Seamus Deane: ‘a passion for thinking’

Joe Cleary’s adapted foreword to Seamus Deane’s Small World captures his greatness

Seamus Deane’s death on May 12th, 2021, took from Irish letters one of its most exceptional figures. In a career that spanned half a century, Deane established an international reputation as a literary and intellectual historian, superb critical essayist, lecturer, anthologist, poet, novelist, theatre company board member, institution-builder, journal editor, and book publisher. Few 20th-century writer-critics have done as much as he to reshape the ways in which we comprehend modern Irish literary culture.

In the 1980s, Deane put his formidable organisational and critical abilities in the service of the Field Day Theatre Company. With a small but gifted body of cultural figures – Catholic and Protestant – Field Day deployed its collective talents to produce a memorable body of plays, poetry, pamphlets and criticism. Misconstrued by some as cultural nationalist, Field Day represented an 18th-century style republicanism: it ambitions were civic-minded, secular, humanist, committed to political and intellectual “freedom”, while always aware of how elusive and easily abused that term has ever been.

In the 1980s, Deane published three notable critical monographs and edited the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Volumes I-III, published in 1991. When these volumes were criticised for their inadequate representation of women’s writings, he raised the funding to support two further volumes, published as The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions (2002). It remains the most monumental collection of Irish women’s writing ever assembled.

Deane left UCD in 1993, where he had taken up a position in 1969, to become the Keough Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana. Despite the administrative demands, he soon published Reading in the Dark (1997), which won several international awards, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and has been translated into over 20 languages. It is one of the most remarkable novels of the Troubles era.


Two later critical works followed: Strange Country: Ireland, Modernity and Nationhood 1790-1970 (1997) and Foreign Affections: Essays on Edmund Burke (2005). While teaching fall semesters in South Bend and spring semesters in Dublin, Deane also served as general editor of Critical Conditions: Field Day Essays and Monographs and edited the annual Field Day Review (2005-2015).

“Portrait is the first novel in the English language in which a passion for thinking is fully presented; Ulysses is the first novel in which the activity of thought is a central concern.” (Joyce and Stephen: The Provincial Intellectual, Celtic Revivals). “A passion for thinking”: the phrase defines Seamus’s career. Were his talents not so many and his energies so distributed, Deane would deserve to be remembered above all else as Ireland’s most outstanding 20th-century essayist. His intellectual agility, deep historical sensibility, European range of reference, and the flair for vividly memorable expression that fired his poetry or Reading in the Dark converged to lend his critical writings a remarkable stylish dash and reflective verve. He was a critic’s critic and a writer’s critic.

In the last years of his life, Seamus collected a selection of these essays in Small World: Ireland, 1798-2018, now published by Cambridge University Press. As with any selection from so rich a career, the articles collected are partial in more senses than one, but the 16 essays collected in Small World display Deane’s long-range overview of Irish culture, one that stretches from 18th-century writers Swift, Burke, and Tone to contemporaries such as Seamus Heaney or Anna Burns.

There too, the reader can get some impression of the variety of modes that Deane’s writings have taken. Civilians and Barbarians and Heroic Styles were first published as Field Day pamphlets and share with Wherever Green is Read, a devastating exposure of revisionist rhetorical ruses, the combative verve of the public intellectual writing to the moment.

The essays on Swift and Burke, or Joyce and Burns, or Bowen and Lavin, are scholarly appreciations. In the case of Burke, for example, Deane considers the uses to which 20th-century American scholarship has put Burke in the service of its own increasingly aggressive conservatism. In the case of James Joyce, he inspects the rhetorical crescendos that conclude his works from The Dead through Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Deane asks if these fine endings or culminating symphonies serve as release-valves to diffuse contradictions and energies the works cannot contain.

Tone: The Great Nation and the Evil Empire and The End of the World represent the longer essay forms typical of the later stage of Deane’s career. Ostensibly, the Tone essay is a review of a three-volume edition of The Writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone, edited by TW Moody, RB McDowell, and CJ Woods, but the piece immediately departs from any conventional review form. It opens with a gripping account of the 1795 trial and courtroom death by self-poisoning of the Anglican clergyman and United Irish agent William Jackson, who chose suicide over a traitor’s execution and the disinheritance of his family that would follow.

From there, Deane leads his readers into an account of the reign of legal terror prosecuted by the British authorities in the 1790s that was designed to extinguish the United Irishmen even before any French-assisted revolution was attempted. The use of informers, spies, torture, execution, imprisonment, eviction, and exile to the Americas or the colonies, and the bait of briberies and honours by the British state to suppress an infant Irish republicanism, constituted, Deane argues, “a new departure from English law, peculiar to Ireland”.

Over the next two centuries these devices would become exemplary modes of oppression and reward practiced successively against the United Irishmen, the Fenians, the post-Famine land agitations, and IRA members during the two Troubles eras. The essay concludes by commenting, on the way in which, despite his efforts for Irish Catholics, Tone’s “Roman suicide” would in the writings of later Catholic nationalist historians such as Thomas D’Arcy Magee always place republicanism’s founding father outside of the Catholic family fold.

The End of the World, which rounds off Small World, takes inspiration from Walter Benjamin. The piece is subdivided into twelve sections – Helga, Lusitania, The Blaskets, Mar ná beidh ár leithéidí arís ann .. ., A Minor Literature, A Major Language, Peig, Therapeutic Realism, A Therapeutic Language, Thomas MacDonagh, Daniel Corkery, Robin Flower, George Thomson. What binds these vignettes? Or, if searching for any overarching argument is misconceived, the piece a constellated series of essais or tries, what emerges from these arrangements?

The steamship Helga with which The End of the World opens, best known in Irish history for the shelling of Liberty Hall during the Easter Rising of 1916, had earlier taken part, Deane notes, in the first Clare Island Survey of 1909-11. After 1916, a troopship transported the Black and Tan militias to different ports of Ireland during the War of Independence. Later, the Irish Free State purchased the vessel for its tiny marine fleet. From botanical survey vessel to imperial gunboat and troop carrier to Free State marine service, the Helga, Deane observes, passed in the space of a decade “out of the history of world domination and into the quiet desuetude of the Irish Free State naval service”.

This overture prepares readers for another Deane-style history lesson that will, apparently, take them from the turbulence of history – with its empires, revolutions, wars and atrocities – into the retirements of posthistory: the Irish Free State and Republic born of that imperial turbulence somehow, like the Helga, also navigating a path into the latter condition. This end-of-history narrative shadows The End of the World, but it is not the whole story.

In another register, The End of the World traces a history of the Blasket islanders who subsisted by fishing and for whom the cargoes washed ashore from British and American ships sunk by German submarines during the first World War represented a rare bonanza: “boxed chocolates, barrels of apples, flour, wine, bacon, castor oil, pocket watches, clothes, leather strips and cowhides, cotton bales, wooden planks” were all gifted by the tides to the marvelling islanders in 1915 after the sinking of the Lusitania.

But the Blaskets, like Ireland’s other western islands, were themselves successively scavenged by British surveyors, German philologists, Irish Revivalists, Gaelic scholars, American filmmakers, English classicists and naturalists for evidence of a prehistorical or epic past miraculously surviving aslant the outer end of Ireland’s and Europe’s modernity. In this sequence, the slow fade of the Irish language, the disappearance of a primitive way of island life, and the end of human habitation on the Blaskets become occasions for various forms of commemorative or conservationist exercises.

Time itself, or the different scales of time that organise human and natural life, ultimately emerges as Deane’s “theme” in this piece. The Helga and Lusitania have their places in the essay because each marks a moment in a larger passage of historical time that will, at the cost of two world wars, see the decline of the European empires and the ascent of their American successor. “The Great War had been a European affair; it became a World War with the American intervention.” “The old balance of powers had given way to a new hegemony. Globalization and the World became the key terms of the vocabulary that began to rival, and then replace, the legal idioms of the nation-state and the European balance of power.”

The time of this transition from European empire to American world is also the time of the making of Irish Free State and Republic, the new polity’s first “independent” century accompanied by the death of the one dispensation and the birth of the other. This era was be marked, too, not just by the removal of the Blasket islanders but also of the Irish Ascendancy – Elizabeth Bowen is saluted in two essays in Small World as one of the subtlest Irish recorders of the passing of British and European aristocratic mentalités – and by the old Ascendancy Ireland’s brief replacement by Catholic Ireland, its anguished, but circumspect life deftly caught in the slanted art of Mary Lavin.

Underlying all that history with its ruckus of rising and falling great powers, nations, and classes, there lies yet another temporality: the dimension of evolutionary time, the aeons of earth and oceans, things once but no longer thought inviolable to human time. Yet even our sense of the differential temporalities of botanical or natural life comes to us, Deane reminds himself, as a product of human scientific or cultural consciousness, as does the perception that the natural world’s slow unhurried pace runs contrapuntally to the jaggedly destructive rush of our modernity and postmodernity.

Post-Enlightenment history or modernity once promised much, now promises little salvific consolation. But to abjure history, whatever little hope it offers, is to surrender not just the past but also any sense of steerage towards a different future. The End of the World registers the dissolution of Irish and other national histories into the global solvent of American World History yet also intimates that time may be marking the cards of that World History too. Or it might suggest that the end of human habitation on the Blaskets anticipates not just a post-Gaelic world but also a post-human time unfathomable to us all.

For many people around the world, Ireland remains a country of writers, not critics. The names of Wilde and Shaw, Synge and Yeats, Joyce and Beckett, Bowen and Banville, Heaney and Kinsella, Edna O’Brien and Sally Rooney, have an international resonance that few figures in the non-literary Irish arts can match.

However, to say this does not diminish the accomplishments of Irish critics. Yeats devoted a long career not just to creating a distinctively new Irish literature but also to shaping and championing that new literature in his critical writings and essays. When the occasion compelled him to do so, he was not shy to take up the role of public intellectual, plying his rhetorical skills for good and bad causes.

A generation later, other writers – the playwright, novelist and short-story writer Daniel Corkery, and novelist and short-story writer Sean Ó Faoláin – also found themselves duty-bound to play the critic. Corkery challenged what he felt to be stubbornly recalcitrant colonial attitudes in Irish writing; Ó Faoláin chastised not only Yeats’s, McQuaid’s, or de Valera’s Irelands for their perversities but also took his fellow writers to task for what he deemed their inverted romanticisms and circumspect timidities.

A poet and the author of the intricately crafted Reading in the Dark, Deane brilliantly sustained a legacy of the writer-critic and public intellectual. Like Yeats, Corkery or Ó Faoláin, he was never afraid to be unpopular or at odds with his times. Like these predecessors, he has been willing to challenge his country’s dominant ideologies, both political and aesthetic.

That said, Deane never allowed himself to settle comfortably into the role of critic if by critic one simply means a castigator or oppositional figure only. His enormous scholarly commitment to several centuries of Irish writing, his assimilation of so many European intellectual traditions from the Enlightenment to the present, his collaborative work as theatre company director, anthologist and journal editor all testify to a career that was a creatively and constructively civic enterprise.

Seamus never devoted his energies only to the articulation of his own ambitions, but always to the furtherance of Irish writing in several modes. As Small World eloquently testifies, “the passion for thinking” that had animated Seamus Deane’s earliest writings burned brightly to the very end.

Joe Cleary is a professor of English and Irish literature in Yale University and author of Modernism, Empire, World Literature (Cambridge UP, 2021). This is a modified extract from his foreword to Seamus Deane’s Small World (Cambridge UP, 2021)