By Adam Bernstein
December 20, 2008
Reporting from Washington
No immediate cause of death was reported, but he had a mild stroke 10 years ago.
O'Brien came from a family with a notable literary and political pedigree. Characters in the works of Irish writer James Joyce were based on several of his family members, including his mother. O'Brien was a dramatist, newspaper editor and prolific contributor to the Atlantic, the New York Review of Books and other publications.
Stocky, urbane and outspoken, "The Cruiser" as he was known to friends, wrote influential books and essays on many subjects; his works include "The Great Melody," a 1981 biography of British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, and "The Siege," a 1986 history of Israel and Zionism.
The late Israeli statesman and diplomat Abba Eban praised the meticulous research of "The Siege," noting it "bears the mark of a restless, original, idiosyncratic mind."
O'Brien spent much of his early career in the Irish foreign office, and his experiences in Congo in 1961 transformed him into a widely known public figure. He had gone to Africa to prevent the secessionist effort in Congo's mineral-rich Katanga province. He drew attention for his accusations that several European countries, including Britain, were tacitly in favor of the secessionist effort. He also accused the Congo's interior minister of a "murderous conspiracy" against U.N. troops in the region.
O'Brien further expounded on his episode in Congo in his 1963 book "To Katanga and Back," which cast a scathing eye at the U.N., and in his play "Murderous Angels," which reached Broadway in 1971.
His work in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo won him the admiration of many on the political left and of leaders in newly independent African countries. Among them was Kwame Nkrumah, president of Ghana, who talked O'Brien into becoming vice chancellor of the University of Ghana. But the former Irish diplomat famously left Ghana in disgust after three years. He had clashed over academic freedoms with the economically and politically embattled Nkrumah, who was also the university's chancellor.
Conor Cruise O'Brien was born in Dublin on Nov. 3, 1917. His father was a journalist, literary critic and a friend of poet William Butler Yeats. He was also among his family's "many vigorously agnostic members" and insisted on his son's education in Protestant schools to avoid the religious influence of the majority Catholic population.
He graduated from Trinity College in Dublin, where he earned high honors in modern languages in 1941 and later received a doctorate in philosophy.
In 1939, he married Christine Foster, a liberal Belfast Protestant, but the marriage ended in divorce. Survivors include his second wife, poet Maire MacEntee, the daughter of an Irish deputy prime minister; two children from his first marriage; two children from his second marriage; and five grandchildren.
O'Brien's national prominence grew in the early 1950s, first through a pseudonymously written critique of modern Catholic writers including Graham Greene and then for one under his own name analyzing the political scene amid the rise of Irish independence leader Charles Stewart Parnell.
The books' admirers included Irish Foreign Minister Frank Aiken and U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, both of whom figured largely in O'Brien's career and propelled him to diplomatic roles after Ireland's admission to the United Nations in 1955.
O'Brien showed a flair for breaking tensions with a puckish sense of humor. He once wrote a resolution criticizing the lack of draft beer available at the U.N. and demanding "the free flow of wholesome beer at a temperature appropriate to the present thaw in international relations."
In 1965, after his unhappy period in Congo and Ghana, he was named Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University. O'Brien returned to Ireland in 1969 and was elected as a representative to the Dublin-based parliament as a member of the left-wing Labor Party.
Of O'Brien's 1972 book "States of Ireland," critics noted his eloquent detachment in examining the hostile divide between Catholics of the south and Protestants of the north. The author saw "two mutually unintelligible communities each locked in its exclusively historical myth, and yet acutely conscious of one another as threat and grievance."
He condemned killing and maiming conducted by both sides and, while serving in the mid-1970s as minister overseeing Irish broadcasting outlets, he banned Irish Republican Army statements from Irish radio and television.
Later, as a vocal intellectual, he saw no place for Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. He was strident about political self-determination and saw no real hope or need of a united Ireland, noting that the 1 million or more Protestants in the north had no interest in joining the Irish Republic.
Bernstein is a writer for the Washington Post.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times