Formidable critic and pioneering translator of Irish poetry

Douglas Sealy: 1929-2013

Critic Douglas Sealy wrote for a wide range of publications, in particular The Irish Times

Critic Douglas Sealy wrote for a wide range of publications, in particular The Irish Times

Sat, Jun 29, 2013, 08:32

Douglas Sealy, who has died aged 84, was a critic, teacher and translator. He had a reading knowledge of all major European languages and his output, in both Irish and English, comprised poems, critical essays and reviews of cultural matters, music, drama and literature. He wrote for a wide range of publications, in particular The Irish Times.

He enjoyed a considerable reputation as a fair and formidable critic. His response to the work was direct and meticulous, and was neither effusive nor dismissive. He drew on considerable learning, not only in English, but in Celtic studies.

Irish literary revival
His knowledge of Scottish literature, in its several languages, was profound, and it informed his response to the Irish literary revival in the 1960s and after. Among contemporary English poets, he was especially drawn to the work of Basil Bunting, whose Briggflatts was published in 1966.

He wrote neither manifestos nor monographs, but strove to create the basis for an understanding of regional and international poetry as interconnected activities and perspectives.

Celtic studies
Douglas Hyde Sealy was born in 1929, the son of Judge James Sealy and Una Hyde, daughter of Douglas Hyde, first president of Ireland. Educated at Sandford Park school and St Columba’s college, Dublin, he became a student of Celtic studies at Trinity College Dublin. There he edited the literary magazine Icarus.

He taught at Monaghan Collegiate school in 1955 and subsequently taught Irish, English and Latin at Sutton Park school in Dublin from 1957 to 1982.

He began writing for literary magazines such as The Dubliner and Dublin Magazine in the 1950s. Early contributions included surveys of Austin Clarke, Louis MacNeice and Frank O’Connor.

In a series on Irish writers, published in this newspaper in 1966, he nominated John McGahern as the “most promising of the younger novelists” writing in Irish or English. He identified Seamus Heaney as the most promising poet.

Assessing another future Nobel laureate, in 1967, he wrote: “Mr Beckett is like a prisoner escaped from the treadmill of a mental concentration camp who insists on retelling his experiences. We are bored and embarrassed, we would rather not hear, but we feel obliged to listen and we find it hard to forget.”

Asked for his views on the revival of Irish in 1966, he said that a knowledge of Irish was a proud possession but as a teacher he did not wish to force the language on anyone any more than he would have wished to “make a child learn Book I of Paradise Lost by heart”.

Impossible dream
He believed that people lacked an incentive to speak Irish. While the emotional, patriotic impulse was a powerful motivator, most people could not live “at such an exalted level all the time”. He concluded that perhaps the revival was always an “impossible dream”.

A shy and sober man, he inevitably became caught up in the whirl that accompanied Hugh MacDiarmid when he read at Liberty Hall in December 1967.

He invited the poet to his home in Howth for lunch. Legend has it that a second bottle of whiskey had to be sent out for before the meal was over. Meanwhile, the host struggled with the author of First Hymn to Lenin over the relative claims of nationalism and socialism.

Irish Times music critic
From the late 1980s onwards, he became a regular music reviewer for this paper, specialising in chamber music and Lieder performed in venues such as the Hugh Lane Gallery, National Concert Hall and Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

A notable achievement was his collaboration with Tomás Mac Síomóin, Tacar Dánta: selected poems of Máirtín Ó Direáin (1984), a pioneering translation of modern Irish into English. He also translated the poems of Máire Mhac an tSaoi.

A regular contributor to Comhar, he also contributed to the Crane Bag, Irish University Review and the Times Literary Supplement. For many years he wrote music criticism for SoundPost. He was Irish-language editor of Books Ireland.

German translation
In 2007 he took part in a TG4 documentary on his grandfather’s presidency. Most recently he completed the translation into Irish of the selected poems of German poet Johannes Bobrowski, which will be published later this year.

He had a keen interest in the visual arts and was a supporter of many Irish artists.

He was a devoted family man, for whom the death of his 22-year-old son Conor in 1986 was a cruel blow. His wife Mary (née Simms), son Owen and daughters Una and Brigid survive him.