Seamus Deane’s Writing Was a Challenge to Empire and a Call for Radical Change

The Irish critic Seamus Deane grew up in Derry as a second-class citizen of a sectarian state. Taking inspiration from writers like Edward Said, Deane’s critical work exposed the legacies of colonialism and the failings of capitalist modernity in Ireland.

Writer, poet, critic, professor of Irish Studies Seamus Deane in Derry City, circa 1980–89. (Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives)

Writing can be a form of action. Few writers in recent decades have embodied this maxim better than the Irish critic Seamus Deane, who died two years ago in May 2021. Another politically engaged intellectual, the current Irish president Michael D. Higgins, described his death as “an incalculable loss to Irish critical writing, indeed Irish writing in general.”

Deane began his career as a poet and will likely be remembered best for his semi-autobiographical work, Reading in the Dark (1996), one of the finest novels composed in response to the Northern Irish Troubles. He was, however, primarily a writer of literary and cultural criticism.

Deane’s criticism challenged the revisionist intellectual current that sought to downplay the impact of British colonialism on every facet of Irish development, political, economic, and cultural. Yet Deane also rejected the kind of nationalism that, in his view, simply turned colonial ideology inside out. His work and his example can be a vital resource for those seeking an alternative to both.

A Sense of Promise

Deane was born into a Catholic-nationalist, working-class family in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland’s second city, in 1940. His beginnings were inauspicious, as was the case for most Catholics born in Northern Ireland after partition. As part of the United Kingdom, the region wore the mask of a liberal democracy, but never convincingly.

Unionists blatantly gerrymandered electoral districts to prevent nationalist parties from attaining power. Recruits to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) primarily came from Protestant-unionist communities. The state’s civil and legal institutions were configured to prioritize Protestants over Catholics, as was the economy.

In a 2000 piece for the New Yorker, relating the history of his lifelong friendship with Seamus Heaney, Deane recalled the RUC’s attitude to the Catholic inhabitants of the Bogside in the late 1950s:

The local police were more aggressively sectarian than ever before, especially at night; unemployment in our area was running at nearly 50 percent; housing was appalling; discrimination, with a Sten gun behind it, was all we knew of British democracy.

However, there was, he noted, “one glorious exception” to an otherwise dismal rule: the British welfare state, that great socialist experiment of the postwar era, which the unionist local establishment had tried to delay since it threatened their sectarian system of inequality. It provided universal health care and secondary education, opening the possibility of attending university to a community otherwise bereft of an effective path toward social advancement.

This was the source of Deane’s deliverance, and he seized it, as did other members of his generation such as the civil rights campaigner Bernadette Devlin. Learning now had an “extra dimension to it, an extra pleasure; it now carried a political implication, a sense of promise.” Devlin went on to realize this promise as an active politician, Deane as an engaged public intellectual, each allied to the same emancipatory cause.

Deane and Heaney arrived at Queen’s University Belfast in 1957, with both men studying English and graduating in 1961. Heaney remained in Belfast, establishing himself by the late 1960s as the leading poetic voice of his generation, while Deane went to Cambridge to pursue a PhD on the reception of French Enlightenment thinkers in the works of nineteenth-century English republican writers such as William Hazlitt, William Godwin, and Percy Shelley.

The fruit of this research, The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England, 1789–1832, was the foundational text in Deane’s critical enterprise, although it was only published in book form in 1988. It laid down the basic theoretical framework within which he would proceed to dissect the various aesthetic paradigms of Irish literature and the inherited discourses through which Irish and British writers have articulated the Irish predicament since the eighteenth century.

Deane began his teaching career in the United States, first at Reed College, Oregon (1966–67), then at the University of California, Berkeley (1967–68), before returning to Northern Ireland as the Catholic minority’s disaffection with the sectarian state edged into insurrection. He wrote, edited, and lectured in various places during the 1970s, and, like Heaney, established himself in the South of Ireland to further his career.

Ireland and Empire

It was during the 1980s that Deane became one of the most commanding and controversial voices on the Irish intellectual scene. He was appointed professor of American and English literature at University College Dublin in 1980, and soon came to lead the largest university English department in the country, elevating his stature significantly.

In this decade, he published pamphlets on the “Irish question” — “Civilians and Barbarians” (1983) and “Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea” (1984) — and three volumes of criticism: Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880–1980 (1985), A Short History of Irish Literature (1986), and The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England, 1789–1832 (1988).

Each of these volumes proved to be influential in shaping the preoccupations and interpretations of Irish literary and cultural scholars. Yet it was in his pamphlets that Deane arguably presaged a new departure in Irish studies that had become a new orthodoxy by the 2000s — namely the shift toward examining the Irish situation within a postcolonial framework.

This is not to say that Irish scholars had not previously sought to explain the peculiarity of Ireland through a colonial or postcolonial frame of analysis. Yet much of this previous work was insufficiently self-critical, falling victim to the mentalities that Deane sought to identity and transcend.

He took inspiration from Edward Said but also from French poststructuralism and the mode of Marxian cultural criticism espoused by the Frankfurt School theorists. Deane sought to redirect the focus of Irish literary and cultural scholars toward discursive analysis and the critical examination of the cultural paradigms within which the Irish situation had been conceptualized — by writers of fiction, of course, but also by political writers, social commentators, and colonial administrators.

A historical-minded critic, Deane rejected the form of ahistorical literary formalism known as New Criticism that was, by the 1980s, the standard approach to literary interpretation in Anglo-American universities. The paradigm of New Criticism depicted James Joyce as an apolitical representative of Western literature who spoke to humanity rather than to any narrow communal interest.

In this reading, Joyce was the quintessential liberal cosmopolitan, not a vulgar nationalist. The same was true of W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and Edmund Burke: critics divorced their writings from the original historical contexts in which they were produced and put them to any number of ends — such as in service to Cold War liberals seeking to valorize Western cultural achievement against the threat of Eastern communism.

This approach effaced the Irishness of these writers; occluding, for example, the fact of Joyce’s nationalism and his perception of the Irish as suffering beneath the dual weights of British colonialism and Roman Catholicism. It also overlooked Burke’s critique of colonialism in eighteenth-century Ireland and the horrendous violence it wrought upon an innocent population.

Field Day and Its Critics

Seeking to explicate the Irish situation as clearly and comprehensively as possible, Deane advocated a return to a historical mode of cultural criticism that would bring into focus the material or intellectual-cultural systems of contemporary Irish life. He insisted that these mutually determining systems were accessible through the study of Irish writing in its various forms.

Deane pursued this work initially as part of a collective, the Field Day Theatre Company, which was established in Derry in 1980 by the actor Stephen Rea and the playwright Brian Friel to produce the latter’s Translations. As Rea noted in a 2021 interview with the Financial Times, Deane was “the driving intellect” behind the project.

Heaney, the critic Tom Paulin, the playwright Thomas Kilroy, and the musician David Hammond later joined the group. Field Day gradually extended its purview from the strictly theatrical to become a platform for literary and intellectual engagements with the state of the Irish nation, north and south.

The overt nature of this criticism, expressed in a series of pamphlets addressing contentious dimensions of the Troubles and provocative questions about Ireland’s postcolonial inheritance, did not endear the collective to mainstream commentators in Ireland or Britain. Indeed, Field Day was soon being dismissed as “the literary wing of the IRA,” a judgment of the novelist Colm Tóibín that was representative of broader intellectual opinion in the South at this time.

Field Day was embroiled in yet more controversy on the publication of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991), an elaborate undertaking overseen by Deane. The purpose of the anthology was to define a new Irish literary canon, one that would be inclusive of all the major cultural formations that had contributed to the making of Irish society from the early Christian period to the late twentieth century, encompassing the various forms of writing through which these formations had been expressed.

Irish unionists and liberal commentators dismissed the enterprise as a totalizing nationalist meta-narrative that assimilated Northern Protestant writing into an Irish nationalist canon — a gesture that some viewed as tantamount to annexing the unionist community into a nationalist unitary state. More seriously, the anthology’s paucity of female writers provoked justified condemnation from Irish feminists, in a moment that served as a formative catalyst for academic feminism in Ireland on the cusp of the twenty-first century.

Field Day wound down in the wake of these controversies. Deane, who had been on the receiving end of much of the vitriol, began a new position as Keough Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He nevertheless remained active in Irish cultural and intellectual affairs, becoming editor of the Field Day Critical Conditions series in 1996 and publishing his central work, Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790, the following year.

Myths of Modernization

It was during this period that he achieved international renown as a leading postcolonial scholar, a gifted lecturer, and an accomplished novelist with 1996’s Reading in the Dark. In addition to publishing Foreign Affections: Essays on Edmund Burke in 2005, he established and edited (with Breandán Mac Suibhne) the Field Day Review, which was a leading outlet of cultural and political criticism in Ireland until its final issue in 2015.

Here, until his final years, he devoted himself to the elucidation of Ireland’s peculiar form of postcolonial modernity in a rich series of essays. Deane sought to follow the example of Joyce in extrapolating the greatest questions of liberal modernity from the small world of Ireland.

As the Troubles convulsed Irish society in the 1970s and ’80s, the conflict inspired a pervasive disillusionment in the artists and intellectuals of that society. It revealed the inadequacy of prevailing political orthodoxies to cope with the crisis and the inability of standard aesthetic paradigms to capture its tragedy. It also represented a profound historical failing of the southern Irish state and its nascent political liberalism.

From the late 1950s, out of economic desperation and a desire to lessen Ireland’s dependence on a declining Britain, the Fianna Fáil government of Seán Lemass introduced a series of reforms that began a protracted process of economic and social liberalization. This ultimately enabled Ireland to qualify for membership of the European Economic Community and made it amenable to American corporate investment.

For Deane, “modernization”’ served as a euphemism for the process that brought most aspects of Irish life — including artistic, academic, and intellectual work — into conformity with the logic of free-market capitalism. It vanquished all the customs and modes of association that did not conform to the strictures of market efficiency in the name of “progress.” What had been a sovereign community gave way to the sovereign individual, with the existing political-economic system reconfigured and sanctified of all “ideologies,” whether religious or political.

Out of the old republican trinity of Liberty, Egality, and Fraternity — values enshrined in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916 — only the first was now recognized as a social value. However, this notion of liberty bore only a shallow resemblance to the concept of liberty advanced in classical republican theory and revived more recently in the work of Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner. It represented the preservation of individual consumer sovereignty rather than the collective emancipation of a people.

As Deane wrote in 1973: “Nothing disorientates a culture more than the loss of its self-awareness.” He saw the Irish in a similar way to Joyce in the short stories of which Dubliners (1914) was comprised, as a people driven into a sordid state of inertia by the forces of global capital and inherited colonial mentalities from which they had yet to awaken. The triumph of liberal modernity supposedly marked the end of history.

Revisionism in the Supermarket

“Ireland now treats the past as a kind of supermarket for tourists,” Deane wrote in “Wherever Green is Read” (1991), his most excoriating critique of Irish liberalism and those who would apply its precepts retrospectively to the study of Irish nationalism and the Irish revolution. This ideological tendency was commonly referred to as “revisionism,” and included prominent figures such as the politician and intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien.

Revisionists, according to Deane, “downplay the oppression the Easter Rising sought to overthrow and upgrade the oppression the Rising inaugurated in the name of freedom.” They saw the Troubles as stemming from the emotional, impulsive nature of nationalism, which was antithetical to “reason” in all its forms.

From their perspective, Irish nationalism was a romantic, anti-modern remnant of the nineteenth century that had no place in the twentieth let alone the twenty-first. Liberal commentators engaged in vituperation against the “senseless” violence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) while downplaying the violence of the British state and loyalist paramilitaries.

Deane criticized those who, as he saw it, replaced the “meta-narrative” of Irish history — one centered on the experience of colonialism that lent coherence to the frequently catastrophic incoherence of Irish history — with a series of empirical monographs based on convictions of scholarly objectivity. The revisionists were operating complacently within the frameworks that Deane sought to identify and transcend.

As he wrote in 1973:

One of the reasons we have a crisis on our hands is that we have not made the attempt to understand the relationships between its elements. We have mutilated our reality by our incomprehension; what we should do is to change that by the effort to comprehend what he have and what we have not done.

Deane insisted that it would not be enough for Catholics to gain equal rights within the UK, or a united Ireland for that matter: “Such desires belong inside the framework of the society as it at present exists. They merely involve a new shifting of power inside that frame.” Something radically new was called for.

Out of the convulsions of this period arose “a new awareness of the need for radical change,” as Deane declared in 1970. He sought to expand the horizons of Irish cultural and political possibility and break the stasis into which Irish intellectual life had fallen since the early twentieth century, as a succession of conservative nationalist governments stifled the radical potential of the Irish revolution.

This form of Irish nationalism was, for Deane, more of a “political passion” than an ideology. He saw it as being “so imbued with the sense of the past as a support for action in the present that it never looked beyond that.” Divorced from the intellectual stimulus of socialism that the 1916 leader James Connolly had once provided to it, Irish republicanism could not proceed into the future. It could only regress back into the suffocating mentalities of Ireland’s postcolonial inheritance.

Clear, Plain Silence

For Deane, the discourse of Irish nationalism merely appropriated and redeployed the discourses to which the colonized people had been subjected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: “Nationalism, cultural or political, is no more than an inverted image of the colonialism it seeks to replace.”

Deane was not an Irish nationalist in a conventional sense. The complexity of his alternative nationalism and his critique of the staid, ahistorical liberalism that pervaded political and cultural discourse in the South meant that it was easier for opponents to label him an IRA sympathizer than to engage honestly with his critical enterprise.

This may explain why he was never embraced by the Irish intellectual establishment, which could neither ignore nor assimilate him. He set himself to exposing the assumptions on which that establishment rested and to investigating their historical genealogies:

To remain critical, to develop a methodology, to sustain a philosophy, to retain contact with actuality and to recognise official fantasy when one sees it — these are difficult, almost impossible ventures, but they are honourable, not parasitic.

In this, he was not concerned with formulating concrete alternatives or adopting dogmatic standpoints — to the chagrin of critics — but rather with foregrounding the imaginative possibility of devising alternatives, whatever these might be. Deane sought to inspire us to thought and to reveal the impediments that encumber our thinking, not to dictate its course.

Reading in the Dark opens with the following sentence: “On the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence.” Deane devoted his career to shedding light on the darkness of Ireland’s history and contemporary reality. It is only by understanding the structures that bind us, expressed in the cultural and political spheres, that we may come to transcend them.

In a time of protracted crisis, felt as strongly in Ireland as elsewhere in the Western world, there is a pressing need for radical change as we face an encroaching darkness. We can discover much light in Deane’s body of work.