In 1997, the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín was asked by the New Yorker to write a piece about the possibility of Seamus Heaney running for President of Ireland in succession to Mary Robinson - a popular but unsubstantiated rumour at the time. Tóibín wrote, inter alia, that Heaney was so popular that he could even survive being endorsed by Conor Cruise O'Brien, which normally meant "the kiss of death" in Ireland. The legendary New Yorker fact-checking desk, unable to let a single statement go uncorroborated, found out Cruise O'Brien's Dublin phone number and rang to inquire if his approval meant the kiss of death in his native country: they then telephoned an astonished Tóibín and reproachfully told him: "Mr O'Brien said: ‘No, it didn't'."
It was the kind of anecdote that gathered around Conor, and which he relished. But his answer was the right one, as was usually the case. At his funeral mass last Christmas, the officiating priest described him as "a prophetic figure", inhabiting the somewhat lonely spaces that prophets often do. "It is I think in the nature of prophets to be prickly, awkward, angular, contrary in every sense, saying things we don't always want to hear and calling for us to change our way of thinking in building a world based on truth and justice." It was well said, though Conor a few years before had vigorously denied feeling "isolated" because "my views are not everyone's cup of tea", he wrote in the introduction to Passion and Cunning (Simon & Schuster, 1988). "I live and move in the best of company." He deserved no less, and he lived to see many of his stances vindicated. There was also, at the end, some honour in his own country.
O'Brien (right) with (from left) Simon Hoggart, Geoffrey Owen, George Gale, Neil Kinnock and Ian Aitken (PA Photos)
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