversial) public figures and intellectual forces.”

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty