Conor: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien, Vol. 1


573 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-1255-1
DDC 828.914




Reviewed by John Kendle

John Kendle is a professor of history at St. John’s College,
University of Manitoba.


Conor Cruise O’Brien is often referred to as “the greatest living
Irishman.” If that characterization smacks a little of pub talk, it
can nevertheless be agreed that he is a most intriguing fellow. This
highly readable, richly textured portrait outlines the major strands and
themes in O’Brien’s life while providing engrossing close analyses
of particularly riveting periods, such as the three years he spent in
Ghana. As one would expect of a historian of Ireland and the Irish,
Donald Akenson is most sure-footed in those chapters dealing with
O’Brien’s Irish involvement. The early sections—which cover his
formative years, his education, and his emergence as a literary critic,
historian, and increasingly polished civil servant—are very well done,
as is the chapter dealing with O’Brien’s extraordinary sojourn as
vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana in Kwame Nkrumah’s newly
independent Ghana. Akenson seems less at ease in the chapters on
Katanga, the New York intellectual scene, and, surprisingly,
O’Brien’s years at The Observer.

One outstanding feature of this biography is Akenson’s sensitive and
insightful treatment of O’Brien’s personal relationships with his
first and second wives and his five children. Similarly admirable is the
author’s exploration of O’Brien’s intellectual odyssey. Akenson is
openly an admirer of O’Brien. He does not hesitate to be critical, but
one senses that the fully rounded analysis is yet to come. Whoever
undertakes that task will be obliged to deal with the reflections and
conclusions of this first-rate study of one of the 20th century’s more
complex and intriguing personalities.


Akenson, Donald H., “Conor: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien, Vol. 1,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 24, 2024,