The fire that consumed three Catholic boys in Northern Ireland on July 12 was the same fire that took the lives of four black girls in an Alabama church more than 30 years ago. Hatred was its oxygen, bigotry its accelerant.
We Americans understand certain things about our society, so the Southern fire remains fixed in our memory of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. But we will soon forget the victims of July 12, the fire 3,000 miles away, for it is part of something we do not understand. We understand race; we recognize racism; we know that race is part of the national DNA. We know about racists, and we condemn them. We try not wring our hands about root causes, or seek in some way to disperse blame when racism kills.
But we can look with some disdain–along with, yes, simple human sympathy–on the fires of Northern Ireland. Whatever our flaws, we can say, at least we needn’t worry about Catholics and Protestants. We shake our head and ask, as syndicated columnist Richard Reeves confessed to asking, why those people continue to live in the past, why they insist on fighting the Reformation’s battles on the streets of an otherwise peaceful and indeed lovely portion of civilized Western Europe.
It does not occur to us that a fire started by white people to kill black people in the American South could indeed be the same fire white people used to kill other white people in the north of Ireland.
This is worth noting because two days after the three Irish boys were buried in their tiny white coffins, the scribblings of the American media’s favorite Irish intellectual, Conor Cruise O’Brien, appeared on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times . The page and Mr. O’Brien are no strangers; in fact, Mr. O’Brien is regularly called upon by such organs as The New York Review of Books, The New Republic and–most especially– The Atlantic Monthly to offer counsel as an enlightened, liberal thinker with an impeccably Irish name.
In his customarily readable style, Mr. O’Brien took two sentences to state his one-sentence premise: That the Irish Republican Army was to blame for the fire in Northern Ireland. This no doubt came as something of a revelation to Times readers, as it is generally believed that the I.R.A.’s avowed enemies, the staunch Protestant-Loyalist community, produced the arsonists. Ah, but Mr. O’Brien–so enlightened, so above the battle–reminds us that the murders would not have taken place but for the Catholic activists (who, in Mr. O’Brien’s world, are all I.R.A. members or sympathizers) who tried to block a hate-filled Protestant parade through their neighborhood. The headline, obviously not Mr. O’Brien’s work (it is brief and to the point), summed up the great liberal’s argument: “Blocking the Road/ And Paying the Price.” So you see who really was at fault.
Of course, this is something akin to arguing that those four black girls would be alive today if only Rosa Parks had been content to follow the rules; if African-Americans simply had accepted Jim Crow and gone on with their lives. No doubt some newspapers and some commentators made that argument in the 1950’s and early 60’s. It is unlikely, though, that such a contention would have been made in The New York Times , and it is unlikely that a person making such an argument would be accepted in the august company of American liberalism.
And yet here in America, Mr. O’Brien is regarded as a voice for human progress, a champion of liberal thought. The Atlantic Monthly no doubt will welcome his next rambling manuscript and will remind readers of his overwhelming worthiness.
The great man’s American friends have chosen to overlook Mr. O’Brien’s late-in-life conversion to the gospel according to the Rev. Ian Paisley, the mouthpiece of Loyalist bigotry in Northern Ireland. Mr. Paisley’s politics are such that he has been a welcome guest at such fine American institutions as the reactionary Bob Jones University. But Mr. O’Brien embraced him in print earlier this year. And Mr. O’Brien’s admirers have ignored his descent into outright incoherence: He recently stated in print that the 14 civilians gunned down by the British Army during a civil rights demonstration in Derry 25 years ago were covert I.R.A. operatives. The families have sued for libel.
There once was a time when Conor Cruise O’Brien was an admirable character. New Yorkers of a certain age may remember that New York University professor David H. Greene recruited Mr. O’Brien for a teaching position at the school 30 years ago. He demonstrated against the Vietnam War and spent long nights rollicking with actor Malachy McCourt (some of the more colorful episodes are recalled in Mr. McCourt’s memoir, A Monk Swimming ).
In his dotage, however, Mr. O’Brien is a bitter ally of reactionary bigots. It has long been said that among a certain sort of American liberal, it is still 1968, and forever will it remain thus. What better evidence of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s continued standing among this country’s so-called progressives?