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Small World: Ireland, 1798-2018 by Seamus Deane – A magnificent volume

Book review: Four chapters on Irish female writers are particularly welcome

Small World: Ireland, 1798-2018
Small World: Ireland, 1798-2018
Author: Seamus Deane
ISBN-13: 978-1108840866
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Guideline Price: £20

The announcement from Cambridge University Press that it would be publishing a new book by Seamus Deane was as unexpected as it was welcome. The leading Irish public intellectual had gone 80 and was retired from his professorship in Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame. But he was still active, editing the Field Day Review for 10 years until 2015 and writing for the Dublin Review of Books.

I sat down on a Thursday morning to read the first chapter when news came that Deane had died, suddenly and of a stroke. I was shocked, saddened and through-other for the rest of the day. further thoughts were of the grieving of the family and of his many former students, friends and former colleagues: I was one of them.

Deane taught in the Department of English at UCD, where he was professor of modern English and American literature for 25 years; we overlapped for four of them. When I finished the book, with its tour-de-force 44-page chapter apocalyptically titled The End of the World, my overwhelming feeling was that I didn’t want it to end.

Across a range of historic periods from the 18th century to the present, Deane’s great subject was colonialism, in particular the colonial relationship between Ireland and England. As a Catholic from Derry’s Bogside, this was a subject that elicited from him a visceral as well as an intellectual response.


In the chapter on Jonathan Swift and A Modest Proposal, he writes that “the political impasse, finally exposed in and by the English-Irish colonial relationship, is figured finally as a murderous action in which the atrocity of nurturing children to be eaten is redescribed in the modern way as the production of a crop or commodity that satisfies a theory of economic behaviour”. Joyce’s Dublin is beset by a colonial state of mind, producing not only paralysis but a compensating fantasy.

The greatest essay in the collection, Civilians and Barbarians, dating from 1983, was originally a Field Day pamphlet. Deane had joined Field Day, the theatre company founded in 1980 by playwright Brian Friel and actor-director Stephen Rea, early on and was developing its public, intellectual and political engagement through a series of pamphlets.

Civilians and Barbarians is the single most insightful critical article on Friel’s 1980 Translations, even though it never mentions the play. Referring to the Ordnance Survey, the opening of the national schools, the establishment, by 1836, of a nationally controlled paramilitary force, Deane argues that these various State-run enterprises in Ireland had one “aim in view: the civilisation of the wild natives”.

After his undergraduate degree at Queen’s in Belfast, Deane did a PhD in Cambridge, subsequently published as The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England, 1789-1832. As Joe Cleary puts it in his foreword, this study “remains foundational to Deane’s formation and to all of his subsequent critical writing”. It remains no less foundational to this last collection.

The key figure is a writer who obsessed Deane for all of his life: Edmund Burke. Deane describes Burke’s manifold contradictions as follows: “The Irishman who was more British than the English could ever be, the crypto-Catholic who had a deeper vision of Anglicanism than any Anglican since Hooker, the former supporter of rebellion who became the scourge and analyst of revolution.”

The abiding impression of Wolfe Tone that emerges from Deane’s lengthy review-essay is of Tone lingering in Paris, trying to interest the French in supporting Irish independence, without the company of his wife and best friend, Thomas Russell, isolated, lonely, drinking too much, wary of spies.

Yeats and Joyce

The two key figures from the early 20th century who recur are Yeats and Joyce. It might seem at first as if Yeats the Romantic (fixated on his version of Ireland’s past) is to be dismissed in favour of the present and future-oriented Joyce. But Deane is too canny to reject completely the past in favour of a depthless modernism.

Yeats is given weight by a tragic sensibility: “For Yeats, although he did surrender to the appeal of violence, also conceded the tragic destiny this involved.” And Joyce, by the time he reached Finnegans Wake, had reached a “pluralism of styles and languages” that it could be argued “is the harmony of indifference, one in which everything is a version of everything else”.

Small World has four chapters on Irish women writers: two on Elizabeth Bowen, one on Mary Lavin and one on Anna Burns’s 2019 Booker Prize winner Milkman. There are also astute comments on Peig Sayers in the last chapter, rescuing her from the curse of decades on the Leaving Cert syllabus.

The two Bowen chapters are superb exercises in close reading: he is drawn to oddities in her style as a way of entering and understanding the complexities of Bowen’s position, an Anglo-Irish woman caught between England and Ireland. The Lavin chapter is a fascinating look at the position of the widow in her short stories, entering an enforced period of celibacy because of their social position.

Deane has uncharacteristic difficulty in settling on a consistent tone on Milkman. That fertile mind finds no shortage of possible critical approaches, but the multiple suggestions – some of them downright contradictory – suggest that Milkman may be too close for comfort to the fictional home ground of the Troubles when it comes to the author of Reading in the Dark.

‘Volatile, city-smart’

Deane’s four chapters on Irish women writers are particularly welcome. The three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing was published in 1991 under his general editorship. The furore which immediately erupted upon publication given the absence of female section editors and the minimal inclusion of women writers is well known. As Cleary writes: “Deane immediately conceded the project’s deficiencies on this count and set about raising funding for a further two volumes of women’s writing.”

The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing is now five volumes. Rather than running for cover, Deane faced into and braved the storm, helping to bring those two new volumes into being. He ends Small World by referencing the work of leading feminist scholars on Sayers, showing how his own scholarship has benefited from the result.

The penultimate chapter, The Famous Seamus, could only be about Seamus Heaney. If Heaney was Famous Seamus from early on, Deane was always Seamus Eile. The two were friends from childhood: fellow students at St Columb’s College and later at Queen’s College both striving to get their poetry published. For all of their similarities, the contrast between them is sharply drawn: “Heaney, slow, calm, solid, country-cunning; Deane quick, volatile, city-smart.”

I remember a conversation about Deane with Heaney from about 10 years ago. He said he always remembered and thought of Deane as young, jeune. I knew what he meant. It wasn’t just that we always tend to remember friends at the age they were when we first met them. It was more than that in the case of Deane. He got older, like the rest of us. But the image of the young firebrand somehow remained through all of the changes.

The energy and intellectual fireworks persisted all his life, as this magnificent volume fully attests.

Anthony Roche is professor emeritus of English at UCD