Remembering the Cruiser

Conor Cruise O’Brien, one of the most notable Irish intellectuals of my lifetime, was buried yesterday in Glasnevin cemetery, alongside his daughter Kate. He was 91.

Most of the obituaries failed to do him justice. The IHT/NYT one was perfunctory; the Guardian‘s (by Brian Fallon) was surprisingly unsatisfactory, given the author. The only obit I’ve read that came up to the mark was the one in the Times, which was masterful. (I suspect it was written by Roy Foster; at any rate, he’s the only one I could think of who has the requisite intellectual range.)

The Cruiser (as he was universally known in Ireland) first came to my attention when the ‘scandal’ of his divorce and remarriage (to the daughter of an Irish Cabinet minister) transfixed holy Catholic Ireland. My parents (devout Catholics) were scandalised. For my part, I was fascinated: who was this guy who could get people into such a lather? Later on, I got to know him slightly during the late 1970s when he was Editor-in-Chief of the Observer. I was not yet a columnist on the paper, but I was a regular contributor to the books pages, and so a frequent attendee in the nearby pubs behind New Printing House Square at the end of a working day. Cruiser was invariably also in attendance, drinking and arguing with anyone who caught his attention. It was in one of these sessions that he gave me a line which I’ve often used since in introducing myself to audiences. When he discovered that I was, like him, both an academic and a journalist, he remarked: “I see. You have a foot in both graves”.

At that time, no British paper had an Editor-in-Chief, though the role was commonplace in US newspaper groups. He was recruited by the American owners of the paper, the US oil company Atlantic Richfield, who felt that papers ought to have Editors-in-Chief and looked round for a really grand figure. Their gaze alighted on Conor. He demanded that the paper should rent a houseboat for him in Chelsea, where he lived from Tuesday to Friday, and then he flew back to Dublin to spend the weekend in his wonderful house atop Howth Hill overlooking Dublin Bay (where Leopold and Molly Bloom first made love).

He had an amazing life — well sketched in the Times obit. He began as a brilliant student, graduating from Trinity College with a double first. He was then, successively: a career civil servant; a diplomat; a high official of the UN carrying awesome responsibilities during an acute phase of the Cold War; a university Vice-Chancellor and, later, professor; a politician and Cabinet minister; a newspaper editor. And, for most of that time, a prolific author of memorable books and a newspaper columnist with a gift for controversy.

He had a remarkable intellectual range, producing first-rate historical scholarship on Parnell, terrific essays (e.g. Maria Cross on Catholic writers), a book on Gide, a play, a breathtaking memoir of his time as the UN representative in the Belgian Congo (To Katanga and Back), an insightful book about the United Nations, a great book on Edmund Burke, an intemperate book about Israel and a fascinating autobiography which was absolutely true to life in that it showed a character whose great gifts were balanced by great flaws.

In argument he was a real bruiser, especially when he had been drinking (which was often; I doubt that he ever went to bed sober). There was a real sense of danger when he was around. Simon Hoggart, who was then on the Observer, captured this in his column last Saturday:

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.

But inside the bulldozer, there was a rapier. When the Cruiser was deeply embroiled in the Katangan fiasco, my friend Bill Kirkman, who was then the Africa correspondent for the Times, wrote a piece in which he said that one of the problems with the UN operation was that its staff included “too high a proportion of mediocrities”. Several days later, he was taken aback to receive a letter from the Cruiser suavely soliciting Bill’s advice as to “the correct proportion of mediocrities”.

He was such a paradoxical figure. On the one hand, the very model of a modern public intellectual in his willingness to speak out. He resigned from the Irish civil service, for example, in order to tell the Katangan story as he thought it should be told — something that did not endear him to several powerful governments, including that of Harold Macmillan. He was likewise courageous — and, ultimately, correct — in challenging the sentimental, myopic nationalism which characterised Irish policy towards the North until the 1980s. He saw through the cant of the Provisional IRA and its Sinn Fein ventriloquists, and he stiffened the resolve of the Coalition Government of which he was a member in its campaign against terrorism. And he excoriated Charlie Haughey as a political gangster long before it was popular or profitable to do so.

But on the debit side — as Roy Greenslade perceptively observed — the Cruiser regarded consistency as a quality suited only to lesser mortals. He spent several years early in his career, for example, pushing Irish nationalist propaganda — the kind of myopic nationalism he later excoriated. His hatred of Sinn Fein led him to oppose the policy which eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement and the eventual emergence of power-sharing in Northern Ireland. And his courageous stance in favour of intellectual freedom in Nkrumah’s Ghana was at odds with the intolerance towards nationalist views that he displayed when he wielded real political power in the Republic — or indeed with his persecution of the journalist Mary Holland when he was Editor-in-Chief of the Observer. His admiration for Israel was not matched by any sympathetic understanding of the Palestinian position. And so on.

So, great gifts and great flaws. But a genuinely big figure in Irish life. He’ll be missed.

LATER: I remembered something he said to me (also in a pub). I was asking him what he thought of the Observer and he said something to the effect that you could always tell a newspaper by its copy-takers. (In the pre-Internet age all newspapers had people who transcribed copy telephoned in by reporters. The Observer’s copy-takers were a breed apart — highly literate and often very erudite.) Cruiser said he first realised this when he was phoning in a column. “The atmosphere”, he dictated, “was redolent of fin de siecle Vienna… That’s French, spelled f-i-n-space-d-e-…”. At this point he was interrupted by the copy-taker. “I think you should assume, Dr O’Brien”, he said, “that a copy-taker on the Observer would know what the end of the century is in French.”

Sigh. Memories of a vanished age. Remind me to tell you about the Boer War sometime…