Seamus Deane Essay - Critical Essays

Deane, Seamus


Seamus Deane 1940–

(Full name Seamus Francis Deane) Northern Irish critic, poet, and novelist.

The following entry presents criticism of Deane's career through 1997.

Regarded as one of Ireland's leading commentators on Irish literature and culture, Deane has analyzed and interpreted "the matter of Ireland," or what constitutes "Irishness," in numerous essays and books that challenge traditional notions of the people and civilization of Ireland. Besides several volumes of poetry and a novel, Deane has produced a far-reaching body of scholarship and criticism on a variety of past and contemporary Irish writers, ranging from Jonathan Swift, W. B. Yeats, and James Joyce to Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel, and Seamus Heaney, as well as such English authors as Francis Godwin, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad. In both prose and verse he has addressed diverse themes, including Irish history and politics, the political philosophies of Edmund Burke, Charles Parnell, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, the influence of the Irish Revival and "the troubles" on Irish literature and culture, and, above all, the character of Irish identity. Deane also served as general editor of the critically acclaimed, three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991), which both reflects his vast knowledge of Irish literature and represents a keystone for Irish literary studies.

Biographical Information

Born the son of an electrician in Derry, (short for Londonderry), Northern Ireland, Deane received his secondary education at St. Columb's College. He took his bachelor's degree in 1961 and his master's degree in 1963 from Queen's University in Belfast and his finished his doctoral work from Cambridge University in 1966. Upon completing his studies, Deane taught English literature for two years in the United States at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and at the University of California in Berkeley. He returned to Ireland just before "the troubles" erupted in October, 1968, and lectured at University College in Dublin from 1968 to 1980, when he became a professor of modern English and American literature there. In 1972, Deane published his first poetry collection, Gradual Wars, which won the A. E. Memorial Prize for Poetry. Following the publication of his next volume of verse, Rumours (1975), he taught again at American universities during the late 1970s. In 1980, Deane helped convene Field Day, a loosely organized group of Northern Irish writers and actors, mostly from his hometown, who staged new plays across Ireland and independently published pamphlets on Irish cultural themes, including his own Civilians and Barbarians (1983) and Heroic Styles (1984). After his third collection of poems, History Lessons, appeared in 1985, Deane focused his writing on scholarly interests, publishing the essay collections Celtic Revivals (1985) and A Short History of Irish Literature (1986) and the sociopolitical study The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England (1988). During the early 1990s he edited the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991) as well as a six-volume edition of Joyce's works for the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics series. Since 1993, when he left University College, Deane has taught Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame in the United States and published his first novel, Reading in the Dark (1995), which was nominated for the Booker Prize in England. Deane also has compiled a series of lectures delivered in 1995 in Strange Country (1997).

Major Works

Reflecting his circumstances and experiences in strife-torn Derry, Deane's lyric poetry concerns the historical sources and often bloody consequences of violence and investigates the ways that memory and tradition both pervert and rejuvenate communal values. The poems of Gradual Wars dramatize the effects of sectarian violence, tracing how divisive cultural attitudes shape personal identity and impede social expressions of emotion. Rumours contains reminiscences about the poet's childhood, his relationship with his father, and his wartime and vocational experiences, most notably in the poems "Scholar I" and "Scholar II," which focus on the relation between life and literature. Expanding the themes of his earlier verse, History Lessons articulates the pursuit of relief from the burden of history and its attendant bloodshed, drawing connections between personal memories of violence, the situation in contemporary Northern Ireland, and the shadowy forces that influence the history of humanity. Deane's prose works comprise the bulk of his writings. Evincing revisionist perspectives, his numerous scholarly essays frequently examine traditional and stereotypical literary representations of Irish cultural history and national identity, suggesting the significance of Ireland's status as a colonized nation. In such early pieces as "The Literary Myths of the Revival" (1977; reprinted in Celtic Revivals), Civilians and Barbarians, and Heroic Styles, Deane traced the origins of these preconceptions to the attitudes espoused by both English colonizers and the natives themselves toward "the matter of Ireland." The essays collected in Celtic Revivals and A Short History of Irish Lierature, as well as the selections and prefatory essays of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature, stress a relationship between Irish political history and the evolution of its literature in terms of Ireland's colonial status, often rewriting customary views of Irish writers and myths. The French Enlightenment and Revolution in England and Strange Country extend Deane's revisionism toward political events that more generally affected continental Europe than Ireland, including such developments as the rise of nationalism and imperialism as well as the ideology of progressive modernism. Reading in the Dark is an Irish Bildungsroman set in Derry in the 1940s and 1950s. Loosely autobiographical, Deane's only novel follows the maturation of an unnamed boy as he unravels a mysterious secret that haunts his mother, gradually learning of his grandfather's role in the rumored disappearance of his uncle in 1922.

Critical Reception

Although Deane's poetic skills have elicited a generally favorable response from commentators, his critical acumen has earned him the respect of fellow critics and scholars. As Eamon Hughes says: "Deane, it goes without saying, is a powerful and shrewd critic with whom it is at times a pleasure to agree, and an equal pleasure to disagree when in the face of his persuasive power one is forced to rethink." Despite a few detractors, many critics value Deane's cultural criticism for attempting to clarify the attributes of Irish national identity. Most critics, though not entirely in agreement with his choices, point to his editorial efforts in compiling the Field Day Anthology as his most accomplished achievement. John Byrne asserts that the collection "is clearly destined to become the standard text for all Irish Literature courses in American colleges for years to come." However, Deane's fiction also has attracted considerable interest, particularly for the way the specific characters, themes, and events of his novel evoke the universal conditions of life in Northern Ireland, yet at the same time resonate with qualities that define Ireland in general. "Deane is persuaded that being Irish is a very specific way of being human, one that permits the determined to have the last laugh, no matter who the joke is on," states Edward Conlon. "For him the question is less whether Ireland will ever be free than whether the Irish will be free of Ireland, with its violent hopes and seductive griefs."

Principal Works

Gradual Wars (poetry) 1972
Rumours (poetry) 1975
Civilian and Barbarians (essay) 1983
Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea (essay) 1984
History Lessons (poetry) 1985
Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature (criticism) 1985
A Short History of Irish Literature, 1580–1980 (criticism) 1986
Selected Poems (poetry) 1988
The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England, 1789–1832 (criticism) 1988
The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing 3 vols. [editor] (poetry and prose) 1991
Reading in the Dark (novel) 1995
Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790 (lectures) 1997


Douglas Dunn (review date December 1973)

SOURCE: "The Specked Hill, The Plover's Shore," in Encounter, Vol. XLI, No. 6, December, 1973, pp. 70-76.

[In the following excerpt, Dunn identifies the consequences of violence as the principal theme of Gradual Wars, noting the effect of the collection's artificial tone on its themes.]

Seamus Deane avoids superficial negations [in Gradual Wars], either in favour of the kind of specifics Simmons finds "boring"—

The unemployment in our bones
Erupting on our hands in stones

or, more rewardingly, in favour of complex ironies and ambiguities. He frequently toys...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Gavin Ewart (review date 25 November 1977)

SOURCE: "Accepting the Inevitable," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3948, November 25, 1977, p. 1381.

[In the following excerpt, Ewart assesses the themes, poetic diction, and imagery of Rumours.]

Rumours is Seamus Deane's second book. The simplicity of the equivalents invoked (Governmental kindness=school milk=cold, inhuman) marks it as not very sophisticated—though none the worse for that. He uses the unrhymed lyric mostly but also, not quite so successful, the spasmodically rhyming lyric. Poems about his relationship with his father ("The Birthday Gift" for example) are some of the best. The language is apt but sometimes on the edge of rhetoric ("Little...

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J. T. Keefe (review date Autumn 1984)

SOURCE: A review of History Lessons, in World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No. 4, Autumn, 1984, p. 608.

[In the following review, Keefe focuses on the emergence of a distinct persona in the poems of History Lessons.]

Seamus Deane is a distinguished member of a literary movement that has emerged from the North of Ireland and has the "Troubles" of the last few decades as its mainspring. His third book of poems, History Lessons, continues the poet's quest for an answer to the intolerable burden of history and the bloody explosions it fuels. The poems are wrought with tension and a nervosity that in the personal lyrics occasionally tend to overwhelm that...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Conor Cruise O'Brien (review date 18 August 1985)

SOURCE: "Cult of Blood," in The Observer Review, August 18, 1985, p. 18.

[In the following review, O'Brien addresses certain nuances of Irish politics, nationalism, and revisionism examined in Celtic Revivals.]

The modern writers examined in these essays [Celtic Revivals] are Joyce, Yeats, Synge, O'Casey, Patrick Pearse, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Brian Friel, Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney.

At his best, and especially when contemporary politics don't come into play, Mr Deane is a very good critic. Most of his essays are illuminating in one way or another—though sometimes verging on the precious or the pompous, and...

(The entire section is 1055 words.)

Patricia Craig (review date 5 September 1985)

SOURCE: "Valorising Valentine Brown," in London Review of Books, Vol. 7, No. 15, September 5, 1985, pp. 10-11.

[In the following review, Craig favorably compares Celtic Revivals to contemporaneous cultural critiques of literary constructions of "Anglo-Irishness."]

In a recent Times article, Philip Howard pounced on the deplorable word 'valorisation' which seems to be trying to edge its way into the English language. 'To enhance the price, value or status of by organised … action' is one of the meanings he quotes for it. Here is an example of one such usage: 'the literary critics' valorisation of tradition'. This phrase occurs towards the end of W. J....

(The entire section is 3066 words.)

Patrick Parrinder (review date 24 July 1986)

SOURCE: "Celtic Revisionism," in London Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 13, July 24, 1986, pp. 16-17.

[In the following excerpt, Parrinder delineates Irish cultural history as defined in A Short History of Literature, deconstructing Deane's bias against Irish national mythology.]

[What] today can we mean by 'English' literature? Seamus Deane begins his Short History of Irish Literature by asserting that the term 'Anglo-Irish' for the body of writing with which he is concerned is now anachronistic. Deane here is lending powerful support to the modern tendency to appeal to national divisions, rather than language divisions, in defining a literature. Such a...

(The entire section is 1883 words.)

Tom Halpin (review date Fall 1989)

SOURCE: "The Razors of Perception," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall, 1989, p. 20.

[In the following review, Halpin provides an overview of Selected Poems, outlining the general characteristics of Deane's poetry.]

In the course of an interview several years ago, Thomas Kinsella was challenged to assert the value of the artistic act, conditioned as it is both by the inevitable limitations of the artist as a human being and by the apparently unrestructurable nature of reality itself, its random disorder and dispiriting contingency. Kinsella's reply was clear: "If an artistic response is called into existence, that itself modifies the situation....

(The entire section is 2386 words.)

Alan Ryan (review date 9 November 1989)

SOURCE: "Effervescence," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 21, November 9, 1989, pp. 10-11.

[In the following excerpt, Ryan examines the main arguments of The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England, emphasizing the ways in which British writers explored the British political character through their preoccupation with the French national character at the turn of the eighteenth century.]

The view expressed by Monied Interest in Dickens's story 'The Flight' might have made an epigraph for Seamus Deane's The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England. It was Monied Interest who declared that it was 'quite enough for him that the French are...

(The entire section is 1479 words.)

Hugh Kenner (review date 26 January 1992)

SOURCE: "There's Music in the Ould Sod Yet," in The New York Times Book Review, January 26, 1992, pp. 3, 23.

[In the following review, Kenner outlines the contents of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, assessing its strengths and weaknesses.]

At four times the word count of the King James Bible, the new three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing makes an Irish Statement: We've been here from Time's Beginning, and we're silver-tongued. What else it states is harder to paraphrase, so tangled has been the long Irish story of co-opting some past to serve some present end.

Cu Chulainn for instance, a noted skull-basher; the way...

(The entire section is 1216 words.)

Anne Devlin (review date 25 August 1996)

SOURCE: "Growing Up in Ireland's Shadowlands," in The Observer Review, August 25, 1996, p. 17.

[In the following review, Devlin evaluates the narrative structure and style of Reading in the Dark, indicating the relation between stories and reality.]

From the moment on the opening page of Reading in the Dark when the boy is stopped on the stairs by his mother, because a shadow has fallen between them, I was disarmed, though I had to wait 134 pages until the shadow surfaced again in its original context, in the tale 'Mother', before I understood that it was never possible to go straight at this thing that has fallen between them.

I am of...

(The entire section is 1040 words.)

Terry Eagleton (review date 30 August 1996)

SOURCE: "The Bogside Bard," in New Statesman, Vol. 125, No. 4299, August 30, 1996, p. 46.

[In the following review, Eagleton concentrates on the public appeal of Deane's fictional rendering of personal memories in Reading in the Dark.]

A colonial culture is a culture of secrecy. Seamus Deane's superb first novel [Reading in the Dark], set in the Derry Bogside of the 1940s and 1950s, is all about who knows what in a place awash with rumours, hauntings, metamorphoses and misinformation. People and things materialise and evaporate, mysteriously change shape or sex, cocoon themselves and others in ever thicker layers of deception. It is a world as materialist as...

(The entire section is 777 words.)

Julia O'Faolain (review date 27 September 1996)

SOURCE: "The Boy Who Wanted to Know," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4878, September 27, 1996, p. 22.

[In the following review, O'Faolain identifies the narrative value of folktales in Reading in the Dark as compromising the novel's realism.]

This first novel by the poet Seamus Deane has the focused compression of poetry. Short sections—lots of white paper here—present carefully chosen incidents whose meanings expand into complexity as the narrative gathers momentum.

Reading in the Dark is, on one level, an optimistic tale. As an Irish Bildungsroman, confronting familiar hurdles, it follows a Catholic Derry boy through his...

(The entire section is 1026 words.)

Derek Hand (review date Spring 1997)

SOURCE: "The Endless Possibilities of Ordinary Life," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 19-20.

[In the following review, Hand connects the narrative perspective of Reading in the Dark to aspects of Deane's critical career.]

It is inevitable that a first novel by an author with a well established academic and critical career will be approached—certainly by other critics and academics—with the lumbering baggage of various expectations and preconceptions of what will be found there. This is very much so with Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark. One reason for this is that the novel has been a long time coming—in a...

(The entire section is 1410 words.)

Josephine Humphreys (review date 4 May 1997)

SOURCE: "Ghosts," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 102, May 4, 1997, p. 6.

[In the following review, Humphreys summarizes the theme and plot of Reading in the Dark, praising the characterizations and "animated" descriptions of inanimate objects.]

Two memories rise, ominous as thunder on a clear day, in the opening pages of this first novel by the poet Seamus Deane. The narrator, an unnamed young man looking back on his childhood in Northern Ireland, remembers climbing the stair when he was 5. His mother had just started down, and they were about to meet on the landing when suddenly she said. "Don't move." He could see nothing between them except the...

(The entire section is 1450 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 11 May 1997)

SOURCE: "Ghost Story," in Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1997, p. 2.

[In the following review, Eder comments on the function of family secrets in Reading in the Dark, highlighting the thematic significance of pivotal scenes.]

It begins, puzzlingly, with a series of disconnected childhood memories from the 1940s in Derry, in Northern Ireland. The little boy's mother senses an invisible presence on the stair's landing and sobs inconsolably. An aunt tells a terribly frightening ghost story of a brother and a sister who drive their nanny mad by exchanging features—hair, eyes, smile, even gender—with each other.

The kindly, mournful father, a...

(The entire section is 1300 words.)

Robert Boyers (review date 19 May 1997)

SOURCE: "Identity and Diffidence," in The New Republic, Vol. 216, No. 20, May 19, 1997, pp. 33-6.

[In the following review, Boyers traces the development of betrayal as the central theme of Reading in the Dark, explicating narrative implications about the political character of Northern Ireland.]

Irish history is bad history. So says one character in Seamus Deane's first novel [Reading in the Dark], and no other character in the novel seems much inclined to deny it. In a land of "small places," as it is described here, people have too often made "big mistakes." They lie to themselves and to one another. They rely on old certainties when they might better...

(The entire section is 3166 words.)

Thomas McGonigle (review date 8 June 1997)

SOURCE: "Two Novels Look at Life in Northern Ireland," in Chicago Tribune Books, June 8, 1997, p. 8.

[In the following review, McGonigle commends the narration of Reading in the Dark.]

The North, Northern Ireland, Ulster, The Six Counties. How you name that part of Ireland that is part of the United Kingdom reveals your politics, religion and attitude toward what has been going on there since 1968 and, of course, how you think about the 800-year entanglement of Ireland and England.

There is no neutrality when it comes to this situation, and if I write about Seamus Deane's autobiographically driven novel, Reading in the Dark, as being a...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Edward Conlon (review date 8 September 1997)

SOURCE: "Violent Griefs and Seductive Hopes," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXX, No. 14, September 8, 1997, pp. 16-17.

[In the following review, Conlon compares the autobiographical elements of Reading in the Dark to those of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, finding Deane's novel representative of a more general Irish identity than McCourt's.]

The word "mystery" derives from a Greek term for someone who kept his mouth shut: an initiate into the sacred rites and transcendent experiences of the ancient world. To outsiders, such individuals were distinguished by their refusal to speak of their secrets. So a mystery became what we don't understand, whether in the...

(The entire section is 1293 words.)

Eamon Hughes (review date Fall 1997)

SOURCE: "Tradition and Modernity," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall, 1997, p. 21.

[In the following review, Hughes addresses the ambiguities he finds in Deane's definition of modernity in Strange Country.]

Taking Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France as his "foundational text," Seamus Deane examines the "contrast and contest between tradition and modernity" which extends through and beyond the Irish nineteenth century. This discourse appears in a number of oppositional pairings—culture and economics, the national and the rational, speech and print, Ireland and England—and issues in the nineteenth century in "a narrative of...

(The entire section is 1196 words.)

Tom Deignan (review date 11 October 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Reading in the Dark, in America, Vol. 177, No. 10, October 11, 1997, p. 28.

[In the following review, Deignan considers the thematic relations of the title of Reading in the Dark, noting the influence of Deane's poetic skills on his narrative technique.]

Set in post-World War II Northern Ireland, Seamus Deane's debut novel, Reading in the Dark is a panoramic story of—what else?—family ties and political trauma. But more unusual than the novel's subject matter is the talent Deane, a Notre Dame professor and Derry native, brings to his task. Narrated by a nameless boy-turned-man, Reading in the Dark moves seamlessly...

(The entire section is 785 words.)

Thomas Flanagan (review date 23 October 1997)

SOURCE: "Family Secrets," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 16, October 23, 1997, pp. 54-5.

[In the following review, Flanagan establishes the literary and cultural contexts of Reading in the Dark, comparing the novel to James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and providing a historical background to Derry and its environs.]

On the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence.

It was a short staircase, fourteen steps in all, covered in lino from which the original pattern had been polished away to the point where it had the look of a faint memory. Eleven steps took you to the turn of the...

(The entire section is 3120 words.)

Further Reading


Byrne, John. Review of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, edited by Seamus Deane. Agenda 33, Nos. 3-4 (Autumn-Winter 1996): 272-82.

Details the contents of the anthology with respect to the aims of its editors, singling out Deane who "deserves tremendous credit for his personal contribution."

Kilfeather, Siobhan. "The Whole Bustle." London Review of Books 14, No. 1 (9 January 1992): 20-1.

Reviews The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, emphasizing the politics of its compilation.

Quinlan, Kieran. "Under...

(The entire section is 196 words.)