Conor Cruise O'Brien, the irascible angel

Neal Ascherson
22 December 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!" 

Also in openDemocracy:

John Horgan, "Conor Cruise O'Brien, a protean figure" (22 December 2008)I never liked him better. No, he was not Alexander Griboyedov, the author of Woe from Wit. But something bound them together across over a century. The pen and the sword. Why should the artist and scholar not also be the man of action, the writer who was not afraid to tie his beliefs to a bayonet or to serve as the counsellor of a world-changing prince? Griboyedov had put down his pen at the Tsar's command and gone to serve his emperor. First in the Caucasus, where he married the beautiful Georgian princess, Nino Chavchavadze. Then in the Russian embassy in Tehran, on whose steps he was torn to pieces in 1829 by a Shi'a mob.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, who died on 18 December 2008 at the age of 91, could have remained a literary critic of dazzling originality. Instead he took up the sword for Dag Hammarskjöld in 1960, and commanded the United Nations force in Katanga, a secessionist southern province of the newly independent Republic of Congo; he was fired on and fired back, and lost the battle in a noble cause. The fact that he, the author of Maria Cross and so many other elegant reviews of intellectual history, should have picked up the gun and gone out to make history himself - that filled him with a burning, lifelong pride. He and Griboyedov had crossed a line which their peers in the work of the mind hesitated to cross in case they were defiled.

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the (London) Observer.

Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999)

The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988)

Black Sea (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996; reprinted 2007), and

Stone Voices: the Search for Scotland
(Granta, 2003)

Among Neal Ascherson's many articles in openDemocracy:

"Pope John Paul II and democracy" (1 April 2005)

"Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

"The victory and defeat of Solidarność" (6 September 2005)

"Victory's lost sister - the wreck of the Implacable" (21 October 2005)

"A carnival of stupidity" (6 February 2006)

"Torture: from regress to redress" (1 March 2006)

"Catholic Poland's anguish" (11 January 2007)

"Ryszard Kapuscinski: from Poland to the world" (25 January 2007)

"Who needs a constitution?" (22 May 2007)

"The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968" (1 February 2008)

"After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008) I think, all the same, that he must have been disconcerted to discover which of his books and plays made the most lasting impact. It's the large, illustrated, almost coffee-table-sized book on The United Nations: Sacred Drama. Written from his own experience as Ireland's ambassador there, it is in one sense a witness to the UN's impotence and to its helplessness before American pressure in the cold-war decades. But in another way, the book uncovers and exalts the significance of the UN as theatre - a forum not for democratic decisions by some  global government, but for the majestic drama of passions, emotions and historical memories which is displayed there, enactments which are in themselves releases of pity, terror and truth which are deeply necessary to their actors. It is not surprising that this book, published so long ago, has now become a favourite reference for post-modern, post-processual students of political action as ceremony and theatre. 

A risk taken

I remember another moment: looking down from the ship's rail in a cold, wet Irish dawn and seeing Conor waiting on the quay at Dun Laoghaire. Rudi Dutschke, once the orator and ideologist of the West Berlin students' uprising, had been a fugitive across Europe since he was shot in the head by a rightwing fanatic in April 1968. Now, in 1971, after Dutschke had found refuge in Britain for many months, the British home secretary was preparing to deport him. The only hope was to hide him somewhere where his passport would not be required and yet the arm of the London special branch would not reach. Conor offered his home. I booked a passage for Rudi, Gretchen and their small children, Hosea Che and Polly, under the name of "Drucker" and brought them by train and ferry to Dublin. Conor bundled us into his old car, and soon we were drinking hot tea in his and Mairi's kitchen at Howth.

It was the early 1970s. In sheltering a wounded fugitive blacklisted as a revolutionary menace all over the western world, Conor was taking a huge risk with his political reputation in Ireland. But, though no revolutionary himself, he had none the less learned during his UN years to call imperialism by its name, especially the American species. At that level, the two men had something in common. But above all Conor felt a generous disgust at the British government's persecution of this helpless man. This was a risk he enjoyed taking. It brought back bold memories. Driving me to the airport,  he rounded a corner and hit a tree blown over in the night's gales. He laughed happily.  "C'est le Congo!"

Later I worked under him, when he edited the Observer. He was great company, but better in the pub laughing with the county Clare barman than in the editorial conferences. Then and later, he did things which upset and sometimes shocked me. Worst, at a personal level, was his censorship and then suppression of the wonderful Mary Holland, whose despatches from Northern Ireland he detested. A clear case of shooting the bad-news messenger, this folly proceeded from his incandescent hatred of militant Irish Republicanism.

Later still, I clashed with him over the events at Southampton University in 1986; the price of gathering a worldwide assembly of archaeologists to found a new World Archaeological Congress had been to disinvite South African archaeologists and observe the current academic boycott of that country. Conor thought this a disgraceful surrender of academic freedom to political correctness; I wrote columns defending the decision, and soon collided with Conor again over his decision to go to South Africa and take up a teaching post at "Wits" in Johannesburg.  His angry blindness to the just cause of Scottish devolution continued to be a no-man's-land between us, a zone littered with unexploded cluster-bombs.

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.


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