Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917-2008):
Conor Cruise O’Brien was described as Ireland’s leading public intellectual. There is no equivalent in the UK. Among many things, he was a historian (Burke, Jefferson, Parnell). He was sometimes called the Cruiser, but one of his godfathers, named Conor O Brien (1880-1952, no Cruise and, according to his preference, no apostrophe), was a real yachtsman and, in 1914, a gunrunner. I can claim a family connection with the older Conor: he married my grandmother’s sister.
Here is what Conor Cruise O’Brien’s biographer Donald Harman Akenson has to say about Conor O Brien (he keeps the apostrophe):
“It was intended that Conor [Cruise O’Brien] should be christened Donal Conor Cruise O’Brien. Donal is a traditional O’Brien name. The ‘Conor’ was in honor [Canadian edition] of one of his two godfathers, Conor O’Brien, who was himself a grandson of William Smith O’Brien, one of the leaders of the 1848 uprising. As mentioned earlier, Conor O’Brien was a good friend of Francis [Conor Cruise O’Brien’s father] and they had worked out that they were some kind of blood relations (the exact details of which have been lost). Conor O’Brien was one of the Foynes O’Briens, who were also the Inchiquin O’Briens and the Monteagle O’Briens, very wealthy Protestant families. Conor O’Brien, like so many of Francis’s friends, was a man of character and also a Dublin character. He was a wonderful sailor and later wrote a brilliant book about his long-distance cruise from Dublin to Melbourne and back. [Endnote: Conor O’Brien, Across Three Oceans: A Colonial Voyage in the Yacht Saoirse (London, Edward Arnold, 1926).] In Dublin folklore, he was known for his patriotism (he had landed arms at Kilcoole in 1914) [I think Conor actually landed at Howth rather than Kilcoole] and for his vile and violent temper. He looked rather like a large member of the monkey family, which makes his most famous outburst appropriate: incensed by a visiting English journalist who referred to the simian appearance of the Irish people, he ambushed the man and horsewhipped him on the steps of one of Dublin’s most exclusive addresses, the Kildare Street Club.”
What Akenson describes as a “long-distance cruise from Dublin to Melbourne and back” was, in fact, a voyage round the globe. In 1923-5 Conor became the first man to circumnavigate the world south of Cape Horn skippering his own yacht. The Saoirse (pronounced Sirshay) flew the new flag of the Irish Free State, though Conor, like Casement and Childers, not to mention Parnell, had belonged to the Protestant Ascendancy. He returned an Irish hero.
A couple of people are trying to write the life of Conor O Brien. I have done some research, but have now missed the chance to consult Conor Cruise O’Brien. I suppose the biographers spoke to him. A Shannon estuary sailor whom I was hoping to interview a couple of years ago, who remembered the older Conor, has probably now died.
Conor’s next yacht was the Ilen, which he built and delivered to the Falkland Islands in 1926-7, where it became the service vessel for the Falkland Islands Company. The Ilen was brought home to Ireland on a Russian cargo ship in 1997.
In 1928, he married my grandmother’s sister, Kitty Clausen, the English daughter of the painter Sir George Clausen. She softened him. They spent some years in the Mediterranean on the Saoirse, based in Ibiza, Iviza as they called it. He was a talented writer (sometimes overly technical) and wrote a book about this period, Voyage and Discovery (William Blackwood, 1933), one of his many books. Kitty did the illustrations. In 1936 she was taken ill and they had to sail home. She died (perhaps of leukaemia) soon after they landed in Cornwall. The Saoirse eventually passed into other hands and was destroyed in a hurricane in Jamaica in 1979.
Kitty was over forty when she married Conor. She had been engaged before, to Second Lieutenant Charles Geraint Christopher Payne of the Highland Light Infantry, previously of the Artists’ Rifles, killed in action at Neuve Chapelle on March 12 1915. Geraint was the maternal uncle of the writer Jan Morris, who recently sent me a fine photograph of a drawing Kitty had made of him in 1914.
Two drawings by Kitty for Voyage and Discovery; the captions are You can see the Sierra Nevada (showing Conor) and Nightmares of houses (Algiers); click to enlarge