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Sunday 28 December 2008

The passion that saved so many 

I've been reading and thinking and talking with friends about Conor Cruise O'Brien since I heard of his death, and the sense of loss of a mighty human being intensifies as memories and reactions are shared.

"I have come to see Conor as a prophetic figure," said his friend Father Patrick Claffey at the funeral Mass.

And it was in the nature of prophets, he added, "to be prickly, awkward, angular, contrary in every sense, saying things we don't always want to hear and calling for us to change our way of thinking in building a world based on truth and justice".

Father Claffey's was a voice of true and honest love; Conor's intellectual self-belief could, at times, be infuriating. He might have changed his opinions over the years, but he always thoroughly believed that what he thought at any one particular moment was absolutely right. He went on an intellectual grand tour and could be impatient with, and even incredulous of, those who couldn't keep up.

Conor could be stubborn, difficult and contradictory, but Walt Whitman comes to mind: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

Some of the multitudes that made up Conor touched my life in so many ways. Initially, I heard my historian father speak of him as someone incapable of taking criticism. Conor had taken it badly when -- as his external examiner -- my father had referred his Ph.D thesis for more work.

Conor, it was rumoured, had a list of enemies and my father was on it. But he was a literary critic my mother greatly admired, though she disagreed with him fundamentally about his allegation that Yeats had fascist leanings. And she was deeply fond of her university friend, Maire Mhac an tSaoi, and stood up for the couple when Catholic Ireland was shocked after she became Conor's second wife.

For Owen, my leftwing brother, Conor was an inspiration who would become a life-long friend. I was never of the left, but I was attracted by stories of Conor's wit. "The Irish Catholic is waiting," said a secretary to him when he was a diplomat dealing with the press. "Give him £5 and take his horse," responded Conor, without raising his head.

For me in the 1970s, when I wrote a biography of Pearse and thus began seriously to think about Irish nationalism, Conor would become an intellectual and moral liberator. And Owen and I, approaching Northern Ireland from different political standpoints, found ourselves united behind Conor's banner. I appreciated particularly his sympathy for young people encouraged into political violence by armchair terrorists and relished the breathtaking dismissals of necrophiliac republicanism. Conor outraged respectable nationalists by saying unblinkingly that to approve 1916 was to approve the Provos.

Sean O'Callaghan, IRA-murderer-turned-informer, said to me last week that Conor ultimately had saved him. As a teenage anti-clerical Kerry socialist, he felt pro-Conor when he heard republicans speak disapprovingly of him as a communist who had got a divorce.

Even when sucked into the Provos, Sean was still vaguely on the side of Conor and the small cabal of intellectual socialists in the Labour Party, and therefore -- despite Conor's growing antipathy to violent nationalism -- he kept reading his articles, though not in front of republicans.

He was once so enraged by him that he hurled the offending newspaper at the wall, but as a member of the East Tyrone Brigade, he confronted the reality of the nationalist sectarianism that Conor highlighted: "I should have listened to him all along," he thought, "and not be here."

So Conor -- and Con Houlihan -- were the voices that took Sean out of the IRA. And it was his reading of Conor's States of Ireland that made him rejoin the Provos to save lives as an informer.

I was in New York in the late 1990s on an anti-republican mission with Sean when we spent an evening with the O'Briens. For Sean, it was not just a meeting with the man who had inspired him to redemption; with Maire he bonded over Irish poetry and Kerry. What resonated with me was how clearly Conor and Maire saw how youthful idealism could be distorted by a corrupt ideology, and understood that the enemy was the ideology, not the idealist.

The last sentence of Conor's The Christmas my father died -- the 1995 article printed in the Sunday Independent last week -- brought tears to many eyes after his death. "I don't think the ideology matters all that much, provided the children are all right," he wrote.

It was because of you, Conor, and the courage and passion for truth with which you faced down violent republicanism and its sneaking regarders, that many children on the island of Ireland were saved from having their lives ruined by pitiless ideologues.

Thank you.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards