Poet and novelist and outstanding researcher and critic

The start of Séamus Deane’s professional career took place in turbulent times. Leaving behind a teaching post at the University of California at Berkeley – amid the turmoil of the American civil rights movement, the war on Vietnam and student protests in the United States – he moved in with his family in Dublin as Ireland also entered an acute period. of turmoil.

Northern Ireland came to its own crisis when the brutal repression of the civil rights movement led to the outbreak of a paramilitary conflict, and this in turn to the imposition of British troops and the direct domination of Westminster. In the South, the 1970s brought the women’s movement and other social reform campaigns into a climate of economic recession and soaring inflation.

Deane absorbed these tangled conflicts into the bloodstream of his writing and scholarship, and they left a lasting imprint on the distressed but distinguished career that followed.

A friend of Seamus Heaney, with whom he had studied at St Columb’s and Queens, and of Derek Mahon, Deane’s writing career began as a poet. Published volumes include Gradual Wars in 1972, Rumors in 1977, History Lessons in 1983, and Selected Poems in 1988. The poetry expresses deeply rooted personal experiences mediated by an ever-troubled internationalist imagination.

However, Deane had his greatest impact as a literary critic. The publication of three books – Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880-1980 in 1985, A Short History of Irish Literature in 1987 and The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England, 1789-1832 in 1988 – established him as a surprisingly original criticism.

In Celtic Revivals, the compressed studies – ranging from Arnold and Burke to Yeats and Joyce, to the generation of Kinsella, Mahon, Montague and Friel – showed balletic prose and penetrating insight.

Synoptic authority

The short story revealed Deane’s synoptic authority. He studied Irish writing from Gaelic Ireland to contemporary times and has covered poetry, fiction and drama and canon and minor writers. The French Revolution and the Enlightenment in England were the source of Deane’s fascination with Edmund Burke and subsequent critical studies. His variety of talents was unmatched in Irish critics.

Equally incomparable was Deane’s determination that criticism should engage Irish society head-on. Prior to his association with Field Day in the early 1980s, he was editor-in-chief of the literary and political journal Atlantis and a contributor to Threshold and The Crane Bag. Nevertheless, it was as managing director of the Field Day Theater Company that he became a prominent public figure. Formed in 1980 by Brian Friel and Stephen Rea, the company combined artists from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds to imagine how people, north and south, could overcome conflict and cannot contain them. Intelligence and imagination, criticism and constructive collaboration, during the field day, were also essential to this task.

Under Deane’s leadership, the company grew into what Catriona Crowe called “Ireland’s most important intellectual force in the 1980s”. During this period, the members of Field Day produced a memorable array of plays, poetry, pamphlets, and reviews. Deane was his guiding intellectual influence. The Field Day Brochure Series consisted of five sets of three brochures and interesting topics that included police and prisons, language issues and cultural issues. Some have been collected in book form, including Field Day in Ireland in 1985 and Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature in 1990, in which Deane featured articles by Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and Edward Said. Now Field Day was having an international impact, Said in particular expressing regret that no similar collaborative ambition was underway in Palestine.


Deane’s most ambitious – and ultimately controversial – project during these years was his general writing of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Volumes I-III, published in 1991. Upon publication, the anthology garnered public attention. fury of trade unionists, revisionists and, consequently, feminists. Most of the section’s editors were men, like all members of the Field Day Theater Company, and there was insufficient representation of women’s writings. Revisionist and Unionist critics felt that the anthology reflected an “assimilationist” nationalist agenda, a late cultural relay of the old Dublin-based New Ireland Forum.

Deane immediately recognized the project’s shortcomings on the issue of women’s writing and raised funds for two more volumes. The latter endeavor was published in two volumes under the title The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions (2002). It remains the most monumental collection of Irish feminine writings ever assembled. A number of its major editors, Clair Wills and Gérardine Meaney among them, acknowledged Deane’s continued support for this major endeavor throughout its production.

Séamus Deane was born in the Bogside in Derry on February 9, 1940, the fourth of eight children of Frank Deane and Winnie Doherty (the first, Mary, died in infancy). He attended St Columb’s College, Derry, then studied at Queen’s University, Belfast, where he obtained a BA and MA between 1957 and 1963. From there he went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he graduated from wrote his doctoral thesis at the reception of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in English letters of the early nineteenth century. Subsequently, Deane, along with his wife Marion and his young family, moved to the United States where he held teaching positions at Reed College, Oregon (1966-67), and the University of California at Berkeley. (1967-68). In 1969 he returned to Ireland to teach at University College Dublin (UCD). He was professor of modern English and American literature at UCD from 1980 to 1993.


Deane left UCD in 1993 to become the Keough Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The Notre Dame Irish Studies Center, located in South Bend and Dublin, was quickly considered the most distinguished in the United States. Despite administrative demands, Deane published Reading in the Dark in 1996, which won several international awards, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and has been translated into over 20 languages. It is one of the most remarkable novels of the time of the Troubles.

Two subsequent critical works followed: Strange Country: Ireland, Modernity and Nationhood 1790-1970 in 1997 and Foreign Affections: Essays on Edmund Burke in 2005. While teaching the fall semesters in South Bend and the spring semesters in Dublin, Deane has also worked as the editor of Critical Conditions: Field Day Essays and Monographies, and edited the annual Field Day journal (2005-2015).

That a talent of his internationally renowned caliber devotes so much of his career to working collaboratively with others and to editing and promoting their works was only one measure of the exceptional intellectual motivation and generosity of Deane. His latest book, Small World: Ireland, 1798-2018, is expected to appear from Cambridge University Press in the coming weeks. Produced under failing health conditions and a global pandemic, and including new work on Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Lavin and others, it is a testament to Deane’s “non-aging intellect” and her unwavering commitment to the form of Irish essay, critical thinking and writing.

Presences like that of Séamus Deane appear in Irish letters only once every few generations. In terms of inspiration and organization, his contribution compares well with that of Yeats or Seán Ó Faolain in earlier eras. He grew up in an Ireland where, to quote Séamus Heaney, people were told, “whatever you say, don’t say anything”, the watchword of a good, peaceful neighborhood and comfortable careers. Ignoring the most understated tact, Deane brought unabashed eloquent language to Irish letters and politics. Given the history of the Bogside, northern politics was naturally a formative and continuing interest, but never in a restrictive way. His friendship with Edward Said helped vocal support for the cause of Palestinian self-determination and made him an open critic of US foreign policy.

Will to know

People interested in the character behind the public figure might start with poetry and Reading in the Dark. Motivated by a stubborn desire to know, although increasingly aware of the issues for himself and those he loves most that enlightenment must bring, the protagonist of the novel relentlessly persists. Each secret revealed increases the torment. Enlightenment brings an understanding bought at the cost of a new awareness of the depth of the frailties of his ancestors, the depth of their suffering, the humanly understandable paralysis of the conspiracies of silence of his community. Guerrilla lines, collected in history lessons, express the complex atmosphere of the novel: “Real life was so impure / We savored its poisons as forbidden / Fruit and, sorry by knowledge, / Raised beyond redemption.”

Yet in Deane’s epigrammatic prose, scintillating insight supporting a startling assessment, readers may glimpse a different Séamus. No matter how unwavering his gaze on human suffering, it never inhibited the Séamus who loved football, Italian opera, comic tales, Proustian and Adornian phrases, reading Hannah Arendt or Simone Weil, conversation , horse races, fine wines, planting flower bulbs, Walter Benjamin, singer, his children and grandchildren, travels to the west of Ireland and to Europe.

Séamus Deane passed away on May 12, 2021. He will be missed by those who appreciate creative writing and courageous critical thinking. His partner, Emer Nolan, married for many years Marion, his children Conor, Ciarán, Émer, Cormac and Iseult, and his surviving siblings Liam, Eamonn, Una and Deirdre will feel his deep loss most.

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