Relentless Erudition: On Seamus Deane’s “Small World: Ireland, 1798–2018”

November 29, 2021   •   By Conor McCarthy

Small World: Ireland, 1798–2018

Seamus Deane

IN 1997, Trinity College Dublin held a symposium to mark the bicentenary of the death of one of the College’s greatest students, Edmund Burke. Speakers to address the event included Conor Cruise O’Brien and Luke Gibbons, Burkeans of markedly opposing casts, and also Seamus Deane, probably the decisive Irish interpreter of Burke of recent times. The talks featured a chairperson, a speaker, and a respondent. When the time came for him to speak, Deane strode up to the rostrum in TCD’s Exam Hall, carrying no more than a scrap of paper. He delivered a brilliant talk on Burke’s aesthetics and political ideas, as if ex tempore. When he finished, his respondent, Tom Furniss, held up a sheaf of paper where he had been feverishly making notes Deane himself did not need. Furniss opened his remarks by suggesting that we had witnessed a display of oratory that probably matched the mastery of Burke himself.

Seamus Deane, who died on May 12, was a figure in Irish letters and intellectual life on the scale of Yeats. The sheer range and variety of his activity was astonishing. Poet, novelist (Reading in the Dark was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996 and is widely regarded as the best novel of the Irish Troubles), historian of ideas, and literary critic, Deane was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1940. He studied at St Columb’s, a boys’ school that produced an exceptional levy of Northern Irish Catholic artists and intellectuals, including his friend Seamus Heaney. The pair studied at Queen’s University in Belfast and began the craft of poetry together.

But Deane went on to Cambridge to take a doctorate and then moved to the United States in the middle ’60s. He taught at Reed College in Oregon and at Berkeley before returning to Ireland to take up a tenured post at University College Dublin in 1969. Very quickly, he acquired a reputation as a critic and scholar of a kind rarely seen at that time (or since) in Irish university English departments — a writer of dazzling insight, trenchant opinions, and cosmopolitan range. In 1980, still only 40 years old, he attained the chair of Modern English and American Literature at UCD — the senior position in the largest English department in the country. Shortly afterward, he joined Brian Friel, Stephen Rea, and Seamus Heaney as a director of the Field Day Theater Company, a formidable new theatrical and critical apparatus that for a while seemed, from its base in Derry, to rival the Abbey Theatre itself as Ireland’s de facto national theater.

With Field Day, Deane acquired the profile of an intellectual, as well as a scholar and critic — speaking out about cultural, political, and social issues in an Ireland racked by economic depression and near civil war. Under Deane’s influence, Field Day not only produced remarkable theater but also published pamphlets on literary and political matters. The epoch-making Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing appeared in 1991, under Deane’s editorship. When controversy ensued about the Anthology’s representation of women writers and of the women’s movement, Deane immediately admitted the problem and set about creating the conditions for the subsequent volumes, concentrating on women’s writing and experience, which appeared in 2002. By this time, he had taken up a post in Irish Studies and English literature at Notre Dame. While teaching there, he published Reading in the Dark and a magisterial interpretation of Irish literary history, Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790 (1997). Simultaneously, he edited two series of major books in Irish literary, cultural, and historical studies, working with authors such as Kevin Whelan, David Lloyd, Marjorie Howes, Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, and Joep Leerssen. A volume of essays on Burke appeared in 2005. From 2003, he edited the Field Day Review, a magnificent annual journal that published major essays by Irish and international scholars. Several of the essays in the new and now sadly posthumous book in hand first appeared in the FDR.

Deane, then, was a very gifted critic who combined the most meticulous reading of form with a sophisticated sense of the historicity of writing. He was as much an intellectual historian as a “literary critic” — a particular capacity almost unmatched in his generation, or any other, in Irish letters. Deane was as confident discussing Tocqueville or Schmitt as he was explicating Joyce or Bowen. This tendency, combined with a very strong sense of critique as a public act, fed into Deane’s intellectual persona. But there was also the fact of his background in Northern Ireland. Coming from a republican family in the nationalist city of Derry, Deane arrived at UCD just as the Northern Troubles were starting at the end of the ’60s. He came as a reminder to a Southern intellectual and political establishment of the late colonial war breaking out just 60 miles north of Dublin, a war that establishment feared, failed to understand, and tried to contain north of the border. Deane’s very presence was a rebuke to all such cowardice — a fact he knew, and at times mobilized.

Deane self-consciously created himself as an intellectual, in a way very rare among Irish academics. As early as 1975, in “An Irish Intelligentsia: Considerations on its Desirability,” an essay that now reads as a veritable manifesto (not collected here), he wrote: “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.” The Adornian echo, wedded to the invocation of the Russian dissidents of the 19th century, hints at Deane’s long career to come, as well as at his Field Day alliances and polemics of just a few years later. What, after all, was the Field Day collective if not a self-conscious intelligentsia?

Small World, the culmination but also the summation of that career, collects essays that span Deane’s oeuvre, from an early, brief, and brilliant essay on Ulysses to a late discussion of the writers and the world of the Blasket Islands, an extraordinary Benjaminian constellation that weaves together the fate of the Lusitania, a reflection on the remote Blaskets of the world of Atlantic modernism, and the condition of the Irish language. Deane’s title seems to suggest that the geographically “small world” of Ireland yields insights of a global scale, and indeed Deane’s usage is of a Goethean or Saidian ambition rather than of the trite provincialism of David Lodge. Irish writing, in Deane’s hands, becomes the lens through which matters of worldly import can be examined: in the wake of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the project of modernity in its various inflections (empire, capital, historicism, nationalism, the state of exception) is illuminated in the optic of Irish experience.

Essays on Swift, Burke, and Wolfe Tone remind us that Deane’s earliest research was on the reception by English Romantics of the radical French Enlightenment, crucially through the emasculating framework offered by Burke. Here, Deane shows that the Irish writer has had a long afterlife in the United States, moving through Straussian, natural-law, and conservative Catholic appropriations. Deane’s story is one of decline, though one also notes that the American Cold War tendency to recruit Burke to the critique of totalitarianism, as exemplified by Russell Kirk, perhaps reemerges dialectically in Deane’s own late-career interest in and deployment of Carl Schmitt in his critique of liberalism.

Lodged in the center of Small World is a major article on “national character,” one of the most importantly recurring themes in Deane’s work. Deane’s Irish detractors often argued that his thought represented a kind of “unreconstructed nationalism,” sometimes linked to “Irish Ireland” writers from the past such as Daniel Corkery and D. P. Moran. Such putative intransigence was then held to be the primary cause of the Northern Ireland war. In truth, Deane’s critique of nationalism is of a subtlety and rigor unmatched in Irish scholarship. As long ago as 1979, Deane grimly and wearily reminded us that “nothing is more monotonous or despairing than the search for the essence which defines a nation” — a quest he later described as “that hungry Hegelian ghost looking for a stereotype to live in.” The essay here also reaches out to Deane’s 1988 book, The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England 1789–1832, and his brilliant interpretation of Irish literature, nation, and modernity, Strange Country. In each instance, the idea of national character is held to emerge from Burke’s anti-Revolutionary writings. In the Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke had argued that the English national character, particularly as embodied in the constitution, was not susceptible to the arid rationalism and dogmatic fanaticism of the philosophes and their Jacobin confederates. But Burke understood Ireland in an analogous manner — the link between Britain and Ireland was being put at risk by the speculative and disengaged governance of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, a “Junto of Robbers” whose cynicism would leave the Catholic Irish open to the influence of revolutionary France. The resultant contrast and interplay between ideas and sentiment, experience and ideology, organicism and technocracy, constitutionalism and revolution forms a discursive structure that Deane discovers repeatedly in Irish literature and political writing, from Burke to Thomas Moore and on to Samuel Ferguson and James Clarence Mangan and, eventually, the Literary Revival.

In “Heroic Styles,” included here as an essay but originally published as a Field Day pamphlet in 1984, Deane sets out another version of this problematic. Irish writing can be construed as a set of contrasting models of heroism — military and literary-rhetorical. The potency of this modeling is that it can offer structures to analyze the contrasting aesthetics and ideals of Yeats and Joyce, but also the aestheticized politics of contemporary figures such as Ian Paisley and John Hume. Many of the travails of modern Ireland, north and south, Deane suggests, stem from the sinuous workings and reworkings of essentialism and identity thinking. “Heroic Styles” concludes with Deane’s call for a new anthology of Irish writing, one that would reprocess our culture and leave it “unblemished by Irishness, but securely Irish”: the clarion for the Field Day Anthology he would spend the ensuing years preparing.

Deane’s Adornian scorn for the concept of identity is at its most acerbic and lethal in “Wherever Green is Read,” a marvelous evisceration of the rhetorics of modern Irish historiography, as exemplified in the work of its most favored son, Roy Foster. Foster’s treatment of the Easter Rising is shown to be part of an opposition by which he structures his parallel arguments about unionist Ulster and nationalist Ireland, strategically occluding the violence of the former while condemning the violence of the latter. But the essay then widens into a broader critique of liberalism, a cause Deane had been prosecuting ever since he argued that Conor Cruise O’Brien’s putatively liberal rationalism, tested in the late-colonial context of Northern Ireland, failed miserably to produce real understanding of Ireland’s condition. In “Emergency Aesthetics,” a late and rich reading of Anna Burns’s 2018 novel Milkman, the underpinning of Deane’s argument is the Schmittian vision of the state of exception. Northern Ireland’s culture, Deane is saying, is in hock to a condition whereby the law and the society it regulates is always self-consciously in partial suspension and thereby revealed to be an expression of power before it can be anything else.

His book is titled Small World, yet Deane was the most cosmopolitan of Irish critics. No other Irish critical voice would or could so suavely discuss Joyce in comparison with Broch or Gide or Mann. Deane had a unique power to read the world through the culture of a small marginal European island, perhaps exemplified here by the essay “Imperialism and Nationalism.” In Deane’s hands, the cracked looking glass of the servant dialectically became the splinter in the eye of the worldly critic. No other Irish scholar could move so confidently through international literature, philosophy, and political theory — indeed, if there is any weakness to this volume, it’s the absence of Deane’s writings on non-Irish topics and writers, such as Walter Benjamin, Joseph Conrad, Edward Said, and Simone Weil.

The final essay, on the Blasket writers, is entitled “The End of the World,” and one inevitably reads it as affiliating itself with other pessimistic and autumnal critical statements — Adorno’s “Resignation” (1968), say, or Said’s “On Lost Causes” (1997). Like those mordant masters, Deane tells us that the positive vision of a worldly intellectual culture and criticism, with which he was imbued when he began writing, is probably no longer possible, but the drive toward critique remains. In a classic essay on Yeats and revolution, Deane once wrote: “Yeats began his career by inventing an Ireland amenable to his imagination. He ended by finding an Ireland recalcitrant to it.” With Seamus Deane, we might say that he began his career by forcing open a space for critique in Ireland, negotiating between failed Enlightenment and the consolations of Romanticism, and ended it finding an Ireland to whose liberal late-capitalist blandishments he remained critically recalcitrant. But Small World is not a gloomy book. Refusing the foolish wisdom of resignation, it stands as a splendid testament to critique and to the intellectual vocation. With Seamus Deane’s death we have lost the critic, but his cogent thinking can and will be thought elsewhere, by others.


Conor McCarthy teaches intellectual history and English literature at Maynooth University, Ireland. His books include Modernisation, Crisis and Culture in Ireland 1969–1992 (Four Courts Press, 2000) and (as co-editor)Enforcing Silence: Academic Freedom, Palestine and the Criticism of Israel (Zed/Bloomsbury, 2020).