O'Brien, Donal Cruise (1941–2012), political scientist, was born in Dublin on 4 July 1941, eldest of two daughters and a son of Conor Cruise O'Brien (qv), diplomat, politician and writer, and his first wife Christine (née Foster). He was educated at Rathgar Junior School (1945–51) and Newtown School, Waterford (1951–8). Both schools were run by quakers without formal religious instruction, per his parents' religious scepticism. Newtown gave him an interest in the relationship between religious belief and social order, though he remained a lifelong atheist. He thought the experience of boarding school, combined with the disintegration of his parents' marriage, began to shape the pattern of his life as migrant and social observer. Initially, this led to some adolescent assertions of Irish nationalism and Anglophobia. He remained close to both parents, acquiring from his mother a love of music and gardening and the advice not to overemphasise the intellectual side of life, as she believed his father had done (Ir. Times, 4 August 2012).
After a year at l'École des Sciences Politiques in Paris, where he achieved a lifelong command of the French language and continued his casual interest in rugby-playing, he won an entrance scholarship to TCD. He studied economics but decided this was a mistake, and in 1961 was admitted to Peterhouse College, Cambridge, to study history (with the assistance of TCD's Robert Gardiner scholarship and a Cambridge exhibition of £100 a year). His tutors included the cynical, conservative and intellectually stimulating Maurice Cowling (1926–2005). Visits to his father in Katanga (1961) and Ghana (1962) aroused O'Brien's interest in modern African politics as an intellectual challenge and a potential academic career; a stop-over in Senegal in 1962 brought home to him the research potential of this former French colony, whose rural marabouts (leaders of islamic sufi religious brotherhoods) wielded power as socio-political intermediaries in a manner he found vaguely reminiscent of catholic priests in Ireland.
In 1963 O'Brien commenced a doctorate in African studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he took part in protests against campus regulations restricting student activity. After some brief dalliances he established an intense and lasting relationship with another Africanist postgraduate, Rita Abel, whom he married in a unitarian ceremony on 7 May 1965. They had one daughter (b. 1969). Abel developed her own career at the University of Sussex. Shortly after their marriage they transferred to the London School of Economics, where O'Brien's supervisor was the sociologist Ernest Gellner (1925–1995), later renowned for his theory of nationalism as a distinctively modern social phenomenon. In 1966–7 they undertook field research in Senegal, with Abel studying French residents who had stayed on after the end of colonial rule while O'Brien undertook archival research on the mouride islamic brotherhood, followed by a stay of some months in Touba, the central city of mouridism.
The mourides, who provided the central theme of O'Brien's research and publications (though he also produced some work on islamic attitudes to the state in East Africa) were founded by the islamic teacher Ahmadu Bamba (1850–1927) in the 1880s, appealing to a displaced warrior class in the context of the destruction of the independent Wolof chieftains by French military power. (O'Brien suggested a resemblance to the emergence of the Irish catholic clergy as communal leaders after the seventeenth-century displacement of the catholic aristocracy.) Disciples rendered an abject pledge of obedience to their marabout and laboured in a work gang under harsh conditions for several years before being rewarded with a plot of land.
In hindsight, he thought his first book, The mourides of Senegal (1971), took an overly literal interpretation and his later work explored how the relationships between marabout and talibe, between the leaders of the brotherhood and the state (colonial and post-colonial), and between the leaders and their wider following, represented a form of 'sacred drama' which in some respects could be seen as social 'play-acting' resembling familiar modes of expression in the Ireland of his youth. 'People in Africa as in Ireland can believe different, even contradictory things at the same time. So the religious substructure of the political may be less stable than first appears. Hierarchs beware!' he wrote in later life (Symbolic confrontations, 2003), in a reference to the secularisation of the Irish republic.
For the mourides, expressions of unconditional obedience and claims to religious infallibility co-existed with conscious or unconscious awareness on both sides that the relationship must be sustained by conferring material benefits on the followers and by addressing their social concerns, while the state structures acquired a measure of sacral legitimation in return for gestures of deference and devolved patronage to the marabouts. (O'Brien compared and contrasted the 'sacral drama' involved in the latter relationship with the much more explicit sacralisation of Irish nationalism through the 1916 Easter Rising.) His later work also discussed the mutation of mouridism through the emergence of urban social networks involved in trade at home and abroad, and of university-educated followers of mouridism; the latter tended to discount individual marabouts and emphasise the writings rather than the alleged miracles of Ahmadu Bamba, presented as a national hero and specifically African (rather than Arabic) islamic exemplar.
O'Brien also argued that the survival of seemingly arbitrary colonial boundaries and state structures reflected widespread tacit popular awareness that changing these risked far greater suffering than was involved in their retention; he remarked that academic eulogies of bandits and rebels as popular defenders against the state overlook the fact that such figures were often local power-holders resenting the restrictions placed by the state on their own ability to exploit, and that only the state could provide certain services. His academic publications included Saints and politicians: essays in the organisation of a Senegalese peasant society (1975); Charisma and brotherhood in African islam (co-edited with Christian Coulon as part of a major Anglo–French research project, 1988); Contemporary West African states (edited with John Dunn and Richard Rathbone,1989); Symbolic confrontations: muslims examining the state in Africa (2003, with Mamadou Diouf and Momar Coumba Diop); and Staging politics: power and performance in Africa and Asia (co-edited with Julia Strauss, 2007).
There are clear affinities between O'Brien's views and his father's interrogations of the unspoken assumptions, elisions and limitations of Irish nationalist self-representations, but he should not be seen as an intellectual clone of his father. O'Brien's analysis reflected major streams of contemporary anthropological thought and it is likely that Conor Cruise O'Brien drew on his son's insights. Father and son were personally close, with the son often providing emotional support to his volatile father at times of stress. Although O'Brien warned his father against entering Irish politics in 1969, he subsequently advised him on personal security, and was generally sympathetic to his father's analysis of the Northern Ireland conflict while thinking him excessively pessimistic about the 1990s peace process. O'Brien's wit was drier and more detached, without the gothic element which haunted his father's commitment to enlightenment, and without self-pity despite physical disability in later life. His regular visits to Ireland centred on his family; he found Ireland somewhat confining and successfully resisted his wife's suggestion that they should acquire a house in Co. Kerry.
In 1966 he became a junior lecturer in African politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. A brief dalliance with the SOAS Left Group, for which he produced a privately-circulated pamphlet suggesting the institution's governance exemplified oriental despotism, did not prevent him developing a thirty-nine-year academic career in which he was recognised as one of the leading experts on West Africa. This achievement was a triumph over severe physical disability.
In 1969 O'Brien was diagnosed as suffering from multiple sclerosis. He continued to travel in France, Africa and elsewhere, initially using a cane and then a specially adapted wheelchair. As his deteriorating condition restricted his ability to engage in research trips, he placed greater emphasis on political theory. He lived a full life with the assistance of technology, of NHS staff and above all of his wife: 'they brought with them the best of conversation, food, wine, music and affection' (obituary by Roy Foster, Guardian, 31 October 2012).
Donal Cruise O'Brien died at his home in Dorchester, Dorset, on 6 July 2012. In his last years he worked intermittently on The story of a migrant: a personal memoire, completed by dictation six weeks before his death, meditating on his changing identities and personal development; it was privately published and copies were distributed to attendees at his memorial service at St George's church, Bloomsbury, London, on 12 October 2012.