Seamus Deane, for the past 50 years one of Ireland’s foremost writers and critics, best-known for his award-winning autobiographical novel Reading in the Dark and the landmark Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, died last night in Beaumont Hospital after a short illness. He was 81.
Arts Council chair Prof Kevin Rafter said: “A gifted writer and a profound intellect, Seamus Deane was a master of every writing form. As a critic, an editor, a poet and a novelist, Deane brought concentrated rigour and empathy to his work. An inspiring teacher and continual advocate for Irish writing, Seamus Deane leaves behind a powerful literary and cultural legacy."
Born in Derry in 1940, he was a friend and classmate of Seamus Heaney, first at St Columb’s College in Derry and then at Queen’s University Belfast but, while a distinguished poet himself, he pursued a career in academia.
After a PhD at Pembroke College, Cambridge, he taught in Berkeley for several years. He later became a lecturer and then professor of modern English and American literature at University College Dublin, then from 1992 professor of English and the Donald and Marilyn Keough Chair of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.
Along with Heaney, Tom Paulin and David Hammond, he was an early recruit to Field Day, founded in 1980 by playwright Brian Friel and the actor Stephen Rea, as it grew from a theatrical into a major nationalist cultural and political project, described by archivist Catriona Crowe as “the most important intellectual force in Ireland in the 1980s”.
However, as general editor of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1999), a 4,000-page work with canonical ambition, he came in for heavy criticism for its glaring omissions of Irish women's voices and experiences. Challenged by Nuala O'Faolain on RTÉ, it has been wrongly claimed that he simply said: "I forgot." In fact, he said: "To my astonishment and dismay, I have found that I myself have been subject to the same kind of critique to which I have subjected colonialism … I find that I exemplify some of the faults and erasures which I analyse and characterize in the earlier period."
Deane was also a distingushed poet. His first collection, Gradual Wars, was published in 1972, winning the AE Memorial Award for Literature, although a pamphlet, While Jewels Rot, had appeared in 1966, in the famous Festival Publications series at Queens. Rumours was published by Dolmen Press in 1977; then History Lessons with the Gallery Press in 1983 and Selected Poems in 1988.
It was as a critic, however, that he made his name, with works such as Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880-1980 (1985), A Short History of Irish Literature (1986) and The French Enlightenment and Revolution in England (1998), and Foreign Affections: Essays on Edmund Burke (2004), subject of his PhD. His final book, Small World: Ireland, 1798–2018, will now be published posthumously by Cambridge University Press on June 3rd.
He was also general editor of the Penguin Classic James Joyce series and Critical Conditions, a book series in Irish Studies co-published by the University of Notre Dame Press and Cork University Press. With historian Breandán Mac Suibhne, he was a founding editor of Field Day Review, a journal of political and literary culture, and the Field Files book series, which included major works by, among others, critics David Lloyd, Joe Cleary, Marjorie Howes and historian Kerby Miller.
However, it was his Booker-shortlisted novel, Reading in the Dark, winner of the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Irish Literature Prize, and the Guardian Prize, which brought Deane’s name to a much wider audience. Published in 1996, the year after Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature, it is a powerful, deeply moving portrait of a Derry childhood under the shadow of sectarianism and a dark family secret.
Earlier, as a teacher in Derry, he had taught Martin McGuinness, a future IRA leader and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, who recalled in an interview with Irish America: “One teacher who was great was Seamus Deane. He was gentle, kind and never raised his voice at all, an ideal teacher who was very highly thought of.”
Writer and political activist Eamon McCann once said: “Seamus Deane was the best soccer player in St Columb’s, then he fell in with the wrong crowd – and became a poet!”
Deane was also a popular raconteur. While at Berkeley in the 1960s, he famously enjoyed more than his fair share of devilled eggs at a party, whose topping was not paprika but mescaline.
The title of his 1997 work, Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790, echoes the opening lines of his poem, Strange Country, from Rumours:
It is too simple
To say I miss you.
If there were a language
That could not say 'leave'
And had no word for 'stay'
That would be the tongue
For this strange country [.]
He is survived by his partner, the author and academic Emer Nolan, their daughter Iseult, his first wife Marion and their children Conor, Ciarán, Cormac and Émer.