Seamus Deane

Seamus Deane is Professor of Modern History and American Literature at University College, Dublin. He has published two books of poems, Gradual Wars and Rumours

Soft Cop, Hard Cop

Seamus Deane, 19 October 1995

Terry Eagleton’s new book, not merely a series of studies in Irish culture but one of the most noteworthy contributions to it of recent times, realigns Irish writing within contemporary debates about cultural politics, adhering to the particularity of the Irish situation without becoming mired in its bitter complexities.

Ultimate Place

Seamus Deane, 16 March 1989

When it was first published in Ireland in 1986, Stones of Aran won a literary prize and a great deal of praise. It is a strange book, at once a meditation on and a journey around the island of Aran off the west coast of Ireland. The meditation takes its form from the journey, as does the journey from the meditation. Although the island itself, in all its coastal detail, its geology, history, folklore, flora and fauna, is the book’s subject, it is oddly elusive. Despite the fact that Tim Robinson’s account is the story of a pilgrimage, exhaustively detailed and loyal to every intimation, there is no ultimate moment or place of devotion. The quest is an end in itself, and it is not perhaps a quest for Aran but a quest to which Aran gives shape and meaning. Beaches, rocks, seaweed, cliffs, tides, inlets, legends, stories, ruins, insects, the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, the weather, the effects of light and shade, the spectacle of the Atlantic and the quiet gaze of Connemara are all described, pondered, looked upon with a tactful, eager strategic care that is as tender in its address as an admission of love. Yet it is the love of someone who can never, for all that effort and discipline, do sufficient justice to the loved place. Aran is not just an island to him. It is an ultimate place, the extreme form of a subject which can only be invented in writing and yet stands there as a rebuke to any attempt to represent its ageless, harsh actuality. It is so actual it demands to be represented and, of course, cannot be. There is always that surplus, that excess of the real which humiliates even the most painstaking research and the most finely modulated prose.

Extremes

Seamus Deane, 7 February 1985

In 1914 Patrick MacGill’s first novel, Children of the Dead End, sold ten thousand copies in a fortnight. In the same year, Joyce’s Dubliners sold 499 copies, 120 of them bought by the author. In 1915, MacGill published a companion novel, The Rat-Pit, which was also highly successful and contained a Preface in which the author avowed himself to be ‘highly gratified’ by the success attained by Children of the Dead End ‘in Britain and abroad. Only in Ireland, my native country, has the book given offence.’ You could write a tune to that comment, one of the favourite choruses to the plaintive anthems of Irish novelists. However, MacGill prospered as a popular novelist until 1930, when he emigrated to the United States and, caught in the Depression, dwindled into obscurity. He died in 1963. Now there is a resurgence of interest in his work. Five of his novels, two memoirs of the First World War and his collected verse have been reprinted, and his native townland, Glenties in County Donegal, has an annua’ Patrick MacGill Festival. Writers are now commemorated as often as saints used to be and, like saints, they fall into the categories of the local or the international. The particular flavour of MacGill’s reputation is nicely distilled in a sentence from the 1982 Festival brochure: ‘We have compiled a programme which we hope will be culturally acceptable while catering also for those who prefer outdoor activities.’ These included sheep-dog trials, a lamb-shearing competition, a treasure hunt and a Gaelic football match.

Yeats and the Occult

Seamus Deane, 18 October 1984

The first three of the four chapters in Graham Hough’s book were the Lord Northcliffe Lectures in Literature given at University College London in February 1983. The audience was general and the lectures were pitched accordingly. Yet all Yeatsian specialists will profit from this book and the ‘radical simplification’ of Yeats’s occult philosophy which it so lucidly achieves. Professor Hough takes Yeats’s beliefs seriously, but is neither a dévot nor sceptic. He demonstrates the ‘ancient lineage’ of the claims of the modern occultist fraternities, suggesting an analogy between the world of late Antiquity in which these beliefs first crystallised into recognisable forms and the period between 1890 and 1939 in which they underwent a revival. Against this background, enriched by the contributions of modern scholars from Denis Saurat to Frances Yates and Gershom Scholem, there emerge the first outlines of Yeats’s spiritual biography. As Professor Hough rightly remarks, this remains to be written. Should it ever be completed, this short book will be among its most important harbingers.

Voices

Seamus Deane, 21 April 1983

The loss of the Irish language was tragic and the attempt to revive it has been a farce. Taken together, these two facts have serious implications for modern Irish nationalism in all its contemporary mutations. It is understood now that the process of ‘de-Anglicisation’ which led to the movement to revive the language was a form of cultural conditioning which helped to create the possibility of political independence. But its continuation beyond that point has been disastrous for the language and for the literature contained within it. The economic factor which contributed so much to the loss of the language – the dependence on an English-speaking commercial system which was world-wide – did not disappear after the achievement of political independence. The ideological factor – nationalist particularism in alliance with Roman Catholicism or with some variant of socialist doctrine – was not dependent on the language as such for its continuance. The idea of the language as something already recovered was more attractive than the immense labour of actually recovering it. The tendency to idolise as a national aspiration the recovery of something which successive government policies have managed to exterminate almost completely is peculiarly damaging both in itself and in its extensions. The structural similarities between the attitudes of Dublin governments to the language and to the North are as horrifying as they are instructive. In Ireland a national aspiration is that which, at all costs, must never be attained. Make that your prior determination and the aspiration can always be kept. Speak for it, work against it. In doing both, with complete conviction, a neurosis is revealed but a policy is retained.–

Vanishings

Seamus Deane, 30 December 1982

John Montague’s Selected Poems reinforce the impression left by his individual volumes: that of a great talent growing increasingly apprehensive at the conditions in which it must be exercised. Since 1958, when his first volume Forms of Exile appeared, he has been renowned for a certain elegance and formality of phrasing, and for a nervous delicacy of rhythm: these bestowing upon his poems an air of fragility which has to survive the often desperate occasions which initiate them. This discontinuity between the form of the poems and their environment can be partially understood as a product of modern Irish conditions. There are two main versions of contemporary Ireland in his work. The first is that of the dilapidated Republic of the Fifties and Sixties, first clerical, then commercial; the second is that of the broken North of the last two decades, violent and bitter, but touched by the promise that crisis can bring. Beyond these are other, vanished Irelands which nevertheless retain a considerable force in his imagination: the Ireland of Yeats and the Revival, the Ireland of his childhood in the North, the old Gaelic Ireland of Tyrone. All of them are finally disappointing. They encumber his art, although he struggles to make them liberate it. The problem is deepened by the fact that these territories do give release to many of the contemporaries whose presence in these domains shadows his own – Kinsella in the South, Heaney, Mahon, Longley and others in the North. A pathfinder who discovers that the territories he broke into have been settled by others, he is left to forage where others feed.

Blueshirt

Seamus Deane, 4 June 1981

In July 1933, at the height of his involvement with the Blueshirts, the Irish Fascist organisation, Yeats wrote: ‘It is amusing to live in a country where men will always act. Where nobody is satisfied with thought … The chance of being shot is raising everybody’s spirits enormously.’ However invigorating the prospect, the fulfilment did not come. In Ireland, the Ireland of the Free State, the serious shooting had stopped. The most notable engagement between Irish Fascists and Republicans took place in Spain, during the Civil War; even that had a comic aspect, being entirely accidental. Still, Ireland in the Thirties did seem to retain the capacity for virile action, attractive to a certain disposition, which Yeats had finely described some forty years earlier as ‘that love of force common among a certain type of literary men. The impatience of minds trained to see further than they can go …’ Standish O’Grady was the victim of that analysis, but there is the possibility of a choice irony in turning it upon Yeats himself. Societies in which ‘men will always act’ are clearly preferable, if you are a reader or rereader of Nietzsche (as was Yeats in 1936-7), to ‘sacerdotal aristocracies’ in which there prevail, as The Genealogy of Morals tells us, ‘habits which, averse as they are to action, constitute a compound of introspection and explosive emotionalism, as a result of which there appears that introspective morbidity and neurasthenia, which adheres almost inevitably to all priests at all times.’

Misinformed about Paradise

Michael Wood, 5 September 1996

In the old times, long before the birth of the Irish Free State, a young woman called Brigid McLaughlin went down from Derry to work in southern Donegal. Her job was to look after two children, a...

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The Whole Bustle

Siobhan Kilfeather, 9 January 1992

The editors of the Field Day Anthology make large claims for its importance as ‘the most comprehensive anthology of Irish writing ever published’. These three volumes, totalling over...

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Effervescence

Alan Ryan, 9 November 1989

Whatever else the French Revolution was it was certainly a literary event. Indeed, it was a literary event in a good many different, though related ways. As Robert Darnton has emphasised, it was...

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Celtic Revisionism

Patrick Parrinder, 24 July 1986

Nationality is a strange thing. Modern technologies, economic systems and much of our culture are international as never before. Yet as national barriers have been lowered, the sentiment of...

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Valorising Valentine Brown

Patricia Craig, 5 September 1985

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,...

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