Conor Cruise O'Brien's death, at 91, comes as a jolt. By the end, the Cruiser was something of a reactionary (his hostility to nationalism had led him to embrace Bob Macartney's UK Unionist Party) but that shouldn't detract from his achievements as a historian (especially his books on Parnell and Burke), journalist and public intellectual.
Most of all, however, his death reminds one of how completely Ireland has changed in the past 20 years. The Cruiser's battles with Charlie Haughey (he was right about Haughey years before the full extent of the former Taoiseach's crookedness became widely apparent) and his fulminations on the national question have a certain antiquated feel now that the issue has, for the time being at least, been settled. Nonetheless, O'Brien played a leading role in dragging Irish opinion away from a cosy, soft-hearted, sentimental nationalism that tacitly endorsed the Republican movement's aims, if not necessarily its methods. In that sense, he did the Irish State great service.
In my time at TCD he still used to turn up, from time to time, to the College Historical Society but even then one had the sense that the Society's Patron (as he was) no longer quite understood how Ireland was changing. Prosperity was a tough surprise to handle and if O'Brien retained the ability to cut through some of the cant and humbug that accompanied this sudden, startling improvement in Hibernian fortune, he was, even then, a relic of earlier, grimmer times. Times when everything seemed likely to fall apart.
Even now, his war with Haughey's GUBU-era government (an acronymn coined by the Cruiser from the Taoiseach's description of how discovering a double-murderer hiding out in the Attorney-General's home was "Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented") is sparklingly good stuff. More than anyone else, O'Brien captured the extraordinary recklessness of the Haughey government, writing with savage wit, irony and anger.
Still, I guess that it's his work on Parnell and Burke that will last the longest. He was a very Irish intellectual: riddled by contradiction; often wilfully extreme (and inconsistent) in his views but, until his later years at least, always interesting and often surprising.
UPDATE 2: Thanks to Jim for reminding me that O'Brien was also a Contributing Editor to the Atlantic. Here's one of his autobiographical essays, published by the magazine in 1994.