Conor Cruise O'Brien, RIP - U2 Feedback

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Old 12-21-2008, 07:12 PM   #1
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Conor Cruise O'Brien, RIP

Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s was very far from Nazi Germany, but it was none the less a place in which the tribal drums of both sides were beating with such clamour as frequently to drown out compassion and reason. O’Brien challenged that drumming in others, and did the same when he detected its faint echoing beat in himself.

It is easy now to forget the intensity of fear generated by the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries: the safest thing to do was to keep your mouth shut, or give voice only to generalised pieties. Those who persistently ignored such rules had a tendency to be murdered.

Under such circumstances, O’Brien became an implacable public foe of the IRA and its sustaining well of passionate unreason. Irish republicanism recognised him as a dangerous enemy, because he understood its “ancestral voices” intimately: both his mother and father had been committed “Irish Irelanders”, and he had close acquaintance with the seductive power of its myths.
The nature of his background, and the breadth of his intellect, meant that he could not be lightly dismissed as a Protestant, a Brit or a bigot. He was sure in his identity as an Irishman, and he confronted republican terrorism with the scourging force deriving from that confidence. Unionists, accustomed to being either despised or patronised, discerned in him a rare generosity of spirit: in uncivilised times, he spoke almost uniquely of a better, broader vision of Ireland.
Since he habitually moved beyond the boundaries of all tribes, their self-appointed chieftains always suspected him for it. In his memoir he describes a fact-finding visit to the North in 1970, during which he attended a rally addressed by the Unionist politician William Craig. He refrained from applauding Craig’s speech, thereby drawing the ire of some nearby loyalist toughs. They inquired why he had not clapped, and he replied that he had not agreed with the substance of the speech. Since a beating was evidently on its way, he wrote later: “I preferred being beaten without having clapped to clapping and then getting beaten as well.”

The beating, augmented by a kicking, duly followed. Not long afterwards he received a postcard from Omagh in Northern Ireland. It read: “I see you got a Protestant beating-up in Derry. If you come to Omagh I promise you a Catholic beating-up”.

I first met Conor in the 1990s, when the “peace process” was under way. He was not a fan: its moral compromises and orchestrated cant offended his natural love of exactness and candour. Those who interpreted his position as a veering into unreason might reflect that, as a political experiment, it still has a long way to run.
Another wand'ring minstrel set to rest.
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