O'Brien has been called an Irish Andre Malraux, after the late French intellectual and homme engage. He has also been called a lot of uncomplimentary things, by those whose sacred cows he has skewered with his lance of irony.
This academic year, O'Brien, 71, has been at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching two courses. One is an undergraduate course called ''The Politics of Siege: Religion and Nationalism"; the other is a graduate seminar on Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Irish-born parliamentarian, historian and essayist.
O'Brien is an admirer of Burke, who is often considered the intellectual founder of modern conservatism, but O'Brien does not think of himself as a conservative. He defines himself in Passion and Cunning, his latest book, as ''homo candidus liberalis pessimisticus."
"It doesn't mean candid," explains his wife, Maire, in a soft Irish brogue, to a recent visitor at their temporary digs on Panama Street in Center City. "It means white liberal."
"White liberal," O'Brien repeats in his own somewhat lighter Irish accent. "But I don't mind the play on words."
They often echo each other's thoughts. They've known each other most of their lives. Maire O'Brien, nee MacEntee, a linguist and historian, also has been teaching this year at Penn - courses on the Irish language and the Anglo- Irish literary revival. She's a poet in Gaelic. Her poems were translated 20 or so years ago into Japanese and Hebrew and more recently into English.
In Passion and Cunning, subtitled "Essays on Nationalism, Terrorism and Revolution," O'Brien indulges in his lifelong penchant for controversy. The title is taken from an essay that he wrote in the mid-1960s about William Butler Yeats. Setting forth the Fascist leanings of the Irish poet and patriot, he asserted that Yeats would have taken pleasure in seeing England occupied by the Nazis and would have been "at least a cautious participant, or ornament, in a collaborationist regime."
The essay, written for a Yeats centennial volume, enraged Yeats fans. "I think most Yeats scholars now agree that there was a lot more force in my arguments than was admitted at the time," he observes.
To O'Brien, no cows are sacred, or holy men, either. Another essay in the book criticizes the pontificate of John Paul II as a "tremendous archaism" led by a Pope who is "cold toward the religious who have devoted their lives to work among the poor of the Third World."
What kind of reaction did he get to that? "Actually," he says with a smile, "I got much less negative feedback on the Pope than I got on Yeats."
"Much less," Maire chimes in. "Catholics feel Popes come and Popes go. If you don't like a given Pope, you tend to call him the present Holy Father, stressing the fact that you know he's not eternal."
"He may be infallible, but not eternal," Conor adds.
For his own part, O'Brien makes no claims to infallibility. He does claim a sense of realism that he feels is all too lacking among the pundits who pontificate on such intractable questions as those of Ulster, the Israel-Arab quarrel and South Africa. The idea that such deeply rooted conflicts can be resolved, if only someone could produce the right formula, he contends, is nonsense.
Or even resolved at all. In Ulster, as he told a recent Foreign Policy Research Institute seminar, "the prospects for ending IRA violence or for
finding a political solution which will be acceptable are very remote, and it is wishful thinking to think otherwise."
O'Brien wrote about the Mideast in his last book but one, The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism, which was praised by critics for its power and originality. In it, he concluded pessimistically: "What is not in sight is the end of the siege which will continue, in one form or another, into an indefinite future." Nothing that has happened since its publication two years ago, including the Arab uprising called the intifadah, leads him to believe otherwise.
Israel cannot, he asserts, simply turn over the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestine Liberation Organization. To do so, he believes, could lead Israel to the brink, if not over the brink, of civil war.
"And on the other side," he says, "suppose (PLO leader Yasir) Arafat and his friends actually got down to signing an agreement with Israel. Many of the PLO factions would go very nearly mad with rage, and they would be supported by Syria first and foremost, and Libya and Iran to a somewhat less extent.
"I don't believe that a government of a Palestinian state could maintain its authority under those pressures. I think it would collapse as the government of Lebanon did, and you would have the present territory . . . broken up into small areas controlled by different factions, as in Lebanon, with different international backers, as there too - and that some of these at least would go on with fedayeen raids against Israel. So Israel would have come near to breaking its own internal peace without achieving the external peace."
O'Brien had been led to write about Zionism, he noted in The Siege, in part out of his awareness of "the similarity of the predicaments of the two stigmatized peoples" - the Irish Catholics and the Jews. O'Brien came, as he wrote in an earlier essay collection, "of a Catholic family with a number of vigorously agnostic members, including my father."
Maire O'Brien's people also were Catholic - three of her mother's brothers were priests. She recalls, though, that her father, who eventually became deputy prime minister of Ireland, had been excommunicated in the early 1920s along with Eamon DeValera, first president of the Irish Republic, and others who had taken the Republican side in the civil war.
O'Brien joined the Irish civil service in 1942 after getting his doctorate
from Trinity College in Dublin. Not long afterward he transferred to the Irish Department of External Affairs, moving briskly up while establishing a reputation as a man of letters. He represented Ireland in the U.N. General Assembly for several years, and in 1961 Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold dispatched him to the Congo, where a secessionist movement in Katanga province had broken out.
His mandate was to implement a Security Council resolution calling for the withdrawal of foreign (mainly Belgian) troops. His controversial tenure lasted about seven months. With a blast at the British and French governments for having done everything they could to subvert his mission, he resigned from U.N. service and from the Irish foreign service "to recover my freedom of speech and action."
That took the form of a book, To Katanga and Back - a pull-no-punches expose widely hailed by reviewers and the public, if not by the U.N. hierarchy and the British, French and Belgian foreign offices. Maire MacEntee, also an Irish foreign service officer, resigned, too. She had, without authorization, joined O'Brien in Katanga - and came close to losing her life there. They were married on Jan. 6, 1962, just after O'Brien's divorce from his first wife became final.
A few months later, O'Brien accepted the invitation of the late Ghana dictator Kwame Nkrumah to become vice chancellor of the University of Ghana - Nkrumah was himself chancellor. There, at no little personal risk, he defended academic freedom against the man who had appointed him. In 1965, he accepted an academic appointment at Columbia University; four years later, he entered the Irish parliament as a member of the Irish Labor Party, then in opposition.
In 1973, he became minister of communications in the Labor government. It was in that post that he introduced an amendment, recently imitated by the British government, prohibiting broadcast interviews with spokesmen for known terrorist organizations such as the Irish Republican Army.
O'Brien makes no apologies for it. "You don't, for example, have the leaders of organized crime on television," he declares. But is that a fair
comparison? His wife replies, "Oh, very. Very. If you knew the IRA. They are a Mafia."
O'Brien perceives diminished support for the IRA among Americans, although, he adds, "I must say we were both shocked to watch the St. Patrick's Day parade here in Philadelphia and see how much of a pro-IRA presence there was."
O'Brien is the former chairman of the anti-apartheid movement in Ireland. He and his wife have two adopted children - Patrick, 21, part Irish, part Ghanese, and Marguerite, 18, part Irish, part Zambian. Two years ago, accompanied by Patrick, O'Brien gave a series of lectures at the University of Capetown.
Radical mobs broke up his concluding lectures because he had flouted an academic boycott. He felt that the boycott (later lifted) was ridiculous,
because it attacked the English-speaking universities, "the only institutions in South Africa which don't have apartheid on their campuses."
O'Brien sees little hope of ending repression in South Africa unless the superpowers agree to a land and sea blockade - an eventuality that, he argues, is not as unlikely as it may seem.
Whatever the denouement, the outlook for South Africa, as O'Brien sees it, is grim - as it is for the Mideast. As it is for Ulster.
O'Brien was editor of the London Observer from 1978 to 1981, and he writes weekly columns for the Times of London and the Irish Independent in Dublin. ''As someone who has followed the media and been a part of the media to some extent over a good many years," he observes, "I find that media comment in the West as regards a number of topics, including the three I've mentioned, is saturated in wishful thinking, and that the wishful thinking is dangerous. So I regard myself as one who is trying to demolish wishful thinking and to expose the bleak realities."