Conor Cruise O'Brien worked where his mind and heart led him. Dying
on Thursday at 91, he lived a long life and like many restless minds came
to disappoint his early acolytes. An Irish nationalist, he did not
toe the line of romantic Irish nationalism but steered his own path to
moderation and practicality.
O'Brien had been enchanted by the liberation of Africa and was particularly enmeshed with the independence struggles of the Congo. But its leader, Patrice Lumumba, turned out to be a mindless Marxist and his antagonist Moise Tshombe, revolutionary leader of the separatist state of Katanga, was virtually an agent of the Belgians. O'Brien represented the United Nations in the newly independent country, actually with troops. But his ideals had been overrun by remnants of colonialism and the pretensions of national liberation. O'Brien wisely gave up on the U.N. and left to do practical educational work at the University of Ghana, where Kwame Nkrumah, the president of the country, laid down laws that impeded intellectual activity and achievement. O'Brien left for Ireland where he held a Labor seat in the legislature and then a post in the cabinet.
Soon he was editor of the (London) Observer, a leftish weekly which was so devoid of left-wing cant that one shudders to read the publication today. O'Brien was one of those learned people whose writings made fluent his scholarship, and his scholarship tempered his rhetoric.
He wrote brilliantly on Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson, considering both of them revolutionaries of calm reason.
He wrote one book the New York Times did not refer to in its Friday obituary. It is a gargantuan book (nearly 800 pages) called The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism, one of the three or four most authoritative and certainly the most literate in the field. Maybe it is understandable, this coarse omission by the newspaper of record. Zionism was O'Brien's last great passion, and I recall an evening at my house with Amos Oz when he tried to rekindle what he thought was the Hebrew writer's unaccountable pessimism about the dream. But, as O'Brien himself wrote at the end of his grand opus, "what is not in sight is the end to the siege."