Whatever ones opinion of Conor Cruise O’Brien – and few are neutral – there can be little doubt that he changed the face of modern Ireland.
He is, perhaps, best known in the US for his virulent hostility to Sinn Fein and Irish Republicanism but that was just a part of the man. He was a scholar, diplomat, educator, politician, author, memoirist and general agent of change. He may also have been just slightly off his rocker.
For it’s hard to reconcile the man who brought so much intellectual heft to the Irish Labor Party when elected to Dail Eireann in 1969 with the pathetic UK Unionist Party member of his later years. But that was the “Cruiser,” iconoclastic, often brilliant, but with a streak of arrogance that often led to his own undoing.
I suppose, to be charitable, he wished to transform Ireland – which he considered a priest-ridden backwater with an unhealthy regard for its nationalist history - into a modern pluralistic society attuned socially and politically to the UK. In some ways he was successful.
In 1973 as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs he introduced Section 31which basically enforced censorship of the media by banning members of Sinn Féin and the Provisional Irish Republican Army from giving their points of view on Irish radio or television. Many feel that this draconian measure effectively delayed the peace process; it also had an unintended cultural consequence. In an effort to negate pro-republican sentiment, all songs of a nationalist nature were banned from the Irish airwaves. Although many protested, few foresaw the consequences of O’Brien’s move.
I did not grow up in a particularly musical household yet I know hundreds of Irish folk songs – a large percentage of them political. It wasn’t that I sat down and learned these “rebel songs,” they were just part of the culture. Even as late as the 80’s when television already dominated Irish cultural life, people still sang at social gatherings and everyone had at least one party-piece.
Radio cemented this multitude of songs into a coherent cultural whole. So, for instance, if you knew a snatch of “The Boys of Wexford” or even Dominic Behan’s wonderful “Patriot Game,” then over the course of time, you were likely to hear these songs on Irish radio and gradually absorb the other verses.
Cruiser’s Section 31 ended that. The youth of Wexford today wouldn’t know PJ McCall’s ballad about the 1798 Rebellion from a hole in the wall. Ironically, “Patriot Game” which actually questions Republicanism - and was Bob Dylan’s inspiration for “God on our Side” – has suffered the same fate.
Of late, RTE has made some strides in redressing this trend but the damage was done over a thirty-year period and is probably irreversible. It’s not that you can’t find the old songs – they are still available on reissued CDs, in faded songbooks and online; while Celtic rock and punk bands have been known to shake the dust off many an old rebel anthem. But the fact remains that a couple of generations have missed out on a rich resource that many of us once took for granted.
Ireland was always defined by its oral culture. We passed our history and our heroes down through the ages by way of song. Some of these musical statements may have been one-sided, and often simplistic, but they were ineffably ours – a gift from those who came before.
Section 31, alas, is one more proof that censorship has a deleterious effect on society. Despite all Conor Cruise O’Brien’s scholarship and educational accomplishments, in the end he will be seen as a very talented, but flawed, Irishman who dealt a deathblow to a vital part of our cultural heritage.