Reflection: Barry McCrea

Professor Barry McCrea offered this tribute to Seamus Deane on the occasion of the Keough-Naughton Institute's 2021 Seamus Heaney Memorial Lecture, delivered by Professor Rosie Lavan of Trinity College Dublin on 13 May 2021, the day that the death of Seamus Deane was announced.


In an interview with Seamus Deane in 1977, Heaney said: “Poetry is born out of the watermarks and colourings of the self. But that self in some ways takes its spiritual pulse from the inward spiritual structure of the community to which it belongs . . . I believe that the poet’s force . . . is to maintain the efficacy of his own . . . cultural and political colourings, rather than to serve any particular momentary [political] strategy.”

I heard the news late last night that today will be our first day without the Seamus who conducted this extraordinary interview, Seamus eile, “the other Seamus” as he called himself, Heaney’s lifelong friend and our own founder, Seamus Deane.

In a very concrete way, we would not be here at this lecture if it were not for Seamus Deane. Along with Chris Fox, he founded the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies. Deane was established as an intellectual at the time, but his best work was still ahead of him. We are proud that he produced some of this work while he was at Notre Dame. The energy produced by the collaboration is most of the reason why we are here.

Others have written and will without doubt continue to write in the coming days about Seamus Deane’s unique intellectual and creative legacy. I use the word “unique” carefully. There is really nothing like it. Deane’s work was a tree that came from such a variegated and deep root system that it is hard to describe or even comprehend in its totality. Certainly, our conception of Ireland as a cultural system would not be recognizable without it.

Heaney Iseult Deane Ed 1 Feature
Seamus Deane and his daughter, Iseult, with Deane's longtime friend and fellow poet Seamus Heaney at O'Connell House, Notre Dame's gateway in Dublin.

Since this occasion is the Heaney Memorial Lecture, I would like to take a moment to think about that legacy in terms of the lifelong connection between the two Seamuses. They shared common ground in a literal sense: St. Columb’s College, where they were at school together; County Derry; the very specific territory of Northern Ireland in the mid 20th century. But it is characteristic of Deane’s dialectical mode of thinking, and of his attention to often occluded forms of difference that when he wrote about their relationship for an article in the New Yorker in 2000, he rooted his analysis not in their commonalities, but in their differences, in the distinctions that made them not semblables but opposites. In St. Columb’s, Deane was one of the day-boys, Heaney was a boarder; Deane’s essay begins as a tour de force exploration of all that was contained within this schoolyard opposition: urban, rural; soccer, Gaelic; different kinds of music; ways of walking, talking, writing poetry, interacting with power. Out of this set of microcosmic distinctions, rather than the more obvious commonalities, Deane builds a mode of analyzing much greater topics—creatvity, ambition, relationships with authority and systems.

This attunement to difference as the fundamental basis of real knowledge is in evidence in Seamus Deane’s vision for the Keough-Naughton Institute: he insisted on a historical breadth—from the 7th century to the present—and a linguistic one, Irish literature in English on the one hand, and on the other a full Department of Irish Language and Literature, the only department of its kind in the United States.

Seamus Deane, like Seamus Heaney, was convinced that the unity of the Irish tradition—in which they were both, in the end, believers—could only be understood in terms of its internal ruptures and contradictions.

The other common ground the two Seamuses shared was what you might call the World Republic of Letters. They were cosmopolitans both geographically and chronologically. Both of them knew that the concept of a national literary tradition is meaningless without a sense of the broader ecosystem within which they are embedded; that the passionate, sometimes narcissistic attention we pay to our own cultural tradition must be matched with an equally avid curiosity for what is foreign, for cultural universes, large and small outside it. If you listen to a recent podcast that Deane did with his son Cormac, you will hear him talk about Lukács and Rosa Luxemburg with the same nuanced attention to the personalities and fissures within early 20th century Eastern European Marxism as he pays in his New Yorker article to the social and geographical microdistinctions in the classrooms of St. Columb’s in the early 1950s.

The Seamuses were bound also by an unquestioned assumption that the work of culture is not just valuable and interesting, but of urgent importance; that it must be enjoyed and taken seriously in equal measure. Their sense of the importance and relevance of their work gave both Seamuses a sometimes intimidating confidence; the sense of its magnitude and difficulty an occasional flash of self-doubt and vulnerability.

For Deane as for Heaney, the work of culture is a collective and, at times, gregarious enterprise. We see that in Deane’s extraordinary talent for institution building: Field Day and the Keough-Naughton Institute. But also, in a wider sense, that of listening to and addressing one another, their dedication to hearing and saying to other people things that are true, things that will benefit the listener because of their truth, rather than saying things which will benefit the speaker by garnering notoriety or approval.

Heaney’s “Ministry of Fear,” a poem about institutions and how a creative mind is shaped by them, is dedicated to Seamus Deane. It opens:

Well, as Kavanagh said, we have lived   

In important places. The lonely scarp

Of St Columb’s College, where I billeted   

For six years, overlooked your Bogside.

There is a double sense here in the word “important”, one active and one passive, output and input, one about talking or writing and the other about listening and understanding. On the one hand we see statement of the writers’ shared and urgent vocation to render the place they are from “important” through creative, introspective, analytical, and institutional work – capturing its realities, bringing it to the rest of the world. On the other, the poem is registering the conviction that where one is from is, ipso facto, important, a reality that we carry inside that must be attended to and understood in all its contradictions and nuance.

Later in the poem, the B Specials pull over the young Heaney in his car:

‘What’s your name, driver?’

                                                          ‘Seamus ...’


They once read my letters at a roadblock

And shone their torches on your hieroglyphics,   

‘Svelte dictions’ in a very florid hand.

The poem returns to the question of “important” places with which it opened. We are in a place where the name “Seamus” signifies something beyond itself — it is a sign of a collective identity (a name that identifies the bearer as a Catholic), and a historical resonance, a name bound to a historical antecedent (Jacobitism).

The name is in theory uttered by Heaney and by the Protestant militiaman who is shining a torch through the window onto Deane’s letters to Heaney. But, of course, the repetition of the name in the poem here is a greeting from Heaney to Deane, an acknowledgement that their identity is double, that for both of them there is not just one Seamus, but always the echo of the other, a name bound to another lifelong avatar, Seamus and Seamus eile. “Otherness and brotherness” in Deane’s own words.

It is hard now not to read the image of the B Specials’ torch shining on Deane’s “hieroglyphics” without thinking of the phrase “reading in the dark”, the title of his novel, and of the Enlightenment, in French “Siècle des lumières” which was his first field of study.

But, most of all, it is an image of how we are meaningfully bound to one another across time and space, the way we carry our friends and allies with us even in their absence, as their words illuminate the darkness, even when it is filled with threats and fear. That is something that Seamus Deane’s many hieroglyphics have bequeathed to us all.


Barry McCrea, a scholar of comparative literature and a novelist, is the Donald R. Keough Family Professor of Irish Studies and Professor of English, Irish Language and Literature, and Romance Languages and Literatures.