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77 North Washington Street

CONOR Cruise O'Brien, the author of the memoir "Two Deaths in Rathmines," in this issue, was born into Irish politics. His earliest memory, indeed, served as an apt prelude to his career as a political actor and writer. "The first sound I can remember is a series of booming noises, which woke me up," he wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in 1994. "The cause of the noises was the bombardment of the Four Courts, Dublin, beginning at 4:07 A.M. on Wednesday, June 28, 1922. I was then four and a half years old." These were the opening shots of the Irish civil war, fought over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, which has been a preoccupation of O'Brien's throughout his adult life.

  O'Brien, 1927 and six decades later

Since the current Irish "Troubles" began, more than thirty years ago, O'Brien has stood for the core principle of democracy: government by consent. He defends the right of the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland to choose to remain British citizens. Passionately, and at no little danger to his life, he has stood against the attempt of the Provisional Irish Republican Army to win by violence what it would never be able to win by democratic means -- an end to Northern Ireland's union with Britain. Confident that he is championing democracy against its enemies, O'Brien has fought the IRA as a minister in the government of the Republic of Ireland and as a gifted writer.

Turning against patriotic pieties as well as violence, O'Brien has for years argued that partition remains the best pragmatic and democratic dispensation in Ireland. Although last year's Good Friday agreement was welcomed by the British, Irish, and U.S. governments, O'Brien was critical of it. Apart from his hostility to terrorism, he has always maintained that a compromise acceptable both to Sinn Fein and to the Unionist majority is an illusion. The deadlocks this spring lend plausibility to his pessimism.

O'Brien's Memoir: My Life and Themes (from which "Two Deaths in Rathmines" is drawn), recently published in Britain by Profile Books and awaiting an American publisher, began with pieces that O'Brien wrote for The Atlantic about his family and modern Irish history. It tells of one of the noteworthy lives of the century.

-- THE EDITORS


Photographs courtesy of Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; 77 North Washington Street - 99.06 ; Volume 283, No. 6; page 6.