Trinity College’s recent Conor Cruise O’Brien centenary symposium was a largely uncritical exercise. It was especially notable that it was so as it focused on Irish politics. Invited US academics, who discussed O’Brien’s assessment of the American Revolution, appeared unaware of O’Brien’s distinctly illiberal local contribution.
Reverential tones underpinned contemplation of O’Brien’s analysis of Irish nationalism. Remarks at Gerry Adams’ expense massaged the prejudices of the mainly elderly audience.
Critical observations came mainly from the floor. Audio from an evening session, put up online by TCD, omitted audience interventions. In a way, that was appropriate. O’Brien’s main contribution to the ‘Troubles’ was perfection of radio and television censorship. He achieved that with amending legislation and intimidation of broadcasters, while Minister for Posts & Telegraphs, 1973-77.
Many of the academics and journalists chosen to speak referred to “Conor”, whether or not they knew him. A Labour Party activist questioned this from the floor during the last session. He remarked that O’Brien’s 1977 defeat was generally welcomed, including by some on Labour’s left, and asked why no speakers reflected that majority view.
One participant, who knew O’Brien quite well, momentarily punctured the semi-sacral nature of the proceedings. In opening the evening session, TCD Chancellor and former Irish President Mary Robinson, recalled how her participation in a public meeting in 1974, in opposition to internment in Northern Ireland. It “enraged” O’Brien. She was, he said, “dancing to the tune of the IRA”.
The audience might have been forgiven for expecting the speaker following, barrister and historian Frank Callanan, to tell us more. It was not to be. After her remarks Robinson left the Edmund Burke Hall. The theme of hommage to O’Brien re-congealed around the platform, which included Margaret O’Callaghan from Queen’s University Belfast and former Labour leader Ruairí Quinn. President Michael D Higgins also attended. I pointed out (in remarks that were omitted) that O’Brien insinuated also that Robinson silently acquiesced in the killing of judges. The then-minister, a secret supporter of police brutality, told journalists they were IRA stooges and hacks.
The brutality of O’Brien’s language eased his transition from verbal opposition towards explicit support for censorship. Before chastising Robinson, he entered RTÉ and sensed an IRA “spiritual occupation”. Eoghan Harris, RTÉ’s then best-known republican ideologue, was disciplined for broadcasting a programme on internment. Harris told the symposium he was actually a secret supporter of the author of his misfortune. He was not, as is assumed, converted later while producing agricultural and children’s programmes.
O’Brien shifted his focus in 1976, the year he amended broadcasting censorship. He threatened to imprison Irish Press editor Tim Pat Coogan for publishing letters O’Brien disliked. Coogan was told this by O’Brien’s interviewer, an alarmed Bernard Nossiter of the Washington Post. Coogan published the threat and republished the letters.
In 1979, as Observer editor in chief, O’Brien terminated the contract of Ireland correspondent and leading feminist Mary Holland. She was, he said, “a very poor judge of Irish Catholics”, who “include…the most expert conmen and conwomen in the world”. O’Brien observed of Holland’s ten-years-of-the-Troubles profile of Derry woman Mary Nellis: “Irish republicanism – especially the killing strain of it – has a very high propensity to run in families… the mother is most often the carrier”.
Such sectarian and misogynistic perspectives did not interest Friday morning lecturers, Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris and Irish Times journalist Stephen Collins, on their hero as “journalist and editor”. It was left to Susan McKay in the last session to criticise O’Brien’s sacking of Holland.
Margaret O’Callaghan delivered an appreciative paper on the 1973-77 Fine Gael Labour government’s subdued remembrance of 1916. She did not discuss its 1976 prohibition of Sinn Féin’s annual 1916 commemoration, which thousands defied. The 1976 platform included Labour TD David Thornley; and the daughter of executed 1916 leader, and Labour Party founder, James Connolly. The ban was accompanied, typically, by threats to sack participants in public-sector jobs. RTÉ’s director general Oliver Maloney directed the Irish-language programme Féach not to cover the banned commemoration. That was testament to an emerging culture of selfcensorship fostered by O’Brien. This did not interest O’Callaghan.
Speakers suggested that O’Brien’s 1976 amending legislation liberalised censorship, a foolish thought originated by O’Brien. Before O’Brien’s new measure came into force in January 1977, he declared RTÉ’s pre-existing censorship order too liberal. It permitted interviews with Sinn Féin representatives. O’Brien banned them with terminology from his soon-to-be-enacted measure.
The TCD symposium censored the real Conor Cruise O’Brien, once described as “a champion of the overdog”.
The real O’Brien can be heard on ‘Bowman Sunday’ talking over Kadar Asmal, former head of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (RTÉ Radio 1, 5 November), while opposing an academic boycott of Apartheid South Africa.
Niall Meehan is the author of The Embers of Revisionism, which considers Conor Cruise O’Brien. On sale at Books Upstairs, Dublin