Dr O’Brien will see you now: Conor Cruise O’Brien as doctor to the Irish body politic

By Hugh Hanley

During his lifetime, Conor Cruise O’Brien was one of the most significant and most controversial public intellectuals in Ireland. A diplomat, a historian, a literary critic, a university administrator, a tenured professor, a journalist, a politician, a playwright, O’Brien was also among the most vociferous critics of the Provisional IRA during the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’. O’Brien imagined republicanism, sectarianism, and political violence as diseases and presented himself as a doctor to the Irish body politic ready to treat the infection.

O’Brien found the image of himself as a medical practitioner rather beguiling. Beginning with his most (in)famous book, To Katanga and back (1962), O’Brien subtitled that work ‘A UN case history’. The medical implication of the term ‘case history’ was intentional. In his introduction to Katanga, O’Brien noted that although the doctor, not the case, writes the case history, his book was ‘indeed a case history’. O’Brien claimed he was holding himself to the standard of ‘the doctor, who believes that the history of his case as a whole points to certain conclusions’. In this scenario, O’Brien stated, the doctor ‘is obliged not to suppress mention of any symptoms which might seem to others to point to different conclusions, and not to heighten his description of those symptoms which tend to corroborate his diagnosis’.[1] Notably, earlier in the text, O’Brien disavowed historians’ and memoirists’ ability to write such impartial accounts. Here, by adopting the pose of a medical practitioner, he tried to recapture a level of authority which he denied to others.

The image of himself as a physician frequently reappeared in O’Brien’s writing. Speaking in New York in April 1969 on the role of intellectuals, O’Brien put a distinctly medical spin on the subject. He likened intellectuals’ efforts to address themselves to ‘public opinion’ by writing for literary magazines and ‘”quality” periodicals’ to ‘rubbing an embrocation into society’s skin which will eventually warm the whole body’.[2] In this image, the intellectual takes the place of the doctor, treating society’s ills by administering a soothing balm to the diseased part of the body to ‘remove or mitigate [the] disease’.[3] The day before O’Brien gave this lecture, The New York Times, following bomb attacks on several public utilities, alerted its readers to the recurrence of the ‘Irish disease’, namely violence and bigotry.[4] In the recording of O’Brien’s speech, his tone of voice makes it clear that he was not wholly in sympathy with the Times’s characterisation.[5] Nevertheless, when O’Brien returned to Ireland to contest the June 1969 election, he once more adopted the pose of the medical practitioner. This time, however, he eschewed the ‘embrocation method’, seeing it as his duty to ‘administer an electric shock to the Irish psyche’.[6]

O’Brien entered the Dáil as one of Labour’s ‘new doctors (one medical)’, as The Irish Examiner parenthetically scoffed.[7] O’Brien was the party’s spokesman on Northern Ireland and this position, combined with his global reputation, gave him a commanding platform from which to issue his prescriptions about the political situation in the North. In several speeches, O’Brien diagnosed Fianna Fáil with various maladies. In May 1970, at the height of the ‘Arms Crisis’, he stated that the party was ‘sick with a dangerous and infectious sickness’, namely ‘the germs of a possible civil war’.[8] Days later, at the Mansion House in Dublin, O’Brien prescribed ‘isolat[ing] Fianna Fáil, to quarantine it as long as it is sick with Blaneyism’ to save Irish democracy.[9] Back in the Dáil, O’Brien castigated the government for its policy of ‘frightening Protestants and fooling Catholics and speeding on sectarianism – fooling Catholics with the dreams of military rescue, with the old green rhetoric, with all that which in these circumstances can only be poison.’ His recommendation was for people in the Republic to ‘disinfect our rhetoric’.[10] In this regard, he viewed folk music as particularly harmful. As Terence Brown puts it, O’Brien ‘set himself against all those aspects of Irish popular culture which carried an infection’.[11]

According to O’Brien, Ireland was ‘seriously ill’, and he argued that as a government Fianna Fáil had failed to face up to that reality. In February 1972, days after ‘Bloody Sunday’, he likened the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, to ‘a doctor who might tell a patient, whom he knew to be seriously ill, that he was really all right, that he would soon be up and about, it was not responsible. This country is seriously ill. However we may diagnose the causes of that illness its acute character is absolutely unmistakable.’[12] Contrastingly, O’Brien saw himself as the doctor who would not shy away from delivering foreboding diagnoses and setting out uncomfortable prognoses.

In autumn 1972, O’Brien published his explosive, ‘revisionist’ book, States of Ireland. At the end of this text, and in oncological language, he detailed two possible futures, which he termed ‘The “benign” model’ and ‘The “malignant” model’.[13] In the New York Review of Books, O’Brien argued that in Ireland this sort of ‘historical revisionism’ had ‘become essential for our mental and political health – and indeed physical health too’.[14] Several reviewers latched on to his medical imagery. The British intellectual John Vaizey stated that O’Brien’s book was ‘therapeutically essential’, especially for his English readers, portraying it as a preventative medicine to block ‘the bacillus of nationalism’ spreading across the Irish Sea.[15] O’Brien’s American publisher co-opted Vaizey’s description, carrying his quotes on the front and back cover of the US edition. Owen Dudley Edwards, a friend and collaborator of O’Brien’s, commented that reading States of Ireland was akin to ‘prob[ing] one’s own private wound’.[16] The Belfast Telegraph journalist Barry White was disappointed with the book because while O’Brien diagnosed the problem and set out a likely course of events, he did not provide an adequate template for action. In White’s view, ‘if the powers that be do no more than he suggests they should, the cancer will grow’.[17]

Several months after the publication of States of Ireland, O’Brien took up the role of Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the Republic’s new coalition government. In this position, he had responsibility for the media and broadcasting. Controversially, O’Brien adopted ‘repressive’ measures intended to prevent ‘the use of the State broadcasting system for propaganda on behalf of organisations attempting to usurp the powers of our democratic State’.[18] Understandably, his policies did not endear him to journalists and broadcasters. The National Union of Journalists refused his request to speak to its 1974 conference in Wexford due to his stance. Speaking on the night of the conference, O’Brien argued from Machiavellian premises that banning from the airwaves those associated with the IRA was vital to maintaining the Irish state. O’Brien contended that this would save the ‘lives of citizens’. In this regard, O’Brien approached his brief like a doctor tasked with maintaining public health. He declared,

In Ireland … it [the IRA] has a potentially seductive power over some people, a kind of glamour which tends to affect certain categories of young people, as well as the more addled of the elderly… Irish broadcasting … has to take account of the fact that some of its audience have a fairly low resistance to this form of infection.[19]

While O’Brien’s admirers praised him for applying ‘the scalpel of criticism’ to Irish society, O’Brien’s detractors sneered at the clinical aspect of his self-image and his tendency to use what Susan Sontag called ‘disease imagery’ in his essays and speeches.[20] In a letter to the Sunday Independent, one such critic remarked that being familiar with O’Brien’s views on history and politics, he had ‘long been convinced that the good man must have gained his Doctorate in the discipline of medicine’.[21] In 1973, the vice-chairman of the London Branch of the Irish Republican Party, accused O’Brien of ‘peddl[ing] quack remedies’.[22] In 1974, following a leak of a ‘Doomsday’ document O’Brien had circulated to his party colleagues, Fianna Fáil leader Jack Lynch urged O’Brien to cease making ‘prognoses’ on the Northern Irish conflict.[23] The Evening Herald described the contents of the document as ‘a statement of the good Doctor’s diagnosis of Northern ills’.[24] In 1981, the Belfast Bulletin acerbically noted that

When he [O’Brien] had applied the fine surgical blade of his intellect to the body of Irish politics, he had found that the cancer of nationalism had contaminated all the cells. Nationalism had become synonymous for him with irrationalism, and he concluded that the whole of Irish society was so contaminated that there could be little hope of recovery.[25]

While our focus has been on Conor Cruise O’Brien, during the ‘Troubles’ public intellectuals across the political spectrum, including figures like John Hume and Seamus Deane, used disease imagery to discuss the conflict in Northern Ireland.[26] This kind of language was by no means neutral. It implied guilt. For O’Brien, describing Irish nationalism as a disease was a way of vilifying those whose actions were guided by that ideology. It also diminished nationalism’s rational character, reducing it to a problem requiring a cure rather than a set of political ideas. As Richard Bourke has argued, ‘languages of conflict’ all too often misrepresent that which they seek to explain.[27] O’Brien’s use of clinical imagery was an instance of a vocabulary which failed to capture the character of the political conflict in Northern Ireland.


[1] Conor Cruise O’Brien, To Katanga and back (London, 1962), 10

[2] Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘What exhortation?’, Irish University Review, 1 (1970), 57

[3] “embrocate, v.”. OED Online. September 2020. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/61027? (accessed November 06, 2020)

[4] New York Times, 22 Apr. 1969

[5] Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘What exhortation?’, Apr. 1969, recording, NYUA, Records of the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities, cuid4990A

[6] D. H. Akenson, Conor: a biography of Conor Cruise O’Brien (Ithaca, 1994), 364

[7] Irish Examiner, 3 Jul. 1969

[8] Dáil debates, 8 May 1970

[9] Irish Press, 13 May 1970

[10] Dáil debates, 14 May 1970

[11] Terence Brown, Ireland: a social and cultural history, 1922-1985 (London, 1985), 289

[12] Dáil debates, 4 Feb. 1972

[13] Conor Cruise O’Brien, States of Ireland (London, 1972), 298-301

[14] Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘Dying for bones’, New York Review of Books (25 Jan. 1973)

[15] The Observer, 8 Oct. 1972

[16] New York Times, 11 Feb. 1973

[17] Belfast Telegraph, 11 Oct. 1972

[18] O’Brien, ‘NUJ debate and Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act’, 25 Apr. 1974, University College Dublin Archives, O’Brien papers, P82/299

[19] O’Brien, ‘NUJ debate and Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act’, 25 Apr. 1974, UCDA, O’Brien papers, P82/299

[20] Seanad debates, 12 Mar. 1975; see Susan Sontag, ‘Disease as political metaphor’, New York Review of Books (23 Feb. 1978)

[21] Sunday Independent, 17 Sept. 1972

[22] Irish Press, 22 Nov. 1972

[23] Irish Times, 26 Sept. 1974

[24] Evening Herald, 27 Sept. 1974

[25] Workers Research Unit, ‘Conor Cruise O’Brien and the media: the decline of a liberal’, Belfast Bulletin 9 (Spring 1981), 4

[26] See Seamus Deane & Barre Fitzpatrick, ‘Interview with John Hume’, The Crane Bag, 4 (1980), 39-43

[27] Richard Bourke, ‘Languages of conflict and the Northern Irish Troubles’, Journal of Modern History, 83 (Sept. 2011), 544-78

(Image: The Evening Herald, 27 Sept. 1974. With thanks to the Irish Newspaper Archives and Evening Herald.)

Hugh Hanley is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, studying the question of intellectuals in twentieth century Ireland. Focusing on Sean O’Faolain and Conor Cruise O’Brien, Hugh’s thesis examines debates about the role of public intellectuals in Ireland. He has published in Irish Studies in International Affairs and The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History.

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