'The first sound I can recall is a series of booming noises': thus Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien, who died yesterday, aged 91, begins a memoir of his early years. Those noises were the bombardment of Dublin's Four Courts, the event that inaugurated Ireland's bitter civil war in 1922, and which left a deep cleavage in Irish politics for decades thereafter. As a writer, thinker and political figure, O'Brien's energetic and disputatious presence imposed a deep impress on Irish public life. And while his career would vault him into international prominence as a cosmopolitan intellectual – diplomat in Katanga, vice-chancellor in Ghana, professor in New York, editor in London – the essential dimension of his life and work would always be the reverberations of Irish history.
Born in Dublin into a prominent family that prized its free-thinking and politically active inheritance, O'Brien first came to prominence as a brilliant undergraduate at Trinity College. Subsumed into the Irish Civil Service, he gradually attained a senior post in the Department of External Affairs (as it was then called), and from there he ascended to the United Nations, where he assumed a role at the centre of the maelstrom in post-colonial Africa. He parleyed the admiration - and notoriety - won there into a succession of careers, first as vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana, then as holder of the Albert Schweitzer Chair in Humanities at New York University, all the while publishing a variety of erudite and fluent essays in the world's most respected journals.
The dramatic figure cut here by O'Brien - the engagé intellectual on the world stage, a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, stern critic of colonial injustice - was complicated by his return to the fractious world of Irish politics. With David Thornley and Justin Keating, he became part of a heralded generation of Labour TDs elected to Dail Eireann in the 1960s who appeared to augur a new future for Irish liberalism. Yet as The Irish Times noted, 'their media prominence... was all that they had in common', and their early promise foundered as hostilities in Northern Ireland detonated in the early 1970s, and the Republic became more and more embroiled in the conflict. The animosities generated in the North touched every part of Irish life, and O'Brien's tenure as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the 1973-77 coalition, was most notable for the controversy surrounding legislation brought in to deny militant republicanism ventilation through the national media, for which he was roundly criticized.
It was the brutality of the sectarian conflict, however, that would crucially define the tenor of O'Brien's later political life. His intense loathing of political violence and his deep disenchantment with the revanchist shibboleths of Irish nationalism stirred in him a decisive and - it should not be forgotten – courageous repudiation of not only the IRA but, somewhat more importantly, the militant republican tradition that in 1970s Ireland still counted much of the political class among its nominal adherents. States of Ireland remains a key text of this period, serving to reappraise and demystify the congealed opinions of Irish political thought. This was, in many ways, 'The Cruiser' at his best, taking a stand against the murderous squadrons of Provisionals in Belfast and Derry, but also against the cloudland of nationalist rhetoric of Dublin and Galway that garlanded and justified their exploits. In an exchange on Ireland in The New York Review of Books in 1971, he trained his aim at both: 'when next you listen to the rhetoric of our latter-day Irish Republicans, just picture for yourself the wreckage of that pub in the Shankill Road and reflect that that was done in the name of the heritage of Wolfe Tone and "the common name of Irishman".'
He would not only carry this conviction into controversial legislation, but would also expand on its premises to try and create a public space where Unionism would feel comfortable within the Irish state - necessary efforts in which, as former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald noted when speaking this morning of O'Brien's legacy, he was far ahead of his contemporaries. Later, however, the divisiveness of the Northern debate would see him turn away from Irish nationalism altogether, and (briefly) embrace the UK Unionist Party, before returning again to the Labour fold. This was of a piece, however, with other facets of his later thought, and there is little doubt that his integrity in many areas began slowly to unravel. His rancorous rejection of the Northern peace process, for example, and his dubious claims on other conflicts (Israel, South Africa) served to create an image - unfair perhaps - of a mind soured on the liberal ideas that had made his name. This close-minded sequel does not do justice to the breadth of his sympathies and interests over 90 years, and later reappraisals, when they come, will no doubt take the full measure of the man and the work. Apart from anything else, Irishmen and women will forever be in the debt of a man who proved such an implacable and inexhaustible foe of the great villain of Irish politics, Charles Haughey.
But what work! Brilliant studies of Parnell and Camus; a cornucopia of important essays on Irish and international literature; pioneering historical inquiry into terrorism and nationalism; and, of course, his massive, magisterial work on Edmund Burke - the imprint of his achievement remains, and will likely remain, indelible. In an academic climate that fosters specialized studies and compartmentalization, the breadth of O'Brien's career, across politics, diplomacy, journalism, academia, and history, retains a power to astonish. And in an age when fashionable excuses are once more appended to acts of terror as placid justification - spurious apologias citing car-bombs as somehow the redress of grievance - O'Brien's stern example remains instructive.
A paradox remains. 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. (Sean Coleman)