May 27, 2022
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Donal Conor David Dermot Donat Cruise O’Brien (3 November 1917 – 18 December 2008), often nicknamed “The Cruiser”, was an Irish diplomat, politician, writer, historian and academic who served as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs from 1973 to 1977, a Senator for Dublin University from 1977 to 1979, a Teachta Dála (TD) for the Dublin North-East constituency from 1969 to 1977 and a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from January 1973 to March 1973.
His opinion of Britain’s role in Ireland, after independence and partition in 1921, changed during the 1970s, in response to the outbreak of The Troubles. He saw opposing nationalist and unionist traditions as irreconcilable and switched from a nationalist to a unionist view of Irish politics and history, and from opposition to support for partition. Cruise O’Brien’s outlook was radical and seldom orthodox. He summarised his position as intending “to administer an electric shock to the Irish psyche”.
Internationally, though a long-standing member of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, he opposed in person the African National Congress’s academic boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Views O’Brien espoused during and after the 1970s contrasted with those he articulated during the 1950s and 1960s.
During his 1945–61 career as a civil servant, Cruise O’Brien promoted the government’s anti-partition campaign. In the 1960s he was associated with the ‘New Left’ and opposition to US military involvement in Viet Nam. At the 1969 general election, he was elected to Dáil Éireann as a Labour Party TD for Dublin North-East. He served as a Minister for Posts & Telegraphs, with responsibility for broadcasting, between 1973 and 1977 in a coalition government. During those years he was also the Labour Party’s Northern Ireland spokesman. O’Brien was later known primarily as an author and as an Irish Independent and Sunday Independent columnist.
Cruise O’Brien’s many books include: States of Ireland (1972), where he first indicated his revised view of Irish nationalism, The Great Melody (1992), his ‘thematic’ biography of Edmund Burke, and his autobiography Memoir: My Life and Themes (1999). He also published a collection of essays, Passion and Cunning (1988), 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: The Saga of Israel and Zionism (1986), a history of Zionism and the State of Israel. His books, particularly those on Irish issues, tend to be personalised, for example 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.
In 1963, Cruise O’Brien’s script for a Telefís Éireann programme on Charles Stewart Parnell won him a Jacob’s Award.
He was a longtime columnist for the Irish Independent. His articles were distinguished by hostility to the Northern Ireland peace process, regular predictions of civil war involving the Republic of Ireland, and a pro-Unionist stance.
Cruise O’Brien held visiting professorships and lectureships throughout the world, particularly in the United States, and controversially in apartheid South Africa, openly breaking the academic boycott. A persistent critic of Charles Haughey, Cruise 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. Until 1994, Cruise O’Brien was a Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin.
According to Roy Foster, Colm Tóibín wrote that Seamus Heaney “was so popular that he could even survive being endorsed by Conor Cruise O’Brien, which normally meant ‘the kiss of death’ in Ireland. The legendary The New Yorker fact-checking desk, unable to let a single statement go uncorroborated, found out Cruise O’Brien’s Dublin phone number and rang to inquire if his approval meant the kiss of death in his native country: they then telephoned an astonished Tóibín and reproachfully told him: ‘Mr O’Brien said: “No, it didn’t”.'”