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


Seamus Deane, who died of a short illness at the age of 81, has gained an international reputation as a literary critic, scholar, novelist and poet. Emerging from the historically oppressed and underprivileged community of Nationalists in Derry, he has worked his way to the top in a variety of fields due to his eloquence, intelligence and hard work.

or successive generations of students, attending Deane’s classes and tutorials was both a privilege and a motivation. His insight and manner with words was remarkable and his deep commitment to explaining the true meaning of the novels, poems and plays he spoke of made him a worthy model.

He also emerged as having a radical view of society at large – and, being born on February 9, 1940, Deane was still young enough to connect with the student activists who emerged in the civil rights and university reform protests. from the late 1960s.

At the same time, he was 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 favorite. ”

Born in Derry on February 9, 1940, Seamus Deane was a contemporary of the poet Seamus Heaney in school and university. In a very 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 and I was 10” at St Columb’s College, the Diocesan Catholic High School for Boys in Derry.

Deane was a city day student, Heaney a rural hinterland boarder. The day boys escaped when classes ended at 3:30 p.m., unless they wanted to play football on fields officially designated for Gaelic football. Deane wrote: “Heaney did not play soccer, football or Gaelic except when necessary. 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 together at Queen’s University Belfast in 1957. “Even here we were in the same English class.”

In their second year, they lived in the same boarding house and Deane remembered how the famous calm and kind Heaney had quarreled with another resident.

“As undergraduates, we started writing poems and, especially during the long summer vacation, exchanging them,” Deane also wrote.

Their career paths diverged after graduation in 1961. Heaney taught at a high school in Belfast, and Deane did the same in Derry – before heading to Pembroke College at Cambridge University where he obtained a doctorate in 1966 for his thesis entitled ‘The reception and reputation of certain thinkers of the French Enlightenment in England between 1789 and 1824’.

He was Fulbright and Woodrow Wilson Visiting Scholar at Reed College, Oregon, 1966-67 and Visiting Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Calif., 1967-68. He arrived in Dublin at the end of the 1960s to take up a teaching position 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 Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, from which he retired a few years ago.

His novel Read in the dark was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996 and won several other awards, in addition to being translated into many languages. Told in a series of short chapters, the story centers on a young Catholic boy in an inner city of Derry who gradually uncovers a secret in the family’s past that has had tragic implications.

The collections of his poetry include Progressive wars (1972), who won the AE Memorial Award, Rumors (1977), History class (1983) and a Selected poems (1988). He wrote numerous critical works on Irish literature and a history of the French Enlightenment.

Deane was director of the Field Day theater company and editor-in-chief of Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. The first three volumes of Anthology sparked controversy – led by the late writer and broadcaster Nuala O’Faolain – due to the under-representation of women writers.

Accepting full responsibility, Deane said, “To my astonishment and dismay, I found that I myself had been subjected to the same kind of criticism that I subjected colonialism to.”

Two subsequent volumes were published to address the problem.

His individualism was evident in his obituary which read: “Seamus requested that laughter be reduced to a minimum; subtle expressions of relief, maybe even sotto voce?

During her funeral in the chapel of the Mount Jerome Crematorium, her daughter Emer recalled her father’s dedication to her Derry origins.

Read in the dark is a love song for Derry, but it was only part of Seamus’ larger, longer-term project of cultural discovery, recovery and discovery – for Derry and for Ireland more generally.

“Seamus will come back to Derry once more. He requested that some of his ashes be scattered on the graves of his mother and father, Winnie and Frank, and his brother Gérard.

His son Ciarán remembers a time when the family was in California in the late 1970s and his father, who was on a return visit to the Golden State, gained an excellent reputation as an academic.

“Behind the public shine in California, for me 10 years old, he was a loving, loving dad – who read me and my siblings to sleep, who helped me with my paper delivery tour, who s’ stopped working at his desk to sit me on his lap to watch the moon rise over San Francisco Bay, his chin tickling my neck as he hugged me tight.

He said his father, in addition to being a writer and scholar, was also a longtime Celtic fan and recalled a particular occasion when the two traveled to Celtic Park in Glasgow for a game between the rivals of Old Firm, Celtic and Rangers.

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

Following a short illness, Seamus Deane passed away peacefully at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin on May 12, surrounded by his family. He is survived by his partner Emer, married for many years Marion, his sons Conor, Ciarán and Cormac, his 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) as well as other relatives and friends.

Independent Sunday


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