The 3rd November 2017 marks the centenary of the birth of Conor Cruise O’Brien, who, in 1939, was briefly a member of the Academy staff, in, what was then (as our archival photograph shows) a much smaller school. He later became a journalist, literary critic, government minister, diplomat, and an internationally acclaimed author. His biography of the political thinker Edmund Burke, published in 1992, was described by the noted English writer Paul Johnson as, “a book by the greatest living Irishman on the greatest Irishman who ever lived.”
O’Brien was also a natural controversialist. One commentator thought him, ” probably the most pugnacious Irish intellectual since George Bernard Shaw,” and it was this aspect of his character which brought him to the attention of the wider public.
Conor Cruise O’Brien had a particular interest in, and considerable impact on, Northern Ireland affairs, and he became an unwavering critic of those who supported paramilitary violence during the civil unrest which began in 1969. His views were to a great extent shaped by his early experience of political conditions in the
city while teaching in our school. In his autobiography he wrote, “I spent a lot of time in Belfast [just before the second world war]. Alec Foster was the headmaster of one of Belfast’s principal schools – Belfast Royal Academy – and I taught there for some months.”
In September 1939 he married the headmaster’s daughter, Christine.
Although the marriage did not last, O’Brien remained attached to Alec Foster. When he died in 1972, his former son-in-law wrote an appreciation of him for the Irish Times which concluded that Foster was a man, “whose Christian faith was always central to his life…a religion of love and praise rather than an attachment to any polemical theology.”
Christine Foster died in 2004, and Conor Cruise O’Brien in 2008.