Reflection: Brian Ó Conchubhair
Seamus Deane’s impressive body of work—critical, editorial, and creative—is tangible proof, if proof were needed, of his intellect prowess, broad range and scholarly influence. Beyond his legacy in print, there are his cohorts of graduate students in Ireland and the US, as well as his public and institutional engagement. When Ireland was grimmest and grimiest - economically, socially and politically - in the latter half of the 1980s, Deane produced three monographs: Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880–1980 (1985); A Short History of Irish Literature (1986); The French Enlightenment and Revolution in England 1789-1832 (1988) and two collections of verse, History Lessons (1983) and Selected Poems (1988), not to mention Field Day. All intellectually insightful and politically charged; all critiquing, criticizing and commenting on contemporary Ireland. Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces speaks of an outstanding revolutionary generation; Deane was the leader of a remarkable northern generation. At the height of the cultural and ideological wars, Deane was front and center; the public intellectual, the fulminator of ideas, the target of critical attack.
Many will rightly point to his writings on the 18th-century enlightenment as his greatest contribution, others will favor the underrated and insightful Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880–1980. Inevitably when tackling large issues and undertaking broad projects, one never gets everything right. Seamus was rightly called to account for the glaring gender imbalance in the first three volumes of the monumental Field Day Anthology and the absence of the Irish-language tradition in A Short History of Irish Literature. In neither instance, however, did he obfuscate, or deflect blame to subeditors and contributors. He owned up publicly and acknowledged the error.
It often passes unnoticed that he not only insisted, but ensured, that the Irish language be central to the Irish Studies program he founded at Notre Dame and served as the Institute’s first Director. As a result not only was Irish offered as a subject, but several recently minted PhDs gratefully accepted “Seamus’s shilling” and joined the ND faculty. Seamus had excellent Irish although he never spoke it until the small hours of the morning, but he followed conversations in the Morris Inn with no difficulty. The affectionate nickname, which he enjoyed, the “Absentee Landlord” referred to his Fall term in South Bend and Spring term in Dublin, but his students never complained of a lack of attention, access, or feedback. Whether in Dublin or South Bend, he mentored and supervised his students diligently.
Many will rightly highlight his contributions on Burke, Goldsmith, Joyce, Swift, Bowen, Heaney, Burns, DeLillo, and Moore –
many collected in Cambridge University Press’s forthcoming Small World Ireland, 1798–2018, but his masterful essay on “Mo Bhealach Féin le Seosamh Mac Grianna” in John Jordan’s edited collection The Pleasures of Gaelic Literature (1977) remains for me the piece that exemplified Seamus’s acumen, literary skill, mastery of close reading and his innate affinity with Mac Grianna (whom he had met as a student), the creative writer and tortured genius. On first reading it, it was eye-opening; a moment of realization of how one would interpret and explicate a text and place literature of any tradition in a broader context. If the great Seamus Deane would write of Mac Grianna, what else lay unconsidered? I once tried to explain the essay’s impact to him, but it mystified him as he was quick to dismiss it, but he did consider Mo Bhealach Féin a major work deserving of international attention and Mac Grianna a writer of distinction unjustly neglected.
My lasting memory will be his kindness. The man who was genuinely surprised that nobody else’s immigration paperwork describe them as “a world renowned intellectual figure” was capable of incredible kindness and gentleness. While it is a cliché, in Seamus’s case it was true, that he spoke to everyone; he made small talk with endowed chairs and adjuncts, custodians and cleaning staff at Fisher Graduate housing. He waged a long running battle with the caretaker who weekly replaced the ND crucifix which Seamus had dislodged from the wall. Returning on Thursday evenings, he faithfully removed it. It would be returned to its appointed place the following Thursday. Neither party addressed the issue, but both persisted in the ritual. Seamus always took time to commiserate on family loss and tragedy. In job interviews, he was always concerned that candidates were comfortable and would reconfigure furniture to ensure sunlight wasn’t directly in their eyes. That is not to say that he tolerated fools or was slow to voice his displeasure, but the disagreement was intellectual not personal.
I had the pleasure of chairing Seamus on numerous occasions and the less than pleasurable task of telling him that time was up, that time was really up, and that we were way over time. The audience would invariable demure that they were happy for the performance to continue. He frequently came to Friday afternoon Irish seminars in Flanner Hall, with no more than a napkin from Café de Grasta with five words on it, yet deliver an astounding lecture. It is said of some renowned orators that they spoke extempore in complete sentences. Deane spoke in perfectly constructed complete paragraphs. On one occasion at the Irish Seminar in Dublin when discussing how a particular building had experienced the ravages of the French Revolution, he paused before quoting a long passage in translation from French. He paused mid-quotation to explain that he was translating such a French verb as such in English. On asking him afterwards about the process, he explained that he could recall everything he read, and call it up in his mind’s eye; he had been reading and translating the text in his mind and seemed surprised that I found that unusual.
Seamus is gone and many will miss him: his colleagues, his former students, not least his family and children. To quote Edwin Poots, the newly elected DUP leader “Maireann an chraobh ar an bhfál ach ní mhaireann an lámh do chuir.” Deane’s body of work, especially that of the 1980s, ensures his legacy will persist long after his contemporaries, colleagues and critics have passed and been forgotten. Nobody studying the European Enlightenment, James Joyce, Seamus Heaney or modern Irish-literature can fail to engage with him, his ideas and his work. Molann an obair an fear agus is maith agus is mór an obair sin. Go dtuga Dia suaimhneas síoraí do Sheamus agus leapa i measc na naomh go raibh aige.
Brian Ó Conchubhair is Associate Professor of Irish Language and Literature at the University of Notre Dame and a fellow of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. Two recent books are Cathair na Gaillimhe: Díolaim Cathrach (2020) and My American Journey: Douglas Hyde (2019).