Svelte Dictions in a Florid Hand

Remembering poet, novelist and scholar Seamus Deane, who shimmered with brilliance on the page.

Author: Thomas O’Grady ’85Ph.D.

The last time I saw Seamus Deane, who died this week at age 81, was in the summer of 2010. I was in Dublin and got wind of a command performance poetry reading by the other Seamus — Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney — at O’Connell House in Merrion Square, Notre Dame’s Irish Studies base there. It was a private event, but I slipped in the door with a nod and wink to and from Kevin Whelan, the director of the Dublin global gateway, who was hosting. (I had met Kevin years before, so I wasn’t completely a blow-in.) The room was packed but I got a seat in the back row.

Heaney was in good form, but the reading was a bit unusual in that he seemed to be addressing his remarks and his poems not to the audience at large, but to someone specific in the front row. Eventually, when he read “The Ministry of Fear,” the opening poem of a sequence titled “Singing School” included in his iconic volume North, I realized that he was reading to Seamus Deane, to whom that poem is dedicated. The poem first recalls the period of poetic apprenticeship the two friends shared as students at St. Columb’s College in Derry in the early 1950s:

Dabbling in verses till they have become

A life: from bulky envelopes arriving

In vacation time to slim volumes

Dispatched ‘with the author’s compliments’.

Those poems in longhand, ripped from the wire spine

Of your exercise book, bewildered me—

Vowels and ideas bandied free

As the seed-pods blowing off our sycamores.

Heaney then goes on to recount how, later, his personal belongings were rifled through at a military checkpoint in the politically troubled world of Northern Ireland:

They once read my letters at a roadblock

And shone their torches on your hieroglyphics,

‘Svelte dictions’ in a very florid hand.

Like Heaney, Deane had an auspicious start as a poet, launching three standalone volumes over an 11-year period: Gradual Wars (1972), Rumours (1977) and History Lessons (1983). A Selected Poems published in 1988 included 11 new poems and translations.

During this same period, Deane was also launching his academic career. Going forward, his output as scholar and critic would eclipse his writing of poems. In the mid-1980s he published three scholarly books: 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, 1789-1832 (1988). These titles established him not only as a scholar and a critic to be reckoned with but also as a major public intellectual. Decades later, I still remember the first time I cracked the cover of Celtic Revivals, a wide-ranging series of essays on poets, playwrights and fiction writers, and marveled at how Deane could say more in a paragraph than most writers could say in a chapter, and more in a chapter than most writers could say in a book. Every page shimmered with brilliance.

Seamus Deane
Deane, a pillar of Irish literature, was also a “virtuosic genius” with the spoken word. Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

In 1997 he would publish Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790 and in 2004 a series of essays on revolutionary Irish thinker Edmund Burke, Foreign Affections. But his most ambitious scholarly project, published in 1990, was the massive three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, for which he was the general editor. In his introduction, Deane described the project, covering 1,500 years of writing in Ireland, as an “act of definition” — an attempt “to re-present texts in relation to one another and to demonstrate . . . how that constantly changing interrelationship provides for us the nexus of values, assumptions, and beliefs in which the idea of Ireland, Irish and writing are grounded.” (Unfortunately, fixated on liberating the corpus of Irish writing from the fetters of British colonialism, Deane showed a blind spot toward women writers; to his credit, he acknowledged this shortcoming after the fact and commissioned two further volumes that actually exceeded in page count the three volumes centered heavily on male writers.) A new book of his essays, Small World: Ireland, 1798-2018, will be published posthumously on May 27th. But the Field Day Anthology may be Deane’s most lasting legacy.

In the midst of all that impressive activity, Seamus Deane was wooed and won by Notre Dame to serve as the chair of Irish Studies beginning in 1992. Now globally recognized as the leader in the multi-disciplinary field of Irish Studies — including literature, history, politics, language, music, film, sociology and anthropology — Notre Dame owes its place on that particular map to Deane’s vision that he brought to South Bend from Dublin.

The first time I met Deane was at a party in Boston sometime in the late 1980s. We exchanged pleasantries. The next time we met was in 2005, at a national Irish Studies conference hosted by Notre Dame. We small-talked over coffee just minutes before he stepped to the podium to deliver the keynote address — 75 minutes of virtuosic genius without a script or even a notecard to be seen — that attendees still shake their heads over in wonder. It was a true tour-de-force performance. Shimmering brilliance again.

I wish I could recall what we chatted about in those few minutes. Perhaps I mentioned that I had just taught his novel, Reading in the Dark, in my Recent Irish Writing course the previous semester. Published to international acclaim in 1996, the novel won a number of major literary awards and has been translated into more than 20 languages.

Unfolding over a period of about a quarter-century beginning in the 1940s, Reading in the Dark is an utterly riveting narrative of family secrets set in Deane’s native Bogside, Derry’s predominantly Catholic and fervently nationalist enclave. It is a marvelous novel, and marvel filled as well: “And he ran after his voice into the house to fetch his jacket and was gone.” I re-read it a year ago as part of my COVID-inspired “free-range reading.” When I got to the chapter titled “The Fort” I paused and sent off an email to Seamus, telling him how, back in 2016 when I was invited to give a talk in County Monaghan, my wife and I arrived a day early and drove straight from Dublin Airport to Inishowen in far northern Donegal to visit An Grianán, a massive stone hillfort, dating to the 6th or 7th century, which is the setting for some crucial action in the novel. We even climbed up to the fort twice — the evening we arrived and again the next morning. That’s how much the novel drew me in.

Obviously, Seamus Deane was a man of many parts. But the part of him that I will remember most fondly is what I recognized in that third and final meeting I had with him, in Dublin in 2010. I had crossed paths with Seamus Heaney a number of times over the decades after first meeting him when I was a graduate student and he came to Notre Dame for the 1981 Sophomore Literary Festival. I chatted with each of the Seamuses after that reading in 2010. More pleasantries. More small talk.

Ten years earlier, in a remembrance published in The New Yorker of his long and deep friendship with Heaney — from boyhood into adulthood and their overlapping professional lives as leading Irish men of letters — Deane accepted how his own identity became complicated after his half-namesake’s rising literary celebrity, culminating in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, made their common first name “rhyme with ‘famous’”: “Then the name Seamus was his in a special way. I became Seamus eile — Irish for ‘the other Seamus.’ A nice qualifier. Otherhood via brotherhood.”

Heaney died in August of 2013. Now Deane is gone too. In my mind the two Seamuses will always be equals, the twin pillars of genius and generosity in the world of Irish literature.

Thomas O’Grady is professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he was Director of Irish Studies from 1984 to 2019. He is currently Scholar-in-Residence at Saint Mary’s College.