Conor Cruise O’Brien, the irascible angel

Linked with Conor Cruise O’Brien – Ireland (1917 – 2008).

Published on openDemocracy, by Neal Ascherson, Dec. 22, 2008.

The great Conor Cruise O’Brien climbed unsteadily onto a table in the senior staff club of Edinburgh University. We had all spent most of the day with him, arguing (it was in the late 1970s) about Scottish devolution. Conor had been obstinate, witty and useless,

his phobia about all European nationalisms rendering him deaf to any suggestion that these demure Scottish aspirations were not yet another blood-and-soil crusade for ethnic exclusivity. There had followed a big lunch with much quaffing and mockery. He was meant to go to a waiting taxi, to conduct an interview with Radio Clyde. Instead, he mounted the table, and shouted in a high, ringing voice: “I am Griboyedov!” …


… A right claimed: Looking back on all these contradictions, the shape-shiftings of this modern Griboyedov, many trails lead back to Ireland. Like some other intellectuals from his land, his perspective on the world was brilliant until it intersected with domestic politics  and inherited “faded-flag” vendettas.  Then it became Dublinkered. He was “born a Catholic”, as they say, but above all Conor – like the great Hubert Butler -  lived for the principle that Irish Protestants call “the right of private judgment”. It’s a Swiftean principle, but in Conor’s mind all its enemies became allied in one Satanic host of lies, repression, thievery and ethnic violence. His contempt for Charles Haughey, the shady giant of Fianna Fáil politics, was grand when he jested about carrying a clove of garlic when he met the taoiseach (did Conor really say on TV that  “if I were given to Spoonerisms, I would describe my opponent as a shining wit”?), but spread into a withering impatience with all his critics.

A man who was once able instantly to understand why Patrice Lumumba or Rudi Dutschke struggled against imperialism let his loathing of Irish Republicanism swell into uncritical rejection of all nationalisms all over the globe – with his own eccentric exception made for Zionism.

It’s too easy to say that Conor loved being “contrary”, and merely enjoyed shocking the nearest orthodoxy. He had a huge mind, seeing over the heads and shoulders of the crowd. I think he went to unexplored places where nobody had thought to seek a foothold. To become an Ulster Unionist (of a kind) and a supporter of partition and yet a proud defender of Ireland’s independence and not in any way “a Brit” -  he thought room might be found there to stand up and keep his balance. He may have been wrong there. This irascible angel (who wrote a play called Murderous Angels) was no good at dancing on the point of pins. (full text).

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