THE BLOG

On the Anniversary of the Cruiser

18/12/2014 06:32 GMT | Updated 16/02/2015 10:59 GMT

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This particular eighteenth of December marks the six year anniversary of one of the greatest Irish political writers of the last century, the late Conor Cruise O'Brien. "The Cruiser", as to which some here in Ireland would dotingly refer. Even still today some invite that very reference in public discourse, even if it is not always with affection.

The Cruiser had some of those tasteful elements admired by many writers, myself included. The consummate internationalist, he believed that people understand one another if they want to, no matter how great the language barrier. As like Thomas Paine, who took exception to The Cruiser's literary forefather, Mr. Edmund Burke. he declared himself a citizen of the world first. One of the most impressive stylists of our time, and he plyed that style with a deadly wit, battering many a poor perisher who crossed him. A proud cosmopolitan, an authentic polymath, a contrarian - yes, I am aware this is a cliche label - whom never was so clumsy as to state himself as so in public, a scholar and cheer-leader of Burke, Thomas Jefferson, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a man of action and an active citizen, and certainly a formidable executant of our rich language. An example worth considering would be this one, whilst in Johannesburg:

"On the afternoon of that same Saturday, I myself became a small statistic of black on white in the field of urban crime. It was a warm afternoon, and I was walking in the neighborhood of the Carlton hotel, where I was staying. There were not many people around - shops and offices close at one o'clock on Saturday - and of those who were around were black. Suddenly, quietly, and quite gently, one of these grasped my arms from behind. Another appeared in front of me, very close. From a distance he might of seemed to be asking for a light. In fact he had a knife with a four inch blade pointed at my throat. A third man frisked me expertly and removed all my valuables, but left me my passport and notebook. Then they made off, without physically molesting me in any way. They were not children but middle-aged men, from their age and relative restraint you might infer that they were non-political: 'ordinary decent criminals', as they say in Northern Ireland.

So what? The reader may reasonably ask. A person can be mugged in any modern city. I know this. In fact, the last time I had been mugged - almost exactly twenty years before - was in Manhattan, at morningside park. Although that event occurred during a break in a Socialist Scholars' Conference in Columbia."

"What can become of South Africa?" March 1986.

The Cruiser uses this vicious anecdote only as an illustration of escalating ordinary crime in South Africa, and his experience of it.

As for the incident in Moringside Park, O'Brien wrote that four black youths of about sixteen had ambushed him, two from behind, two from the front. They took his money and a watch that held sentimental value. O'Brien rang the nearest police station, and swiftly a squad car with two policemen rolled up. They drove through Harlem constantly asking O'Brien if he could spot the youths. Becoming frustrated that he would not simply pick innocent young black men, they then insinuated he was into homosexual activities, and implied they might charge him for an offence. Of this, he wrote in his Memoir:

"I had the impression that the police men had been going through a pretty familiar routine. Many white people robbed by blacks, would recognize 'any black', roughly corresponding to the description of the robber. So identified and charged, the person identified would likely to be convicted, and the police books would be cleared, which would be to the benefit of the police officer concerned."

O'Brien opposed the 1968 police riot at the Chicago Democratic Convention. For eight days, protesters and the Chicago Police Department fought in the streets of Chicago while the US Democratic Party met at the convention in the International Amphitheater. There was vicious beatings and honourable civil disobedience, especially in consideration the death of Martin Luther King and the impact that had. It is also worth being mindful of reflecting on the recent death's of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, by white police officers. It is also noteworthy that O'Brien actively opposed the war with Vietnam, marching in the streets and writing against it.

O'Brien was born in 1917. The year succeeding the Easter Rising. His remarkable life encompasses that of almost the whole last century. His most regular foe in the pantomime of Irish politics was the late and disgraced former Taoiseach, Charles J. Haughey. Haughey perfected the art of the scoundrel, and epitomized greed in office. O'Brien himself, was a man of many enemies, which is not always an unfortunate predicament. It can be a proud one. No unfortunate should be asserted if it is deserved and earned, and his infamy, as well as his lionisation, were certainly rational attributions. If a man has enemies, it means he has stood up for a cause at some point, as said Churchill. If there was a noble enough position in his eyes, even though it priced in being disliked or unpopular, he would muster the courage to defend his position at risk of being banished, as they sometimes say, to Devils Island. If a man is measured by the caliber of his enemies, O'Brien was very much in decent company. His opponents were brilliant ones. Taking on not only Haughey, but whole institutions, a South African dictatorship, the Irish Republican army, the Irish catholic church - which in public was a rarity at the time he did so, the New York Police Department, and even the Yeats family legacy.

It would be also worth noting something my former lecturer, Niall Meehan, wrote about him in a highly considerable article, and something which is probably quite sobering considering my ardent bias in my own piece here:

"Half way through [his career] he became a reactionary. The rock on which he fell was the Irish National Question.

In 1965, O'Brien said,

"[A] liberal, incurably, was what I was[,]... profoundly attached to liberal concepts of freedom - freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom, independent judgment and independent judges."

In 1976, O'Brien told Bernard Nossiter of the Washington Post he wanted to imprison the Editor of the Irish Press for printing pro-Irish republican letters.

In 1993 O'Brien supported censoring a radio advertisement for a book of short stories by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams. Favorable reviews in The Times, Sunday Times and Times Literary supplement were by IRA sympathizers, he suggested."

When he wrote for instance, about the IRA, and the war of terror on the people of Northern Ireland:

"The people of the Republic do not endorse that war, very from it. We are Nationalists in the sense of wanting to run our own affairs, not in the sense of wanting to annex territory and crush other people. We dislike the IRA, most of us, and fear it. We are a peaceful and democratic people. But our history, our 'idealistic' pretensions and our fatal ambivalence have struck us with an Ideology that is warlike and Anti-democratic, and calls increasingly for human sacrifice. Our Ideology, in relation to what we actually are and want, is a lie. It is a lie that clings to us and burns, like A Shirt Of Nessus."

"Ireland: Shirt Of Nessus".

O'Brien had always optioned for the right to Independence for any group of people. And never was he reserved about his politics, never did he subordinate what he perceived as just action to suit others. Continuing to assert this principle under terrific pressure. Courage, after all, is taking a known risk, and taking it deliberately. It can be physical, it can be at risk to your livelihood, one takes it regardless in the knowledge that to resile their principles would be a regret too harrowing to bare.

O'Brien took risks, took many a position to gainsaid, as this particular passage from his book "States of Ireland" ventilates:

(Whilst attending an Orange Rally in Northern Ireland)

"The young man who had bumped against me asked why I didn't clap. I said I didn't clap because I didn't agree with a lot the speaker had said (by this time I had a fair idea I was going to get a beating and on the whole preferred being beaten without having clapped to clapping and then getting beaten as well) . . . they wanted 'to get O'Brien'. They hit me several times and I fell down, and then they started kicking me. An apprentice boy said: "Is it murder ye' wan't?' After a short while they stopped kicking and went away."

In 1961, O'Brien gained some international attention after secondment from Ireland's UN delegation, as a special representative to Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of The United Nations, in the secessionist province of Katanga in the Congo, which had been in crisis since the end of Belgian rule the previous year. My own Grandfather, the late Mr. Sean Vallely, was also part of the Irish Troops that ventured over as part of the UN force ONUC. Independence of Katanga and efforts to achieve such were supported by Belgian troops and mercenaries. O'Brien, maintained that the superpowers were determined to unite the mineral-rich Katanga with neighboring Rhodesia, and he believed that it should have remained with the Congo. He wrote about his experiences in a highly appreciable memoir entitled, 'To Katanga and back'.

O'Brien was not only a man with a mighty command of words, and of action, he was a man of ideas. Firmly believing that ideas inform actions, and that informed actions can determine progress or destruction. The two forces that occupied his mind for most of his intellectual concentration were that of Nationalism and Religion. He wrote in his profound memoir:

"All my life I have been both fascinated and puzzled by nationalism and religion; by the interaction of the two forces, sometimes in unison, sometimes antagonistic; and by the manifold ambiguities in all of this."

In addition to this sentence, he reflected furtherin a later interview with the University of California:

"Human nature does not include all human beings. There are human beings who are indifferent to politics, religion . . . virtually with anything, but of the people who make themselves felt in history are moved in one way or another by these forces."

I have taken him at his word. Feeling better for having done so. No Irish man may have excavated and scrutinized the Ideology of Irish Republicanism in the way he did. Discussing the nation of Israel at length, the African continent - particularly South Africa, and the French Revolution. There are of course regrettable and horrendous decisions he made regarding censorship, as Mr. Meehan pointed out, and I acknowledge them. Wherever he shone his light it proved to illuminate new aspects of his subjects not yet pondered upon. Never afraid, always alert, reserved at times and dangerous at others, honest and blunt, the pen of The Cruiser always sailed across his pages to change how his readers thought, and think. May he at least be remembered so on this day, his six year anniversary.