Reflection: Declan Kiberd
Seamus Deane was a proud Derryman. The denial of a university to Derry by a sectarian unionist administration led him and some friends to create the Field Day movement, designed not only to offer "a fifth province" to the Irish mind but also the school of letters which Derry never had. The works produced by the Field Day writers were in perpetual dialogue with one another—Friel's Translations can be read as a response to the critical writings of the younger Deane, just as Heaney's Station Island is a riposte to Translations.
These gifted artists sparked off one another. The critiques of Field Day offered by outsiders were mild and wan compared to the internal critiques which Field Day authors aimed at one another. In the end, there were two men left standing: Deane and Stephen Rea. The others had begun to fear that their art might be compromised by the social ferocity of Field Day's energies. Yet Heaney's Midnight Verdict is not only a version of Merriman but a reasoned (if covert) answer to the feminist critique of the anthology. And Friel never ceased to heed warnings issued by Deane about the dangers of "eloquence". Tom Paulin's poems are, as often as not, a caustic commentary on the invertebrate politics of the south during the "Troubles" and as such a warning to Field Day artists settled in the south.
Deane's own works will live; but the future will discover the extent to which they were the occasion of art in others. In many ways he wrote as if the distinction between art and criticism scarcely existed—whenever art or criticism existed at highest intensity one easily morphed into the other. And it remains only to add that, as a teacher, Deane practised that old medieval discourse, the lecture, as yet another form that might be taken by art. Field Day produced many works of art but they were works of art which were in some fashion enabled by critical thought, the kind of thought that comes before rather than after the artwork—and in that context there could be no doubt that it was the thinking of Deane which impelled the movement. His poems present the very act of thought in formation; his criticism constantly circles back to those writers like Joyce and Mann whose work present a passion for thinking in place of a conventional plot; and his great solitary novel, Reading in the Dark, is really a portrait of the artist as a very young critic, dismayed but not disarmed by the world he finds around him.
Declan Kiberd is the is the Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies and Professor of English and Irish Language and Literature Emeritus.