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Obituary: Seamus Deane, literary lion, academic, poet, novelist and Derryman


Seamus Deane. Picture by Martin McKeown

Seamus Deane. Picture by Martin McKeown

Seamus Deane. Picture by Martin McKeown

Seamus Deane, who has died after a short illness at the age of 81 years, achieved international standing as a literary critic, academic, novelist and poet. Emerging from the historically oppressed and underprivileged community of Derry nationalists, he made his way to the top in a variety of spheres by virtue of his eloquence, intelligence and unrelenting hard work.

For successive generations of college students, attending Deane’s lectures and tutorials was both a privilege and an incentive. His insight and way with words were remarkable and his deep commitment to explaining the true meaning of the novels, poems and plays he spoke about made him a worthy role-model.

He also came across as having a radical outlook on society in general — and, having been born on February 9, 1940, Deane was still young enough to connect with the militant students who emerged in the civil rights and university reform protests of late 1960s.

He was at the same time old enough to be listened to with attention and respect by a wider audience on the issues of the day. He appealed to different sectors and a former colleague, Dr Rory McTurk, recalls meeting two nuns at University College Dublin who told him his lectures were “very good”, but later in the conversation they added: “Dr Deane is our favourite.”

Born in Derry on February 9, 1940, Seamus Deane was a contemporary of poet Seamus Heaney at school and university. In a highly entertaining article titled ‘The Famous Seamus’ published by the New Yorker magazine in March 2000, Deane describes how they first met in 1950 “when he was 11 years old and I was 10” at St Columb’s College, the Catholic diocesan grammar school for boys in Derry.

Deane was a day-pupil from the city, Heaney a boarder from the rural hinterland. Day boys escaped when classes came to an end at 3.30pm, unless they wanted to play soccer on pitches that were officially designated for Gaelic football. Deane wrote: “Heaney didn’t play football, either soccer or Gaelic, except when required. He would smile from the sidelines.”

Despite the appalling discrimination in housing and employment, there were benefits under British rule at the time, such as free access to education. Heaney and Deane started at Queen’s University Belfast together in 1957. “Even here, we were in the same English class.”

In their second year they lived in the same boarding-house, and Deane recalled how the famously calm and amiable Heaney got into a fight with another resident.

“As undergraduates, we began to write poems and, especially in the long summer vacation, to exchange them,” Deane also wrote.

Their career paths diverged after graduation in 1961. Heaney taught at a secondary school in Belfast, and Deane did the same in Derry – before heading off to Pembroke College at Cambridge University where he acquired a PhD in 1966 for his thesis entitled ‘The Reception and Reputation of Some Thinkers of the French Enlightenment in England between 1789 and 1824’.

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He was a visiting Fulbright and Woodrow Wilson scholar at Reed College, Oregon, in 1966-67 and a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, California, in 1967-68. He arrived in Dublin at the end of the 1960s to take up a lectureship in the English department at UCD. He was appointed professor of modern English and American literature at the same institution in 1980.

In 1993 he became professor of English and the Donald and Marilyn Keough professor of Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame, from which he retired a number of years ago.

His novel Reading in the Dark was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996 and won several other prizes, as well as being translated into numerous languages. Told in a series of short chapters, the story centres on a young Catholic boy in a deprived area of Derry who gradually discovers a secret in the family’s past which has had tragic implications.

Collections of his poetry include Gradual Wars (1972), which won the AE Memorial Prize, Rumours (1977), History Lessons (1983) and a Selected Poems (1988). He wrote numerous works of criticism on Irish literature, and a history of the French Enlightenment.

Deane was a director of the Field Day theatre company and general editor of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. The first three volumes of the Anthology aroused controversy — led by the late writer and broadcaster Nuala O’Faolain — because of the under-representation of women writers.

Accepting full responsibility, Deane 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.”

Two subsequent volumes were published to address the issue.

His individualism was evident in his death notice which said: “Seamus asked for laughing to be held to a minimum; expressions of relief discreet, perhaps even sotto voce?”

At his funeral in the chapel at Mount Jerome crematorium, his daughter Émer recalled her father’s lifelong devotion to his Derry origins. 

Reading in the Dark is a song of love for Derry, but it was just one part of Seamus’s wider- and longer-term project of cultural uncovering, recovery and discovery — for Derry and for Ireland more generally.

“Seamus will return to Derry one more time. He has asked that some of his ashes be scattered on the graves of his mother and father, Winnie and Frank, and of his brother Gerard.”

His son Ciarán recalled a time when the family were in California in the late 1970s and his father, who was making a return visit to the Golden State, was acquiring a stellar reputation as an academic.

“Behind the public brilliance in California, to the 10-year-old me he was a tender and loving father — who read me and my siblings to sleep, who helped me with my paper delivery round, who paused from working at his desk to sit me on his knee to watch the moon rise over San Francisco Bay, his chin tickling my neck as he held me tight.”

He said his father, as well as being a writer and academic, was also a lifelong Celtic fan, and recalled a particular occasion when the pair of them travelled to Celtic Park in Glasgow for a match between the Old Firm rivals, Celtic and Rangers.

“On that trip in 2001, we were both struck by the poverty of that side of Glasgow. I now believe his weekly devotion to Celtic was a kind of penance, an act of loyalty to the dispossessed and the displaced of Ireland’s northwest, ghosts to whom the club is a monument,” Ciarán said.

Following a short illness, Seamus Deane died peacefully at Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, on May 12, surrounded by family. He is survived by his partner Emer, wife of many years Marion, sons Conor, Ciarán and Cormac, daughters Émer and Iseult and 11 grandchildren.

He was also much loved by his sisters Eilis (deceased), Una and Deirdre, brothers Liam, Eamonn and Gerard (deceased) along with other relatives and friends.

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