Conor Cruise O'Brien was almost certainly the greatest Irishman of his generation, and even of the 20th century.
He, however, would probably have handed that accolade to Eamon de Valera, if only because O'Brien had an acute sense of the male hierarchy, and to the importance of deferring to the great Alpha Male, which is what Dev was.
As a slightly lesser alpha male himself, O'Brien never forgave me our first meeting. It was on the Apprentice Boys' Field in Derry, in 1970, where, unbeknownst, we had gone to observe the preposterous shenanigans there. I was walking alongside a group of Billy-boys, the ruffians who can be relied on to provide the violent Greek chorus for all these Protestant trips into yesteryear, and overheard one of them announce that there was an IRA man in their midst, pointing to the Cruiser. Rumble rumble, rumble, gibbered the Billy Boys.
Detaching myself, and furtively sidling over to the Cruiser, I introduced myself and told him he was in danger: something horribly 17th century was in the air. He promptly pooh-poohed me in that infuriating way of his. So, I then lost myself in the crowd, and minutes later I saw the Cruiser and a friend running from the mob. Both men fell, and were then kicked on the ground.
Being young and foolish, I intervened, shouting — in my public school accent — that I was a British army undercover officer, that the Cruiser was not an IRA man, meanwhile trying to haul the assailants off. Apprentice Boy stewards then intervened, though rather more effectively, and the Cruiser and friend went off to hospital. (Readers of my memoir Watching the Door will note that I make no mention of this episode; that's simply because I had forgotten it. However, most of the details — including my presence there, though not my brief commission into her Britannic majesty's armed forces — were recorded in the press reports of the time).
A week later in Dublin, seeing the Cruiser on Baggot Street, I introduced myself again, rather expecting some modest expressions of gratitude. “Are you the man who told the Press I was running away?” he demanded, in a kind of fluting snarl. I told him I was. “Well, sir, you are a liar. I have never run away from anything in my life. Now stand aside. You are in my way.”
Yes, I had actually intervened with a crowd of savages to save him, at some little risk to myself — yet now he was calling me a liar? Various options here presented themselves. I could have unsheathed my claymore and beheaded him on the spot. Or I could have pointed out tersely that only an utter fool declines to run away from any murderous mob. But being lost for both words and ironmongery, I meekly stood aside, dumbfounded, and he passed on his way to greatness, and I, ultimately, to this space.
And I mean greatness. He was truly a great man, morally brave in a rare way in any society, and even more so in this one, in which the nobly dissentient idea can earn the contumely of a political establishment, which then serves as an unofficial warrant to the assassin. Many people wanted Conor Cruise dead. They loathed him for the clarity of his thought which cut through pious, bloodthirsty, republican waffle. For you cannot be a “socialist” terrorist, or any other kind of terrorist. Terrorists are terrorists, as pickpockets are pickpockets and rapists are rapists. Equally, he argued the validity of the unionist position: it was not some temporary aberration caused by the British presence in Ireland, but an authentic sense of self, fulfilling in its own right.
This is a position which is now universally held across all parties in the Republic and the North, even the Shinners. It was not when he first enunciated it in States of Ireland in 1972. It took 25 years for the ideas therein to become the consensual heart of how we view the complexities of Irishness. The Army's participation in the military funeral in Mayo of an Irish Royal Marine, as happened a month ago, reveals the extent of the change which has occurred.
Conor Cruise O'Brien was the prime begetter of that change. Which doesn't, of course, mean that he wasn't a God-awful gobsh*te at times — supercilious, arrogant, dismissive and purblind withal. He never really tried to make the journey into that unusual organ, the Northern nationalist soul; and he did not, as he should have done, declare that he was wrong about some aspects of the peace process (as was I).
For whatever the corrupt nature of the Northern settlement, it has brought about the effective disarming of the IRA. and more to the point, it has intellectually decommissioned the ideology of armed republicanism within that community which was both its host and its guardian.
But the author of the moral power behind that intellectual decommissioning was never in the peace process. He was, throughout, in opposition, there on the Hill of Howth, where two weeks ago, he finally surrendered his tenancy on this earth, 38 years after I had been so strongly tempted to forcibly terminate it myself with my broadsword. Glad I didn't.