Reflection: Kevin Whelan

Seamus Deane was born in 1940 in the Bogside in Derry, on the border between north and south. For centuries, the Bogside had been a festering Catholic slum, as he himself described it:

The Bogside and its neighbouring streets lay flat on the floor of a narrowed valley. Above it towards Belfast rose the walls, the Protestant cathedral, the pillared statue of Governor Walker [Protestant hero of the siege of Derry in 1690], the whole apparatus of Protestant domination. History shadowed our faces. The drifting aromas of poverty were pungent and constant reminders to the inhabitants of those upper heights that class distinction had the merciful support of geography. We lived below and between.

Deane attended St. Columb’s College in Derry. The 1960s also witnessed the first University-educated northern Catholics, who benefited from the 1947 Butler Act in the UK, an equivalent of the US GI Bill, which rewarded ‘British’ working-class people for their war effort by making university education more affordable through a scholarship system. A cohort of reading activists and writers emerged from Catholic Derry, including Bernadette Devlin, Michael Farrell, Eamonn McCann, John Hume, Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane:

Deane was part of that first cohort of Catholics to be able to proceed to university, earning a BA in 1961 and MA in 1963 from Queen’s University Belfast. Deane himself has commented: 

We were the first generation to benefit from the post war educational reforms of the Labour government. My father said, ‘Educate yourself, I wish I had the chance. That’s the way to resist’. There was poverty, gerrymandering, discrimination, a failed political system, a great sense of isolation but no way to mobilise the anger; I felt as though I was living in a frozen sea ...

Deane completed his doctorate at Cambridge in 1966, and he then taught English literature for two years at Reed College and Berkeley in the United States. He returned to Ireland to lecture at University College Dublin from 1968 to 1980. He was then appointed professor of Modern English and American literature there but became increasingly unhappy with what he regarded as the anti-intellectualism of the University.

Deane was also a poet of distinction, with three published collections. He attended school with Seamus Heaney, shared an apartment with him when they went to Queens together, and he remained a close friend and mentor of ‘Famous Seamus’ over the years as his friend’s career soared. Deane himself could create memorable lines:

The unemployment in our bones

                                            erupted on our hands in stones.

He once told me that he quit writing poetry once he saw Heaney mature his great powers. Heaney sent Seamus all his collections before publication and got back rigorously precise commentary. Deane, highly regarded as a poet, now concentrated his energies on scholarly interests, marked by the rapid publication of Celtic Revivals (1985), A Short History of Irish Literature (1986) and The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England (1988) – his doctoral thesis in book form.

In 1980, Deane joined Field Day, founded by the dramatist Brian Friel and the actor Stephen Rea. The group staged a series of impressive plays across the island and Deane added an intellectual edge to its activities.

During the early 1990s, he edited the transformative Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991), as well as a six-volume edition of Joyce’s works for the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics series, a deliberate project to reclaim Joyce as an Irish writer.  Deane enjoyed an international reputation: Edward Said, for example, widely regarded as the founder of post-colonialism, invited him to give the key-note lecture at a conference celebrating Said’s career at his own Columbia University. 

Deane’s novel, Reading in the Dark, largely written at Notre Dame, appeared in 1996. Seamus told me that his best writing time was on ND football Saturdays, when he could be sure that he would never be interrupted!  Reading in the Dark is recognized as a modern classic, the most insightful novel written about the Troubles, and marked by all of Deane’s trademark intelligence, wit and sly quotations from, and allusion to, a vast range of Irish literature. Because it is written in the deceptively accessible style, the Gothic, post-modern and post-colonial thrust of this powerful novel has been insufficiently recognized. A striking feature of the post-partition generation of Northern Catholics was their silence: they felt cowed and alone, abandoned by both the British and Irish states, isolated in a new Protestant state where they did not wish to be and in which they were treated as suspect aliens. They became a silent, watchful, betrayed generation, ‘the bastard children of the Republic’ in their leader Eddie MacAteer’s striking phrase. Reading in the Dark is a brilliant ‘Troubles’ novel, all the more so because Deane showed that to understand the outbreak in the 1960s, you had to have an intimate understanding of the legacy of partition.

Seamus Deane led Irish Studies at Notre Dame from 1993 to 2004. He continued to teach every semester in the Notre Dame’s Centre in Dublin after 2004, in both the undergraduate programme and the graduate Irish Seminar.

Seamus had a wickedly funny tongue, most creative when vituperative, and the weather always featured gusts of laughter when he was around. He loved a good conversation and no one ever issued so many zingers. He was a loyal friend, but absolutely rigorous in his critiques when you sought his advice or commentary. His own standards were elevated: I heard him give many brilliant lectures that anyone else would be delighted to publish - he was just dismissive of them. Seamus came from a large and boisterous Derry family who never took him all that seriously and kept him  grounded. He was a kind and supportive father, who took huge pride in the accomplishments of his children Conor, Ciarán, Cormac, Émer and Iseult.

Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, paid tribute to Seamus Deane’s international and American reputation this morning, singling out his time at Notre Dame.

Seamus Deane’s participation in a seminar immediately drew huge interest from scholars young and old, partly due, no doubt, to the sheer breadth of the materials he would cover, but also due to the unique connection he would make between the life and the work.

The President also praised his contributions to Irish life:

Seamus Deane was, a leading part of the great burst of intellectual revival that led to the Crane Bag, the Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature and many other innovations, which will be recalled as examples of the collaboration he had with his scholarly neighbours, and others, in giving a valuable affirmative to the importance and energy of Irish writing.

While his body failed him eventually, his mind never did. His last – and magnificent – collection of essays Small World will be published later this month by Cambridge University Press. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann. 


Kevin Whelan is the Michael Smurfit Director of the Notre Dame Dublin Global Gateway and a faculty fellow of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies.