Conor Cruise O'Brien

Conor Cruise O'Brien
Conor Cruise O'Brien
In office
27 October 1977 – 13 June 1979
Constituency University of Dublin
Minister for Posts and Telegraphs
In office
14 March 1973 – 5 July 1977
Teachta Dála
In office
18 June 1969 – 16 June 1977
Constituency Dublin North East
MEP for Ireland
In office
1 January 1973 – March 1973
Personal details
Born 3 November 1917(1917-11-03)
Dublin, Ireland
Died 18 December 2008(2008-12-18) (aged 91)
Nationality Irish
Political party Labour Party
Other political
UK Unionist Party
Spouse(s) Christine Foster (m.1939–div.1959)
Máire Mhac an tSaoi (m.1962–2008)
Children Donal Cruise O'Brien (by Christine)
Fedelma Cruise O'Brien (by Christine)
Kate Cruise O'Brien (by Christine)
Patrick Cruise O'Brien (adopted with Máire)
Margaret Cruise O'Brien (adopted with Máire)
Alma mater Trinity College Dublin
Occupation Journalist

Conor Cruise O'Brien (3 November 1917 – 18 December 2008)[1] often nicknamed "The Cruiser",[2] was an Irish politician, writer, historian and academic. Although his opinion on the role of Britain in Northern Ireland changed over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, he always acknowledge values of, as he saw, the two irreconcilable traditions. O'Brien's outlook was radical, yet his career veered from to left to right wing; he was interested in the progress of South Africa, yet in later years took a pro-Israel stance. He summarised his position as "I intend to administer a shock to the Irish psyche".[3]

O'Brien began his career as a civil servant working on the government's anti-partition campaign. At the 1969 general election, he was elected to Ireland's parliament as a Labour Party TD for Dublin North East becoming a Minister from 1973–77. He was also the Labour Party's Northern Ireland spokesman during those years. He was later known primarily as a journalist and leading columnist in the Irish Independent.


Early life

Cruise O'Brien was born in Dublin to Francis ("Frank") Cruise O'Brien and Kathleen Sheehy. Frank was a journalist with the Freeman's Journal and Irish Independent newspapers, and had edited an essay written fifty years earlier by William Lecky, on the influence of the clergy on Irish politics.[4] Kathleen was an Irish language teacher and daughter of David Sheehy, a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party and organizer of the Irish National Land League. She had three sisters, all of whom lost their husbands in 1916. These included Hanna, wife of murdered pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, and Mary, wife of Thomas Kettle, an officer of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died during the Battle of the Somme.

O'Brien's father (who died in 1927) requested his wife have his son educated in a non-denominational school. O'Brien was sent to Sandford Park School, despite the objections of the Catholic clergy.[5] O'Brien subsequently attended Trinity College Dublin which, like Sandford Park, was neither Catholic nor nationalist in ethos. O'Brien was editor of Trinity's weekly, TCD: A College Miscellany. His first wife was Christine Foster, who came from a Belfast Presbyterian family. They were married in a registry office in 1939, which was contrary to Catholic teachings. O'Brien had three children with Christine Foster — Donal, Fedelma, and Kathleen (Kate), who died in 1998. The marriage ended in divorce after 20 years. In 1962, he married the Irish-language writer and poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi. She was five years his junior, and the daughter of former TD and Tánaiste, Seán MacEntee. They adopted a son (Patrick) and a daughter (Margaret).

O'Brien's university education led to a series of appointments in the public service, most notably in the Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs). He became something of an anomalous iconoclast in post-1922 Irish politics, particularly in the context of Éamon de Valera's Fianna Fáil government. He considered that those who did not conform to traditional Catholic mores were generally not suited to the public service.[6] In the Department of External Affairs, O'Brien served as a diplomat under the pro-physical force republican, Seán MacBride, the Nobel Peace Laureate of 1974. MacBride was the son of John MacBride and Maud Gonne. O'Brien was particularly vocal on the anti-partition issue during the 1940s.

International postings

O'Brien came to prominence as a special representative to Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of the United Nations, when, in 1961, Katanga tried to secede from what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Under pressure from a range of international interests, he eventually resigned and wrote To Katanga and Back (1962) which is still considered a classic of both modern African history and the inner workings of the United Nations. From 1962 to 1965 he was Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana. His interpretation of academic freedom differed from that of the Chancellor,and leader of the country Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. Dr. o'Brien resigned.[Jordan Anthony J. To Laugh or to Weep - A biographyof Conor Cruise O'Brien , Blackwater Press 1994. p. 76-78] Following this he was the first Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University until 1969.

Irish politics

O'Brien returned to Ireland and in the 1969 general election was elected to Dáil Éireann as a member of the Labour Party, representing the Dublin North East constituency together with three other TDs, including Charles Haughey. He was appointed a member of the short-lived first delegation from the Oireachtas to the European Parliament. Following the 1973 general election, O'Brien was appointed Minister for Posts & Telegraphs in the coalition Cosgrave government. During this period he developed a deep hostility to militant Irish republicanism. He extended and vigorously enforced censorship of the media, banning members of Sinn Féin and the Provisional Irish Republican Army from being interviewed on Irish radio or television (Section 31).[7] At the same time, he attempted to get Britain's BBC 1 television channel broadcast on Ireland's proposed second television channel.[8] [9]

An incident was to mar O'Brien's career as minister and in particular his attitude towards free speech. Bernard Nossitier of the Washington Post interviewed O'Brien in August 1976 regarding the passage of the Emergency Powers Bill. During the course of the interview O'Brien revealed that he had intentions other than those stated in the bill. He claimed that he wished to "cleanse the culture" of republicanism. He stated that he would've liked the bill to be used against teachers who glorified Irish revolutionaries and against newspaper editors who published letters in support of Republicans.[10] During the interview he mentioned the Irish Press as a newspaper which he hoped to use this bill against. Nossiter then informed Tim Pat Coogan who was the editor of the Irish Press. Coogan printed the interview and a number of strong editorials attacking the bill. The interview caused huge controversy and a highly modified version of the bill was passed, which dropped the proposal to extend sanctions to newspapers.

O'Brien's attitude towards Garda brutality in this period has been remarked upon.[11] In his book,[6] he recalls a conversation with a detective who told him how the Gardaí had found out – from a suspect – the location of businessman Tiede Herrema, who had been kidnapped by the IRA in October 1975: "[T]he escort started asking him questions and when at first he refused to answer, they beat the shit out of him. Then he told them where Herrema was." O'Brien explained, "I refrained from telling this story to Garret [FitzGerald] or Justin [Keating], because I thought it would worry them. It didn’t worry me." The elements of the Garda Síochána that engaged in beating suspects later became known as the "Heavy Gang".

His stance caused controversy within and outside the government. His Dublin North East constituency was abolished and in the 1977 general election he stood unsuccessfully in Dublin Clontarf.[12] He was, however, subsequently elected to Seanad Éireann (1977 to 1979).


In 1996, he joined Robert McCartney's United Kingdom Unionist Party and was elected to the Northern Ireland Forum. He later resigned from UKUP after publishing an extract from his book Memoir: My Life and Themes in which he called on Unionists to consider the benefits of a united Ireland to thwart Sinn Féin. In 2005 he rejoined the Labour Party. He was widely regarded as a hate figure amongst Republicans. He defended his harshness towards extreme nationalists by saying," We do right to condemn all violence but we have a special duty to condemn the violence which is committed in our name". [Jordan Anthony J. To laugh or to Weep. Blackwater Press 1994. p. 189]


Conor Cruise O'Brien's many books include: his picture of the politics of polarisation States of Ireland (1972), The Great Melody (1992), his unorthodox biography of Edmund Burke and his Memoir: My Life and Themes (1998). He also published a collection of essays, Cunning and Passion (1986), which includes a substantial piece on the literary work of William Butler Yeats and some challenging views on the subject of terrorism, and The Siege (1989), a history of Zionism and the State of Israel. His books, particularly those on Irish issues, tend to be very involved and personal such as States of Ireland where he made the link between the political success of the republican Easter Rising and the consequent demise of his Home Rule family's position in society. His private papers have been deposited in the University College Dublin Archives.

He was a long time columnist for the Irish Independent and his articles were distinguished by hostility to the 'peace process' in Northern Ireland, regular predictions of civil war in the Republic of Ireland and a pro-Unionist stance. In 1997, a successful libel action was brought against him by relatives of Bloody Sunday victims for alleging in one article that the marchers were "Sinn Féin activists operating for the IRA".[13] In 1963, O'Brien's script for a Telefís Éireann programme on Charles Stewart Parnell won him a Jacob's Award.[14]

Between 1979 and 1981 O'Brien was editor-in-chief of The Observer newspaper in Britain. Shortly after starting as editor he sent a memo to Mary Holland, the Observer's Northern Ireland correspondent, whose coverage had won her the Journalist of the Year award:

It is a very serious weakness of your coverage of Irish affairs that you are a very poor judge of Irish Catholics. That gifted and talkative community includes some of the most expert conmen and conwomen in the world and I believe you have been conned.[15]

Holland subsequently left the Observer and joined the Irish Times as the Northern Ireland correspondent.

He held visiting professorships and lectureships throughout the world, particularly in the United States, and controversially in apartheid South Africa. A persistent critic of Charles Haughey, O'Brien coined the acronym GUBU (Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented), based on a statement by Charles Haughey, who was then Taoiseach, commenting on the discovery of a murder suspect, Malcolm MacArthur, in the apartment of the Fianna Fáil Attorney General Patrick Connolly.[16] Until 1994, O'Brien was Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dublin.


Máire and Conor Cruise O'Brien:


  1. ^ Former minister and journalist Conor Cruise O'Brien dies
  2. ^ "Conor Cruise O’Brien: farewell to Ireland's restless conscience". The Telegraph, 20 December 2008; retrieved 8 July 2009
  3. ^ Akenson, Donald H. "Conor: a Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien". Cornell University Press, 1994. 364. ISBN 0-8014-3086-0
  4. ^ William Lecky, Clerical Influences: An essay on Irish sectarianism and English Government Edited with an introduction by W. E. G. Lloyd and F. Cruise O’Brien, Maunsel and Company, Dublin, 1911. (originally published as a chapter in The Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland (1861))
  5. ^ Article by O'Brien in The Atlantic
  6. ^ a b O'Brien, C.C, Memoir: My Life and Themes, Poolbeg, Dublin, 1999, p95.
  7. ^ Historian, Politician, Censor : Conor Cruise O'Brien, 1917-2008 By Niall Meehan, Counter Punch, December 22nd, 2008
  8. ^ See The Oireachtas Debates for more information on O'Brien's BBC 1 campaign.
  9. ^ Conor Cruise O'Brien - Obituary by Brian Fallon,, Friday 19 December 2008
  10. ^ The I.R.A. - Tim Pat Coogan pg421-422
  11. ^ Gene Kerrigan and Pat Brennan (1999). This Great Little Nation. Gill & Macmillan, pp. 235-237. ISBN 0-7171-2937-3.
  12. ^ Dublin Clontarf 1977 result
  13. ^
  14. ^ The Irish Times, "Presentation of television awards and citations", December 4, 1963
  15. ^ Coogan, Tim Pat (2008). Tim Pat Coogan A Memoir. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 211. ISBN 9780297851103. 
  16. ^ Cruise O'Brien, Conor, Unsafe At Any Speed, The Irish Times, 24 August 1982.

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Gerry Collins
Minister for Posts and Telegraphs
Succeeded by
Pádraig Faulkner

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