President leads tributes to Seamus Deane
‘The death of Seamus Deane is an incalculable loss to Irish critical writing’
Seamus Deane: “a foremost critic, a distinguished poet, novelist and internationally acclaimed university teacher.”
President Michael D Higgins has led the tributes to Seamus Deane, the leading Irish writer, critic and academic, who died last night, aged 81.
“The death of Seamus Deane is an incalculable loss to Irish critical writing, indeed Irish writing in general,” the President said, “as his passing represents not only the loss of a foremost critic but of a distinguished poet, novelist and internationally acclaimed university teacher.
“Seamus Deane’s contribution to critical and creative writing was delivered, not only at home in Ireland but in some of the most prestigious universities of the United States of America, be it Berkeley, Notre Dame, Indiana, Oregon. In such universities, news of 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.
“To Derry he leaves the incomparable legacy of the life, the writing, the concerns, the despair and the hope, that he shared with its people and to which so much of the work would respond.
“Few cities have a writer more embedded in its people, its history, its challenges, its hopes and its humour.
“There are, to me, parallels between Seamus Deane’s relationship to Derry and, in his time, Sean O’Casey’s relationship to Dublin in the way the full experience of its peoples are placed at the centre of the writing. All of the living is allowed its place.
“Seamus Deane was, too, 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. When reasonably criticised for omission in a work he replied with the candour of a critic who had become himself the subject of a legitimate criticism. This was typical of the scholar in him.
“The price paid for a great talent, such as Seamus Deane had, was high and is revealed, I believe, in his work, including his fine novel, Reading in the Dark.
“That work too was delivered with a truth that combined the word, the place, the history, the lives, and the power of communal humour in the act of survival.
“All of this is put so well, for example, in his poem Derry, which opens with the lines:
The unemployment in our bones
Erupting on our hands in stones
The thought of violence a relief,
The act of violence a grief
Our bitterness and love
Hand in glove.
“Eternal peace be with our great writer and critic Seamus Deane. Sabina and I send our sympathies to his family, the people of Derry and his friends and former students at home and abroad. Siochán síoraí dá anam lách.”
Anyone who was taught by Seamus Deane will remember not just the in-depth analysis of a key sentence that could last for half a lecture, but also the whirlwind tours of literature and philosophy that might take off from George Eliot and arrive at Muriel Spark by way of Edmund Burke.
He opened up vast intellectual horizons in the stuffy confines of UCD in the 1970s and ’80s. He had the great and rare gift as a research supervisor of giving his students the space to find their own way, allied with an ability to cross-examine critical evidence that would have done any barrister proud.
Alongside the brilliance, there was an abiding curiosity about new approaches and writers from which I benefited enormously at a time when Irish universities routinely discouraged PhD students in general and work on contemporary literature in particular.
The reaction to the under-representation of women overshadowed his editorial achievements in the Field Anthology of Irish Writing volumes 1-3, but it is exemplary of his intellectual integrity that he worked to redress this in commissioning two further volumes on women’s writings and traditions.
A hugely influential figure in the development of Irish literary studies and Irish culture, as well as a fine novelist and poet, Seamus Deane opened up a space for a whole generation of critics and writers.
Gerardine Meaney lectures in English at UCD
When I went to UCD in 1975, one of the first lectures I attended was Seamus Deane on Robinson Crusoe. He paced back and forth across the platform, smoking and talking as if in a trance, language flowing from him and carrying along on its tide a great freight of ideas and insights. “Lecture” seemed like the wrong word for whatever it was he was doing. He wasn’t reading anything and he had no interest in standing at the podium and delivering precooked arguments. It was much more like being at an improvised performance with an edge of danger, an intellectual high-wire act.
As first impressions go, this was indeed a very accurate one. Oscar Wilde wrote an essay called The Critic as Artist and it might have been the general title for Seamus Deane’s career, except that one would also have to reverse it: the artist as critic. He was a poet before he was anything else and he wrote one of the great Irish novels of childhood, Reading in the Dark. But, also, that pacing back and forth was not just a physical tic. It expressed a restlessness that never left him alone, a coiled energy that generated a very particular combination of reflection and combativeness.
The combativeness could never be entirely disentangled from his background as a Catholic from the Bogside in Derry, ground zero of the Civil Rights movement. He was never going to be interested in arts for art’s sake. Even in the Field Day Theatre Company, of which he was a founder and director, there were tensions between his articulation of wide political ambitions and the reluctance of his friends and fellow directors Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney, to be entirely encompassed within them. The huge enterprise of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, a remarkable achievement of intellectual and physical organisation, was animated by a concern with ideas about the Irish colonial condition so narrowly focussed that he did not notice its almost complete exclusion of women’s experience.
But it was never accurate to see him in any simple sense just as a nationalist writer responding to the Troubles. Much of his work was rooted in a disdain for the romantic ideas of Irishness that fuelled nationalism. He was passionately interested in Edmund Burke, in the French Enlightenment and in the way Britishness was formed in reaction to the French Revolution. And there was always in his writing that sense of a wonderful mind at work, ranging far, going to the edge, returning to home ground, pushing out again. Even to disagree with him was to be challenged and invigorated and that, surely, is the mark of a brilliant public intellectual.
Fintan O’Toole is an Irish Times columnist
Seamus Deane was one of our finest critics, but we should not let his scholarly and critical work obscure his wonderful poetry, and his compelling novel, Reading in the Dark.
I knew him for many years, and spent many an evening in his company. He had an incisive intelligence, was widely and deeply read, and splendidly opinionated. And he was fierce in argument: it was thrilling to engage in debate with him at the dinner table over a glass of wine – though I recall with a shudder a late night at Seamus and Marie Heaney’s house when, after dinner, the two Seamuses and I, having drunk everything else in the house, attacked as a last resort a bottle of Benedictine. . .
Seamus was marvellously funny, too. His humour had an edge of ferocity to it that made his jokes and witticism all the more pointed, and all the more funny. His extinguishing is a loss we can ill-afford, in these increasingly shadowed times.
Seamus Deane had that rare combination of talent, erudition, quiet passion, and confidence that made him a towering intellectual. That word intellectual can be often over-used, but for Deane it fit. I have never seen someone so able to hold an audience spellbound with one simple idea. Seamus could, at the drop of a hat, deliver a beautifully woven address on most any subject, tying together threads that lesser minds would have left dangling.
The effect on the listener could be exhilarating. He could speak passionately about abstractions and great thinkers, but I have seen him inspire students to embrace the life of the mind though his ability and desire to reach people. For him, all revolved around the conversation. He could banter with anyone – students, colleagues, patrons – and you understood that you were in the presence of a first-rate mind and world-class raconteur. No one ever forgot a conversation with Seamus.
Seamus Deane put Irish Studies on the map in the United States. His decision to come to Notre Dame made Irish Studies not only a serious enterprise but an indispensable one. Because of his presence, scholars in other disciplines gravitated toward it. His ability to tie power – and oppression – to ideas made both what he wrote and Irish Studies in the United States so compelling. He was a once-in-a-generation talent.
Patrick Griffin is Madden-Hennebry Professor of History and Director, Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, University of Notre Dame
Seamus Deane and the women of Ireland will be forever linked in my mind, not because of the arrival of the first three volumes of the Field Day Anthology and the subsequent furore caused by the absence of women editors, but because of the reply to that reaction.
The two-volume response is, to date, the most comprehensive publication that we have of women’s voices from Ireland, astonishing pieces of exhaustive work undertaken to search out the contribution that women made. Apologies matter. The fourth and fifth volumes, all three thousand one hundred and thirty pages of them, is the Field Day apology.
Often, in an effort to hang on to the original grievance, these volumes are ignored; to do so is an intellectual travesty. I bow my head to these hard-backed covers, every time I pass them in my local library. Because of them I can now read the first three.
Evelyn Conlon is an author
I grew into understanding of Irish literature and culture while reading Seamus Deane in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His brilliant mind and elegant prose style opened up a world of understanding. In the process, I came to grasp the existence of something called Irish Studies, an urgent, unsettled, disputable body of work that continually crossed over into everyday life.
Not least of those disputes were generated by his treatment of women writers. Looking back now, with sincere grief at his passing and a growing sense of cultural loss, it seems to me that a whole series of important reputations – Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Bowen, Anna Burns – are only enhanced by the questions that he asked and the answers that he essayed.
Claire Connolly is Professor of Modern English and Head of the School of English and Digital Humanities at University College Cork
This afternoon I took down from my shelves my copy of Seamus Deane’s Celtic Revivals, his book of essays on Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Montague, Heaney and Friel, among other twentieth century Irish writers. Published in 1985, just as I was finishing my undergraduate degree and wondering what to do next, this was my first, formative, encounter with Seamus’s work. Concise, distilled, knotty, trenchantly argued and continually surprising the essays look short on the page but they stay long in the mind. Very long in my own case.
I still turn to this little book when I’m preparing teaching, when I need to get my brain working. He had a brilliant knack of zooming in to details of literary style in a way that would unlock a writer’s secrets – like giving his reader a key into a world of Irish history, politics, culture and learning. His students at UCD had been getting the benefit of his way of reading for years of course.
But with Celtic Revivals and An Introduction to Irish Literature, published the following year in 1986, he sent a generation of young critics in Britain and the United States off to emulate him. When, in 1996 he published his superb novel Reading in the Dark – can anyone forget the simmering rage in that novel as the young protagonist tries to speak and cannot speak, uproots his father’s roses instead, or tells his story in Irish – we knew we would never catch him!
Later, when I met him, while working on the Field Day Anthology Volumes 4 and 5, I found all that sharpness and intelligence embodied. The debacle over the women missing from the first three volumes of the Anthology might have been anticipated by the list of male writers that were the subject of the essays in Celtic Revivals.
But Seamus was able to acknowledge his blind spots, and spent 10 years supporting our work on the subsequent volumes. What I remember, and what I will miss, about Seamus is his literary genius, but also his kindness. He was unfailingly generous to a young scholar finding her way. And he was frequently very funny. He once told me a winning story of how, as a bookish child, much given to reading the encylopedia, he had become fascinated by that place called ‘Circa’, where all sort of interesting things had happened. Born Circa 1500; Built Circa 1860. I think of him, ferociously hungry for knowledge; able to admit ignorance. Both qualities were key to his extra-ordinarily capacious intelligence.
Seamus Deane had a unique voice, one that could hold any audience, whether of one or a thousand. Of his famous contemporaries at St Columb’s, Derry, Deane was the most eloquent. He spoke in mesmerizing whole paragraphs, punctuated by unexpected epigrams. He read deeply as well as widely across all genres of work in the humanities and philosophy. He celebrated great writers with whom he disagreed. His generous, too generous, treatment of Edmund Burke in Foreign Affections showed his critical talents at their finest.
He could eviscerate too, as in one famous filleting of a distinguished revisionist historian. Seamus picked up a careless sentence for a sustained, but witty execution. With his death, Ireland has lost one of its greatest scholars.
More than anyone else he put Irish Studies on the map in the United States, through his vigorous leadership at Notre Dame. He built a centre that was not literary, but rather a place where the social sciences, history and humanities could flourish in vibrant interaction. Like many others I benefitted from his editorial pen when he ran Field Day Review with Prof Breandán Mac Suibhne. I am but one of thousands whom he touched and improved through his work, and hundreds of thousands will continue to read him long after his departure. Reading in the Dark is where to start.
Brendan O’Leary is Lauder Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania
Seamus Deane’s transformative role in re-assessing Ireland’s political and cultural inheritance proceeded from the depth of his intellectual enquiries and the passion of his commitments. In a filmed interview I conducted with him and Seamus Heaney for The Boys of St. Columb’s, Heaney stated “we were lucky to have Seamus’ intellectual vigour and articulation of our aims. He in a sense wrote our mission statement. It was an invigorating, exciting presence for us. He wrote two of the pamphlets which were epoch-making, I think.”
His Derry background informed everything he wrote. Deane also augmented and enriched the field of intellectual history through his works on Edmund Burke, Joyce and the French Enlightenment. He matched originality and boldness with erudition and a superb command of language. Just as unforgettable was Deane’s warmth and his sparkling humour.
As an undergraduate, I remember Seamus as an intellectual powerhouse in the UCD English Department in the late 1980s. He was an astounding teacher who had the amazing ability to deliver the most carefully crafted and sequenced lectures without recourse to a script or notes. In his lectures I often found myself compelled to put down my pen and listen, yet his brilliant insights lingered long afterwards.
His classes on topics such as Swift, Burke, literary modernism and modern Irish writing are still vivid in my mind. As a scholar he was groundbreaking in the manner in which he shifted Irish literary criticism away from a self-satisfied, parochial exceptionalism, focusing instead on the complex relations of Irish writing to British, wider European and other decolonial contexts.
In the dark days of the Troubles, in which academic exchange was often stressed and rancorous, he bravely pursued ways of thinking about the conflict in Northern Ireland in terms of rights and citizenship rather than tribal claims. To a generation of UCD students brought up in an atmosphere of evasion and fear over the Northern conflict, his critiques of the Southern Irish intelligentsia were eye-opening.
Deane was an audacious yet scrupulous scholar. His publications were greatly anticipated and always landed with impact, gaining him an international reputation as one of the greatest Irish minds of his time. As one of the major intellects behind the Field Day project he played a vital enabling role in the intellectual and cultural debates that prefigured the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
His engagement with influential academics such as Edward Said and Fred Jameson opened up new and exciting modes of intellectual possibility in Irish cultural debate. He believed in the power of culture to change the world but also understood with absolute clarity the important role that critical discourse plays in the construction of cultural narratives. Deane was himself a very fine poet and acclaimed novelist as well as an academic of the highest calibre.
The great achievement of the Field Day movement, under his influence, was the mobilisation of art and criticism with equal seriousness, ambition and purpose to confront the crisis of the late twentieth century, and to remake Ireland as a centre of imagination and possibility.
Associate Professor PJ Mathews is Director of the UCD Creative Futures Academy.
Seamus Deane belonged to an exceptional generation in Northern Ireland that refused to submit to the Northern state or satisfy itself with the Irish republic’s half-hearted paternalism. When the Civil Rights movement met with brutal repression on Ulster streets that conflict turned to militancy.
However, though it dominated world attention, the 30-year war was never the whole story. For many in that unbowed generation, the refusal to lie down took the form of community activism, socialist organisation, peacebuilding, international campaigning, trade unionism, women’s movements, language activism, cultural work, and many other unsung activities. For Seamus, it instigated a lifelong commitment to intellectual inquiry into Irish writing of all kinds.
His Cambridge doctoral dissertation required Seamus to immerse himself in the intellectual histories of the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution and the British response to these. That study, and the awful imbroglio into which Northern Ireland descended from the late sixties just as his academic and writing career were beginning, shaped and distressed the rest of his life’s work.
His demand for understanding impelled him to inspect the tangled intellectual histories of Britain and Ireland. The substrates of these histories, he felt, still fed the North’s constitutive predicament and daily fare of atrocities. For him, there could be no peace in any substantive sense without grasping these netted and nettled histories and comprehending the grave impasses they had bequeathed to the present.
In the 1980s, Seamus put his organisational abilities and eloquence in the service of the Field Day Theatre Company. He helped to solder the talents of a small but exceptionally-gifted group of cultural figures - Catholic and Protestant - into a memorable body of plays, poetry, pamphlets, criticism and song.
Misconstrued as cultural nationalist, Field Day represented in aspiration an 18th-century-style republicanism. Its ambitions were civic-minded, secular, public-spirited, humanist, committed to ‘freedom’ while utterly aware of how elusive and easily abused that term has ever been. The company’s many achievements and its dissensions and flaws have been much debated, sometimes unforgivingly. The forgiveness that Southern intellectuals earnestly enjoined on Northern Ireland’s conflict-scarred communities hasn’t always been greatly exercised in Field Day’s case. Nevertheless, without the imagination and energies of this generation, for whom Seamus became a leading voice, contemporary Ireland, north and south, would be a far more troubled place than it is now.
In sweep and scope, Seamus’s critical intelligence was never simply Irish but wholly European and American. He lectured with unscripted brilliance on Rousseau and Burke, Coleridge and Tocqueville, Scott and Edgeworth, Lamennais and O’Connell, Proust and Joyce, Yeats and Wallace Stevens. When late 20th-century French philosophy and theory broke with clamour on the British and American academies, many Irish critics wilfully ignored the challenges. Not so Seamus - he relished the provocations posed by Derrida and Kristeva, Foucault and Barthes, Jameson and Said.
The love of word and style that initially expressed itself in poetry whetted a tensile and resonant prose style emboldened with some of the finest sentences in contemporary Irish writing. His seemingly limitless curiosity would also submerge him in 18th-century religious tracts, 19th-century songs and ballads, 20th-century cinema and detective fiction, and of course European football.
One of 20th-century Ireland’s finest intellectuals, with a patriotic passion and organisational drive that matched that of Yeats or Seán O’Faoláin in earlier eras, Seamus was never only an intellectual. He was also an indulgent parent, a master storyteller even more arabesque and adventurously eloquent in conversation than on the page, a satirist never more acerbically funny than when narrating his own follies and mishaps, an open-handedly generous friend, a mentor to several generations of students in Ireland and the US.
Our sympathies go to his bereft families in Dublin and Derry, to his partner, Emer Nolan, his surviving Field Day companion, Stephen Rea, and to Breandán Mac Suibhne and all who worked with him in his latter years on The Field Day Review and other publishing ventures.
Seamus earned many fine tributes from far and near. None more succinct or sharp than that sent to me last night by Margaret Spillane, a Yale colleague, who wrote: “I loved his ferocious, unapologetic tongue.” Precisely.
When the organisers of a major conference on the work of Edward Said asked the great Palestinan writer and critic which world intellectual should be invited to give the keynote, the answer was immediately forthcoming: ‘Seamus Deane.’
Those who were at the conference in Columbia University in 1996 will never forget the standing ovation, led by Said, to Deane’s extraordinary address on Conrad, empire and modernism, delivered ex tempore without notes. This was characteristic of his erudition: when he arrived once to speak on TS Eliot at an Eliot and the Great Tradition seminar, only to find it was about George Eliot, he switched to give an outstanding impromptu talk on the 19th-century novelist, as if that was what he had in mind all along.
Seamus Deane exemplified a new departure in Irish culture: while the Celt was never found wanting in literary imagination, criticism was left to others in the metropolitan centre. Deane was the first to put criticism in Ireland on a continuum with its creative energies, investing style itself with his own oxyacetylene intellect.
His voice, ‘like sound implicit in a bell,’ was no less present in his essays than his poetry and fiction, but like a bell, was also determined to wake people from their dogmatic slumbers. This, in conjunction with theatre as intervention, governed the Field Day project, though, with mordant humour, he wondered whether terming a publication series Critical Conditions was tempting fate from the outset.
Yet for all his dedication to ideas, one of his abiding concerns, discussed in his late powerful essay on Simone Weil (Dublin Review of Books, 2019), was an insistence that physical suffering, the scars of war, poverty and dispossession, was as existential as humanity’s spiritual homelessness in an unforgiving world.
‘For the intelligentsia and the worker have this in common; neither has power,’ he wrote elsewhere, and empowerment consists precisely by bringing them together. He was moved to discover that Simone Weil’s last notebook entries on, in effect, hunger striking, before her own untimely death, were derived from her reading of a novel, The Flock of Birds, by the Derry-born writer, Kathleen Coyle.
While many wrote about the gift economy, Seamus Deane practiced it, his intellectual generosity knowing no bounds, as if ideas were not truly formulated until shared. An Enlightenment figure without parallel in the Irish republic of letters, he embodied the belief, perhaps taken from Burke, that truth never comes to light unless leavened by justice – an idea that needed no introduction in the Northern Ireland of his upbringing.
His novel, Reading in the Dark, opens with a scene in which a shadow is thrown on the stairs between a boy and his mother. Seamus Deane’s friendship, teaching and writing can be seen as a life devoted to dispelling those shadows, though it will be difficult to lift the shadow thrown by his own passing and his impact on people’s lives.
Luke Gibbons taught as Professor of Irish Studies at Maynooth University and the University of Notre Dame, and was a contributing editor to The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991), edited by Seamus Deane.
For Seamus Deane: In Memory of the Future
By David Lloyd
“In Ireland, all ghosts are political”. Seamus Deane had a way of dropping such telling aphorisms into his lectures. Later, when reminded of the phrase, he might claim with the insouciance of the great improviser not to recall uttering it at all.
Seamus’s writings in multiple genres, from poetry and fiction to his unparalleled critical essays, remain to us and to future readers. We will continue to draw on their insights and see in their complex textures what we may not have seen before. In a way that is not always true of literary and cultural criticism, they are and will be an essential part of what it means to share an Irish culture, a culture that Seamus’s writings and his myriad projects reshaped over half a century.
But at this moment, for anyone who ever enjoyed the pleasure of hearing Seamus’s conversation or his lectures, it will be his speech we sorely miss. Seamus was an unrivalled talker, whether in occasional chat or an hour-long lecture. He embodied the talent often too generously attributed to the Irish, the gift of eloquence. Late at night, in a basement bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, he could deliver a spontaneous spate of “Skibbereens”, those two-line epigrams that always ended with “And that’s another reason that I’m leaving Skibbereen”. Over lunch, you might be regaled with an hilarious anecdote about the vicissitudes of university life or even about his schooldays, one of which, the high comedy of the maths class, is preserved in his great novel, Reading in the Dark, a story about the unspoken and its ghosts that opens with the simple but unforgettable sentence: “On the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence.”
Spontaneity in speech and thought was intrinsic to Seamus’s genius: I recall vividly the terror of having to respond to a lecture he gave at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in 2000, for a millennial conference that reflected on the ongoing Peace Process. He arrived shortly before the scheduled time, with neither script nor notes in hand, and proceeded to deliver an intricately woven lecture on the French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings on Ireland, the United States, and France’s Algerian colony. Every so often, I would think with consternation, “He’s losing the thread”. But as the conclusion arrived, drawing every digressive arabesque together, I knew, with the awe one feels watching the most daring aerial acrobat, that I had just heard a brilliant tour-de-force of unrehearsed thinking.
Seamus will be remembered as a towering Irish intellectual whose career virtually created Irish Studies for the late 20th century, whose tireless work under the Field Day rubric, down to the lovingly produced Field Day Review that he founded and edited, exemplified what it means to be a public intellectual or a politically engaged artist, and whose books and essays on Irish literature from Edmund Burke to his lifelong friend, Seamus Heaney, are monuments of unageing intellect.
But that high praise still sells his achievement short, and in a significant way. Seamus Deane was an unabashedly Irish intellectual, but Ireland was always a vital coign of vantage from which he surveyed and critiqued global developments and intellectual traditions.
His work, centred as much of it is on Burke, to whom he returned time and again, was rooted in his understanding of the European Enlightenment. In his sojourns in California, Indiana and New York, he absorbed, with sceptical insight, the successive theoretical movements of American criticism. Well before the advent of postcolonial studies, being born and reared in working-class Derry had prepared him with a sharp understanding of the world-wide phenomenon of colonialism and of the role class played in it.
An appalled and utterly compassionate gaze on the ongoing brutalities of capitalism and colonialism grounded the long and mutually respectful friendship he shared with the great Palestinian critic and public intellectual, Edward Said: their two “small worlds” (to cite the title of the forthcoming collection of his essays that he sadly never got to hold in hand), where so much history and so much violence had happened, were the lenses through which both regarded and contested things as they are. It is a deep tribute to Seamus’s integrity that he never shied from expressing his solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian liberation any more than he disavowed his commitment to Irish decolonization, no matter how vicious and costly the vituperation he received.
In his late essays, partly gathered in Small World, Seamus engaged with an international array of thinkers, from Frantz Fanon to Hannah Arendt, Émile Durkheim to Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Yet he thought of them in relation to Wolfe Tone, Fintan Lalor, Thomas McDonagh and even the islandman Tomás Ó Criomtháin. Irish experience for him was far from an insular reserve. It was an opening onto the world because Irish history was shaped by global forces and Irish dissidence consistently rendered a critique and a refusal of their dehumanizing sway. He was offering us a theory of republicanism for the present, which represented not—as so many commentators have presumed—an atavistic throwback to the past, but an alternative vision of the potential of human community infused with the legacies of commoning, anti-colonialism, and the refusal of domination. Too dispassionate in his understanding of the burdens borne by damaged lives to idealize them, he was too intelligent to dismiss the legacies that past dissidents have transmitted to us.
When someone of Seamus’s age and stature passes, it is customary to say that a link with the past is gone. The well-worn phrase, “his like will not be seen again in our time,” comes all too readily to mind. But, in the midst of missing acutely his voice and his wit, I know that what we have truly lost is a link to the future he imagined could be ours. In the clear, plain silence of his absence, its shadow reaches out.
David Lloyd is Distinguished Professor and Chair of English, University of California
Breandán Mac Suibhne
Gifted with wit as sharp as his intellect, Seamus was the best of company. At lunch, the conversation was of politics and literature, foreign and domestic, and it was of soccer and boxing, also foreign and domestic, and of the doings of his children in whom he took great pride. There were appalling puns and tall tales too, and vivid reminiscences.
Asked once how he rated Billy “Spider” Kelly, the great featherweight, he recalled a day in the 1950s, when a swarm of kids was released into the ring to try to lay a glove on him and he remembered with wonder, undimmed by decades, that so fast was Kelly that he kept them all at bay. Seamus himself boxed in his youth and, into old age, he had not forgiven Monkey McGee for not knocking him out. Monkey, the north-west’s Sonny Liston in his opponent’s telling, made him go the distance, remorselessly inflicting an unmerciful beating.
Then there was the dog that Philip McLaughlin told him to beg or borrow money to back to win—and he backed the dog and the dog won, only to immediately drop dead. The cause of death and victory being pharmacological, the race was void.
A question over lunch about a novelist, poet or playwright often summoned an analysis, dressed in a perfectly tailored suit of words, that one could have taped and published and wished one did: and there was never any jargon, no hiding behind fashionable phrases, nothing but beautiful language. He would ask friends questions about their own work that made them, in turn, ask different questions, and their work and their words would be infinitely better.
He was an exceptional editor. I once did a first edit of a fine essay by an incisive critic, greatly admired by Seamus, that included a sentence which was, to me, utterly incomprehensible. I scribbled, “Is this English?” on the printout that I marked up and left it on Seamus’s desk. I found it on mine, with swirls of red edits, and three words: “It is now.” And it was.
Seamus’s parents were born before partition, that is, before people who cared nothing for this place decided that Burnfoot and the Brandywell should orbit different suns. He deplored the absurdity of partition and the obscenities that it produced; he deplored what it has done and still does to us all.
He leaves with unionism, entering its end times, slouching after a gay-converting creationist while comfortable partitionists in the South, who were no more comfortable with Seamus than he was with them, seek to resile from the promise of the Good Friday Agreement - that a simple majority in the North can take it out of the United Kingdom.
What would I not give to go for lunch with him one more time? It is my privilege to have known a lovely man - one of compassion, courage and conviction, one of great grace, in person and in print, who generously shared the wealth of his learning. And he was such great fun. Merci, mon vieux.
Breandán Mac Suibhne is a historian at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where he is director of Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge