Conor Cruise O'Brien

Conor Cruise O'Brien (3 November 1917 – 18 December 2008)[1] often nicknamed "The Cruiser",[2] was an Irish politician, writer, historian and academic who served as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs from 1973 to 1977, a Senator for University of Dublin from 1977 to 1979, a Teachta Dála (TD) for the Dublin North-East constituency from 1969 to 1977 and a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from January 1973 to March 1973.

Conor Cruise O'Brien
Minister for Posts and Telegraphs
In office
14 March 1973  5 July 1977
TaoiseachLiam Cosgrave
Preceded byPádraig Faulkner
Succeeded byGerry Collins
In office
27 October 1977  13 June 1979
ConstituencyUniversity of Dublin
Teachta Dála
In office
June 1969  June 1977
ConstituencyDublin North-East
Member of European Parliament
In office
1 January 1973  23 March 1973
Personal details
Conor Cruise O'Brien

(1917-11-03)3 November 1917
Sandymount, Dublin, Ireland
Died18 December 2008(2008-12-18) (aged 91)
Howth, Dublin, Ireland
Political partyLabour Party
Other political
UK Unionist Party
Christine Foster
(m. 1939; div. 1959)

Máire Mhac an tSaoi
(m. 1962; death 2008)
Children5, including Kate
Alma materTrinity College Dublin

His opinion on the role of Britain in Ireland and in Northern Ireland changed during the 1970s, in response to the outbreak of The Troubles. He saw opposing nationalist and unionist traditions as irreconcilable and switched from a nationalist to a unionist view of Irish politics and history. Cruise O'Brien's outlook was always radical and the positions he took were seldom orthodox. He summarised his position as intending "to administer an electric shock to the Irish psyche".[3] Internationally, he opposed in person the African National Congress's academic boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa.[4] These views contrasted with those he espoused during the 1950s and 1960s.

During his career as a civil servant Cruise O'Brien worked on the government's anti-partition campaign. At the 1969 general election, he was elected to Dáil Éireann as a Labour Party TD for Dublin North-East, and became a Minister between 1973 and 1977.[5] He was also the Labour Party's Spokesman on Northern Ireland during those years. He was later known primarily as an author and as a columnist for the Irish Independent.

Early life

Donal Conor David Dermot Donat Cruise O'Brien was born at 44 Leinister Road, Rathmines, Dublin, to Francis ("Frank") Cruise O'Brien and Kathleen Sheehy.[6] Frank was a journalist with the Freeman's Journal and Irish Independent newspapers, and had edited an essay written 50 years earlier by William Lecky concerning the influence of the clergy on Irish politics.[7] Kathleen was an Irish language teacher. She was the daughter of David Sheehy, a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party and organiser of the Irish National Land League. She had two sisters, both of whom lost their husbands in 1916. Hanna's husband, the well-known pacifist and supporter of women's suffrage Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, was executed by firing squad on the orders of Captain J.C Bowen Colthurst during the 1916 Easter Rising.[8] Soon afterwards Mary's husband, Thomas Kettle, an officer of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was killed during the Battle of the Somme. These three women, Hanna and Kathleen in particular, were a major influence on Cruise O'Brien's upbringing alongside Hanna's son, Owen Sheehy-Skeffington.[9]

Cruise O'Brien's father (who died in 1927) wanted Conor educated non-denominationally; Kathleen honoured that wish. Cruise O'Brien followed his cousin Owen into Sandford Park School that had a predominantly Protestant ethos,[10] despite objections from Catholic clergy.[11] Cruise O'Brien subsequently attended Trinity College Dublin, which played the British national anthem until 1939, though Cruise O'Brien and Sheehy-Skeffington sat in protest on such occasions.[12] Cruise O'Brien was elected a scholar in Modern Languages at Trinity in 1937 and was editor of Trinity's weekly, TCD: A College Miscellany.

His first wife, Christine Foster, came from a Belfast Presbyterian family and was, like her father, a member of the Gaelic League. Her parents, Alexander (Alec) Roulston Foster and Mary Lynd, were Irish republicans and supporters of Irish reunification. Alec Foster was at the time headmaster of Belfast Royal Academy; he was later a founding member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, and was a strong supporter of the Irish Anti-Apartheid movement.[13] He was a former Ulster, Ireland and British & Irish Lions rugby player, having captained Ireland three times between 1912 and 1914. Cruise O'Brien and Christine Foster were married in a registry office in 1939. The couple had three children: Donal, Fedelma, and Kathleen (Kate), who died in 1998. The marriage ended in divorce after 20 years.

In 1962, Cruise O'Brien married the Irish-language writer and poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi in a Roman Catholic church. Cruise O'Brien's divorce, though contrary to Roman Catholic teaching, was not an issue because that church did not recognise the validity of Cruise O'Brien's 1939 civil wedding in the first place. Cruise O'Brien referred to this action, which in effect formally de-recognised the legitimacy of his former wife and children, as "hypocritical ... and otherwise distasteful, but I took it, as preferable to the alternatives."[14] Mac an tSaoi was five years his junior, and the daughter of Seán MacEntee, who was Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) at the time. They subsequently adopted two Congolese children, a son (Patrick) and a daughter (Margaret).

Cruise O'Brien's university education led to a career in the public service, most notably in the Department of External (now Foreign) Affairs. He achieved distinction as managing director of the state-run Irish News Agency and later as part of the fledgling Irish delegation to the United Nations. Cruise O'Brien later claimed he was something of an anomalous iconoclast in post-1922 Irish politics, particularly in the context of Fianna Fáil governments under Éamon de Valera.

He considered that those who did not conform to traditional Roman Catholic mores were generally ill-suited to the public service,[15] though that does not appear to have impeded his ascent through it that ended officially at ambassadorial level. He observed,

There was nothing unusual even then about not believing in Catholicism. What was unusual then was to acknowledge publicly that you did not believe in Catholicism.... It is interesting that this did absolutely no harm to my public career around the mid-century – a time when the authority of a triumphant Catholic Church appeared to be overwhelmingly strong, in the media and in public life. But I think many educated people - including many in the public service - already resented that authority and, while being discreet about this themselves, had some respect for a person who publicly rejected it altogether.[16]

In the Department of External Affairs during the 1948–51 inter-party government, Cruise O'Brien served under Seán MacBride, son of John MacBride and Maud Gonne, republican and former IRA Chief of Staff, who would become the 1974 Nobel Peace Laureate. Cruise O'Brien was particularly vocal in opposition to partition during the 1940s and 1950s, as part of his official duties.

International posting

Cruise O'Brien came to prominence in 1961, after his secondment from Ireland's UN delegation as a special representative to Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of the United Nations, in the Katanga region of the newly independent Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). A UN crisis ensued, and Cruise O'Brien was forced to step down, simultaneously, from his UN position and the Irish diplomatic service in late 1961. Michael Ignatieff asserted that Hammarskjöld, who was killed in Katanga in a suspicious plane crash prior to Cruise O'Brien's departure, had misjudged Cruise O'Brien's abilities as UN representative. He further observed that Cruise O'Brien's use of military force provided the Soviets and the U.S. with ammunition in their campaign against the UN Secretary General and against UN action opposed to the interests of the big powers. This thesis has been subsequently been shown to be inaccurate by the documentary "CONGO 1961",[17] which shows that it was Hammarskjöld himself who ordered the military actions, leaving Cruise O'Brien to take the blame when they failed.

Siege of Jadotville

In September 1961, a company of 155 Irish United Nations troops were surrounded by a force of heavily armed Gendarmerie and mercenaries outnumbering them 20-to-one in the jungle of central Africa. The Irish soldiers, many of them still in their teens, were lightly armed, short of ammunition and supplies, and unprepared for the situation. They had been sent to the newly independent Republic of Congo on what was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission. Instead, were ordered on to the offensive by the UN's most senior diplomat on the ground, Cruise O'Brien acting on the instructions of the Secretary General, who wanted the Katanga problem solved before the upcoming United Nations General Assembly, as his career was on the line.

The Irish troops held out for six days before they ran out of bullets and drinking water. When water finally reached them, it came in old petrol cans which hadn't been cleaned, making it undrinkable. They inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy force, but suffered no fatalities themselves. After their surrender, they spent just over one month in captivity, unsure of their fate, and when they arrived back in Ireland, they were dismayed and deeply hurt to learn that the UN and their own government were anxious to sweep the episode under the carpet.

Cruise O'Brien wrote immediately about his experiences in The Observer (London) and in The New York Times on 10 and 17 December 1961. Cruise O'Brien's version of events, set out in his 1962 book To Katanga and Back, has been dismissed as highly selective and self-serving; while it deliberately excluded crucial items. However recent evidence from the UN archives suggests Cruise O'Brien was acting with the express approval of Hammarskjöld. Armed with the archive material, one expert concluded Hammarskjöld "knew in advance that the UN was about to take action in Katanga and he authorised that action".[18]

A film based on the events, The Siege of Jadotville, depicts Cruise O'Brien as indifferent to the fate of the inexperienced Irish troops isolated in Jadotville as a result of his own instructions. A documentary, 'CONGO 1961', made for Irish television station TG4 challenged this, showing that the actions for which Cruise O'Brien was blamed were ordered by Hammarskjöld and subsequently covered up by the UN, who made Cruise O'Brien the scapegoat.[18]

Irish politics

Cruise O'Brien returned to Ireland and in the 1969 general election was elected to Dáil Éireann as a member of the opposition Labour Party, in the four-seat Dublin North-East constituency,[19] alongside Charles Haughey, whose probity in financial matters he questioned.[20] He was appointed a member of the short-lived first delegation from the Oireachtas to the European Parliament. Following the 1973 general election, Cruise O'Brien was appointed Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the 1973–77 Labour-Fine Gael coalition under Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave.

During this period, after the outbreak of armed conflict in Northern Ireland in 1969, Cruise O'Brien developed a deep hostility to militant Irish republicanism and to Irish nationalists generally in Northern Ireland, reversing the views he articulated at the outset of the unrest.[21] He also reversed his opposition to broadcasting censorship imposed by the previous government, by extending and vigorously enforcing censorship of Radio Teilefís Éireann (RTÉ) under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act. In 1976 he specifically banned spokespersons for Sinn Féin and the Provisional Irish Republican Army from RTÉ.[21] At the same time, he attempted unsuccessfully to get Britain's BBC 1 television channel broadcast on Ireland's proposed second television channel, instead of allowing RTÉ to run it.[22][23]

Two additional notable incidents affected Cruise O'Brien's career as minister, besides his support for broadcasting censorship.

In August 1976 Bernard Nossiter of The Washington Post interviewed Cruise O'Brien regarding the passage of an Emergency Powers Bill. During the course of the interview Cruise O'Brien revealed an intention to extend censorship beyond broadcasting. He wished to "cleanse the culture" of republicanism and said he would like the bill to be used against teachers who allegedly glorified Irish revolutionaries. He also wanted it used against newspaper editors who published pro-republican or anti-British readers' letters.[24] Cruise O'Brien mentioned The Irish Press as a newspaper which in particular he hoped to use the legislation against and produced a file of Irish Press letters to the editor to which he took exception. Nossiter immediately informed The Irish Press editor Tim Pat Coogan of Cruise O'Brien's intentions. Coogan printed Nossiter's report (as did The Irish Times), republished the letters to which Cruise O'Brien objected, and ran a number of strong editorials attacking Cruise O'Brien and the proposed legislation. The interview caused huge controversy, resulting in modification of the measure appearing to target newspapers.[25]

Cruise O'Brien also supported Garda brutality during this 1973–77 period, though this was not revealed by Cruise O'Brien until 1998 in his Memoir.[26] In Memoir: My Life and Themes, Cruise O'Brien recalled a conversation with a detective who told him how the Gardaí had found out, from a suspect, the location of businessman Tiede Herrema, who had been kidnapped by group of maverick republicans in October 1975: "[T]he escort started asking him questions and when at first he refused to answer, they beat the shit out of him. Then he told them where Herrema was." Cruise O'Brien explained, "I refrained from telling this story to [ministerial colleagues] Garret [FitzGerald] or Justin [Keating], because I thought it would worry them. It didn't worry me."[27] Elements of the Garda Síochána that engaged in beating false confessions out of suspects quickly became known as the "Heavy Gang".[28][29]

Cruise O'Brien's Dublin North-East constituency was abolished as part of a government-inspired redrawing of boundaries. In the 1977 general election he stood in Dublin Clontarf and was one of three ministers defeated in a general rout of the outgoing administration.[30] He was, however, subsequently elected to Seanad Éireann in 1977 from the Trinity College Dublin constituency, though he resigned his seat in 1979 owing to his new commitments as editor-in-chief of The Observer newspaper in London.

Editor-in-Chief at The Observer

Between 1978 and 1981 Cruise O'Brien was editor-in-chief of The Observer newspaper in Britain. In 1979 he controversially pulped an Observer magazine with an article by Mary Holland, The Observer's Ireland correspondent. Holland, whose reporting won her a Journalist of the Year award, had been one of the first journalists to explain discrimination in Northern Ireland to a British audience. The article was a profile of Mary Nelis of Derry and dealt with her radicalisation as a result of the conflict. Cruise O'Brien objected and sent Holland a memo stating that the "killing strain" of Irish republicanism, "has a very high propensity to run in families and the mother is most often the carrier."[12] The memo continued, "It is a very serious weakness of your coverage of Irish affairs that you are a very poor judge of Irish Catholics. That gifted and talkative community includes some of the most expert conmen and conwomen in the world and I believe you have been conned."[31] Holland was forced out of the newspaper by Cruise O'Brien. She later joined the Irish Times as a columnist. She also rejoined The Observer after Cruise O'Brien's departure in 1981.[32]


In 1985, Cruise O'Brien supported unionist objections to the inter governmental Anglo-Irish Agreement. In 1996 he joined Robert McCartney's United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP) and was elected to the Northern Ireland Forum. In 1997, a successful libel action was brought against him by relatives of Bloody Sunday victims for alleging in a Sunday Independent article in 1997 that the marchers were "Sinn Féin activists operating for the IRA".[33] Cruise O'Brien opposed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and opposed allowing Sinn Féin into government in Northern Ireland. He later resigned from the UKUP after his book Memoir: My Life and Themes called on Unionists to consider the benefits of a united Ireland to thwart Sinn Féin. In 2005 he rejoined the Labour Party. Cruise O'Brien defended his harsh attitudes and actions towards Irish republicans, saying "We do right to condemn all violence but we have a special duty to condemn the violence which is committed in our name".[34]


Cruise O'Brien's many books include: States of Ireland (1972), where he first indicated his revised view of Irish nationalism, The Great Melody (1992), his unorthodox biography of Edmund Burke, and his autobiography Memoir: My Life and Themes (1999). He also published a collection of essays, Passion and Cunning (1988), which includes a substantial piece on the literary work of William Butler Yeats and some challenging views on the subject of terrorism, and The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism (1986), a history of Zionism and the State of Israel. His books, particularly those on Irish issues, tend to be personalised, for example States of Ireland, where he made the link between the political success of the republican Easter Rising and the consequent demise of his Home Rule family's position in society. His private papers have been deposited in the University College Dublin Archives.

In 1963, Cruise O'Brien's script for a Telefís Éireann programme on Charles Stewart Parnell won him a Jacob's Award.[35]

He was a longtime columnist for the Irish Independent. His articles were distinguished by hostility to the 'peace process' in Northern Ireland, regular predictions of civil war involving the Republic of Ireland, and a pro-Unionist stance.

Cruise O'Brien held visiting professorships and lectureships throughout the world, particularly in the United States, and controversially in apartheid South Africa, openly breaking the academic boycott. A persistent critic of Charles Haughey, Cruise O'Brien coined the acronym GUBU (Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented), based on a statement by Charles Haughey, who was then Taoiseach, commenting on the discovery of a murder suspect, Malcolm MacArthur, in the apartment of the Fianna Fáil Attorney General Patrick Connolly.[36] Until 1994, Cruise O'Brien was a Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin.

Colm Tóibín claimed an endorsement by Conor Cruise O'Brien was effectively the "kiss of death" for the career prospects of the endorsed in Ireland. The New Yorker telephoned Conor Cruise O'Brien to confirm that this was so, but Cruise O'Brien disagreed and the statement could not be corroborated.[37]


  • Maria Cross: Imaginative Patterns in a Group of Modern Catholic Writers (as Donat O'Donnell) (London: Chatto & Windus, 1952) OCLC 7884093
  • Parnell and His Party 1880–90 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957) ISBN 978-0-19-821237-9 (1968 edition)
  • The Shaping of Modern Ireland (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960)
  • To Katanga and Back: A UN Case History (London: Hutchinson, 1962) OCLC 460615937
  • Writers and Politics: Essays & Criticism (London: Chatto & Windus, 1965) ISBN 978-0-14-002733-4 (1976 Penguin edition)
  • Introduction and notes to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (London: Penguin Books, 1968, 2004) ISBN 978-0-140-43204-6
  • Murderous Angels: A Political Tragedy and Comedy in Black and White (play) (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968) OCLC 449739
  • The United Nations: Sacred Drama with illustrations by Feliks Topolski (London: Hutchinson, 1968) ISBN 978-0-09-085790-6
  • Camus (Fontana Modern Masters, 1970) ISBN 978-0-00-211147-8 – released in US as Albert Camus of Europe and Africa (New York: Viking, 1970) ISBN 978-0-670-01902-1
  • (with Máire O'Brien) A Concise History of Ireland (London: Thames & Hudson, 1972); retitled The Story of Ireland (New York: Viking, 1972)
  • States of Ireland (London: Hutchinson, 1972) ISBN 978-0-09-113100-5
  • The Suspecting Glance (London: Faber, 1972) ISBN 978-0-571-09543-8
  • Herod: Reflections on Political Violence (London: Hutchinson, 1978) ISBN 978-0-09-133190-0
  • The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism (1986) ISBN 978-0-671-63310-3
  • God Land : Reflections on Religion and Nationalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988) ISBN 978-0-674-35510-1
  • Passion and Cunning and Other Essays (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988) ISBN 978-0-297-79325-0
  • The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) ISBN 978-0-226-61651-3
  • On the Eve of the Millennium (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1994). ISBN 978-0-88784-559-8
  • The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785–1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) ISBN 978-0-226-61656-8
  • Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 1994) ISBN 978-1-85371-429-0
  • Memoir: My Life and Themes (Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 1999) ISBN 978-1-85371-947-9


  1. "Former minister and journalist Conor Cruise O'Brien dies", The Irish Times, 18 December 2008.
  2. "Conor Cruise O’Brien: farewell to Ireland's restless conscience". The Telegraph, 20 December 2008; retrieved 8 July 2009.
  3. Akenson (1994), p. 364.
  4. Akenson (1994), pp. 472–81.
  5. "Conor Cruise O'Brien". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 9 November 2012.
  6. "General Registrar's Office" (PDF). Retrieved 20 September 2019.
  7. William Lecky, Clerical Influences: An essay on Irish sectarianism and English Government Edited with an introduction by W. E. G. Lloyd and F. Cruise O’Brien, Maunsel and Company, Dublin, 1911. (originally published as a chapter in The Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland (1861))
  8. Twentieth-Century Witness: Ireland's Fissures, and My Family's, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Atlantic Monthly, Vol.273, No.1, pp. 49-72, January 1994; Cruise O'Brien (1999), pp. 15–16
  9. Personal File Two Deaths in Rathmines, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 83, No.6, pp. 44–49, June 1999
  10. Conor Cruise O'Brien – Obituary by Brian Fallon, The Guardian, London, 19 December 2008
  11. Cruise O'Brien, Conor, "Two Deaths in Rathmines", The Atlantic, June 1999
  12. Meehan (2009)
  13. Breandán Mac Suibhne, The Lion and the Haunted House, Dublin Review of Books
  14. Cruise O'Brien (1999), p. 267.
  15. Cruise O'Brien (1999), p. 95.
  16. O'Brien, Conor Cruise, 'The Roots of My Preoccupations', Atlantic Monthly, July 1994, Vol. 274, No. 1; pp 73–81.
  17. CONGO 1961, akajava films, broadcast on TG4 September 2012
  18. CONGO 1961, akajava films, broadcast on TG4, September 2012
  19. "Conor Cruise O'Brien". Retrieved 9 November 2012.
  20. Jordan (1994), p. 98.
  21. Historian, Politician, Censor : Conor Cruise O'Brien, 1917–2008 Archived 16 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine By Niall Meehan, Counter Punch, 22 December 2008
  22. See The Oireachtas Debates Archived 9 November 2012 at the Wayback Machine for more information on Cruise O'Brien's BBC 1 campaign.
  23. Conor Cruise O'Brien – Obituary by Brian Fallon,, Friday 19 December 2008
  24. Coogan, Tim Pat, The I.R.A., pp. 421–422.
  25. Coogan (2008), pp. 208–210.
  26. Gene Kerrigan and Pat Brennan (1999). This Great Little Nation. Gill & Macmillan, pp. 235–237. ISBN 0-7171-2937-3.
  27. Cruise O'Brien (1999), p. 355.
  28. Joe Joyce, Peter Murtagh, Blind Justice, Dublin: Poolbeg, 1984.
  29. Derek Dunne, Gene Kerrigan, "Round Up the Usual Suspects – Nicky Kelly & The Cosgrave Coalition", Magill, Dublin, 1984.
  30. Dublin Clontarf 1977 result
  31. Coogan (2008), p. 211.
  32. Cruise O'Brien (1999), p. 373.
  33. Bloody Sunday marchers libelled
  34. Jordan (1994), p. 189.
  35. The Irish Times, "Presentation of television awards and citations", 4 December 1963.
  36. Cruise O'Brien, Conor, "Unsafe at Any Speed", The Irish Times, 24 August 1982.
  37. Foster, R. F. (February 2009). "The Cruiser". Standpoint.


Political offices
Preceded by
Gerry Collins
Minister for Posts and Telegraphs
Succeeded by
Pádraig Faulkner
Northern Ireland Forum
New forum Regional Member
Forum dissolved
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