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The Cruiser Is No More

As best I can tell, before today, there were three living nonagenarians who almost perfectly, each in his own way, embodied the 20th-century. All were born in that crucial year 1917, and two more or less carried on the key … Read More

By / December 19, 2008

As best I can tell, before today, there were three living nonagenarians who almost perfectly, each in his own way, embodied the 20th-century. All were born in that crucial year 1917, and two more or less carried on the key debate that began around then: Robert Conquest and Eric Hobsbawm. The third was Conor Cruise O’Brien, a brilliant and enigmatic Irishman, who died last night:

O’Brien, who led the United Nations operations in the Congo in 1960, was Ireland‘s minister for posts and telegraphs in the mid-1970s and who became editor-in-chief of the Observer newspaper in 1979 for three years, died last night. The cause of death was not revealed.

Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen led tributes to O’Brien. "Conor was a leading figure in Irish life in many spheres since the 1960s. It is a reflection on his wide array of talents that he was able to make a sizeable impact in the public service, in politics, in academia and journalism," Cowen said.

He began his civil service career in De Valera’s Catholic chauvinist government, but is best remembered for being one of the most persuasive critics of the I.R.A. As someone forged in the kiln of colonialism, O’Brien’s insights cut across borders. He wrote what is probably the smartest series of studies of Edmund Burke, who was a distant relative, arguing that the founder of modern conservatism was very probably still a practicing Catholic (Burke’s father had the family converted to Protestantism in order to avert the anti-Catholic penal laws of the day) and thus his concern about the bloody revolution occurring in France, and the imminence of one being preached in "certain societies in London," stemmed at least as much from self-preservation as it did from core monarchist principle. The anti-Papist cause could not, in 1789, be detached from the Jacobin one, and this was a concatenation Burke was better poised than most of his fellow parliamentarians to appreciate as a liberal defender of human rights abroad, most especially in India — he led the charge in the House of Commons against Warren Hastings — but also in the colonies in America. Indeed, Burke wasn’t even a Tory, he was a Whig, and he was not opposed or unsympathetic to all revolutions, a further irony that has been lost to vulgar historical caricatures about Right and Left–caricatures that are equally hard to apply to his kinsman and sensitive flame-tender.

Not that O’Brien himself was an unstained son of Eire. He wrote a very bad book about millennialism in 1994, and his self-flattering and inebriated public appearances on British television long ago earned him the sobriquet (though I know there were others) Camera Crews O’Booze.

Still, one feels the loss of a great scholar and statesman.

 

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