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Conor Cruise O’Brien, a true Irish maverick, dies aged 91

Conor Cruise O'Brien made an impact on the worlds of public service, politics, academia and journalism
Conor Cruise O'Brien made an impact on the worlds of public service, politics, academia and journalism

The former journalist and one of Ireland’s most famous politicians Conor Cruise O'Brien died last night aged 91.

After a lengthy career as a diplomat, historian, academic, and editor among other things, Mr O'Brien had been at the forefront of Irish life for many years.

He had been ill for about a year and died yesterday evening in Howth, Co Dublin, after contracting a short term infection, said a family spokesperson last night.

A son-in-law of former Taoiseach Sean McEntee, he was minister for posts and telegraphs during the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government of the 1970s.

He was known as an outspoken opponent of republicanism and was for a period a member of Robert McCartney's United Kingdom Unionist Party.

Known for the wide variety of careers which he held through his life, most recently as an Irish Independent columnist, Mr O'Brien led a lengthy and controversial life.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen last night led the warm tributes to Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and the Republic’s Health Minister Minister Mary Harney also joined in expressing their condolences.

Expressing his sorrow, Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore proudly said that: “up to the time of his death Conor was still a member of the Labour Party”.

Mr Cowen expressed his condolences to the family of Dr Cruise O'Brien. “Conor was a leading figure in Irish life in many spheres since the 1960s. It is a reflection on his wide array of talents that he was able to make a sizeable impact in the public service, in politics, in academia and journalism,” he said.

Mr Gilmore said he heard with great sadness of the death of Dr Cruise O'Brien. “With the death of Conor Cruise O'Brien, Ireland has lost an intellectual giant and one of the most remarkable Irish public figures of the 20th century who marked up a huge range of achievements during his long and varied life.”

Ms Harney said. “He was an outstanding and fearless voice in the political life of our country.”

Irish Independent editor Gerard O'Regan also paid tribute to Dr Cruise O'Brien who was a distinguished columnist.

“Conor Cruise O'Brien was an iconic intellectual force in Irish life for many decades. He challenged and confronted some of the most deeply held orthodoxies in our national consciousness. Often controversial, but never boring, the Irish Independent was honoured to have him as a columnist for a number of years.”

One of the incidents which marked his career in politics was when he was Labour minister for posts and telegraphs during the Liam Cosgrave-led coalition government of the mid-1970s, and introduced the ban on Sinn Fein and IRA members being interviewed on radio and TV.

Mr O'Brien also ranked as one of the few Irishman to hold a Fleet street newspaper editorship when he had control of the Observer between 1979 and 1981. Born in Dublin in 1917, he was the son of the journalist Francis Cruise O'Brien and was subsequently educated in Trinity College where he was known as a brilliant student.

He entered the department of external affairs and served in both Paris and as a member of the Irish delegation to the United Nations (UN). He was sent to head a peace-keeping mission in the Congolese province of Katanga which had descended into violence after the African country became independent.

Following his experience in Africa, he became vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana but subsequently left as chair of New York University.

After losing his seat in 1977, he was appointed editor-of-chief of the Observer in 1979 where he spent a number of years as head of the paper before returning to Ireland.

His life then focused on writing, both the numerous books which he authored and his frequent contribution to newspapers.

He also flirted with unionism and supported the UK Unionist party and was elected to the Northern Ireland Forum. He was twice married, first to Christine Foster, with whom he had three children Donal, Fedelma and Kate. One of his great sorrows in life was known to be the death of Kate during the 1990s at the age of 49 from a brain haemorrhage.

After his marriage to Christine ended, he married Maire Mhac an tSaoi, the distinguished Irish poet. The pair adopted two children while in Ghana, Margaret and Patrick.

He had been suffering from a illness before contracting an infection recently. His wife and daughter Margaret were with him when he died at home in Howth.

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