Conor Cruise O’Brien -Violent Notions by Diarmuid Whelan Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009, pp 1+204, €34.95, ISBN 9780716528654,
In this book, Diarmuid Whelan sets himself the task of understanding the late Conor Cruise O’Brien who has been described by Frank Callanan as ‘Ireland’s greatest 20th-century public intellectual’. The book is divided into two parts consisting of thirteen chapters. Part one, consisting of six chapters explores the key individuals namely his parents, Sean O’Faolain, Owen Sheehy Skeffington and the French intellectual Albert Camus who shaped O’Brien as a person, intellectual and man of political action.
The legacy of O’Brien’s formative family years was a particular strength of this section as was the treatment of Camus. And, readers will learn that it was from Camus that O’Brien applied to the Irish context the assertion that violence and lies are invariably legitimised by history. In fact much of O’Brien’s discourse from 1970 onwards sought to delegitimise the historical underpinnings of IRA violence. Whelan convincingly demonstrates that it was Camus who provided O’Brien with an essential conceptual tool that he transferred to the Irish context.
Part two consisting of seven chapters explores the major issues which O’Brien sought to understand in his long and varied life. These include nationalism, religion, legitimacy and the underpinnings of Northern Irish Protestants’ ‘siege mentality’. Chapter ten entitled ‘Histories’ is particularly fascinating. Whelan examines whether O’Brien’s writings can be categorized as history or polemic; as ‘history-as-art’ or as ‘history-as-science’.
The author’s overall conclusion on O’Brien is uncompromising, ‘It isn’t until the 1970s that O’Brien stops asking certain questions and starts giving quixotic answers to others. O’Brien’s approach, quite apart from his use of evidence is a classic example of politically engaged prejudgement...Sadly he ceased conveying the confusion of history as it happened and the nuance disappeared’ (125-126).
Whelan’s task is daunting in several respects. Firstly, a figure as divisive and polarising as the post 1970s O’Brien means that even evidenced based conclusions will prove controversial. Secondly, it seems that O’Brien’s intellectual journey was as much an effort to comprehend his conflicted self as it was to understand history per se. More than once, Whelan must have asked himself who was the authentic O’Brien. Thirdly, the sheer breath of O’Brien’s intellectual engagement is truly extraordinary. Once described by the late Brian Lenhan as an ‘intellectual terrorist,’ O’Brien could equally be described as an intellectual genius.
Tackling his task with thoroughness and relish, Whelan provides readers with fascinating insights into what made O’Brien tick. Across the book’s thirteen chapters, the author does not shy away from making conclusions about his subject. But, to Whelan’s credit, he marshals the evidence, interrogates it logically and assiduously avoids a polemical approach. Many will disagree with his conclusions. For some the conclusions will prove too harsh; for others not harsh enough. But this is due to the nature of the subject rather than any deficiencies in the author’s historical methodology and general approach.
Whilst the book is written in an accessible style, it would be inaccurate to describe it as an easy read. Again this is due to O’Brien’s broad intellectual reach rather than any flaws in Whelan’s approach. The ideal reader for this book is one who understands Ireland’s political and cultural history, has a penchant for ideas and philosophy, enjoys reading literature and is curious about the forces and events that shape individuals. For mere mortals such as this reviewer, however, the best advice that can be given is to read the book more than once! Clearly, though, this book deserves a wide audience.