Professor Seamus Deane, A Tribute from UCD School of English, Drama and Film

 UCD School of English, Drama and Film sends sincere condolences and sympathies to the family of our former colleague, Professor Seamus Deane, on the very sad news of his passing. Professor Deane was Chair of Modern English and American Literature in UCD, a title to which he brought honour and distinction as a scholar and teacher. He is remembered chiefly for his superb gifts as a lecturer, and his outstanding contribution to Irish writing and criticism. As a writer, he is renowned chiefly for his autobiographical novel, Reading in the Dark (1996). As a critic, he published a series of groundbreaking and influential books, including Celtic Revivals (1985), A Short History of Irish Literature (1986), Strange Country (1994), and Foreign Affections (2005). His intellectual leadership inspired the Field Day project, which made new artistic and critical interventions in Irish cultural and political imagination for several decades, and as part of which he edited the first three volumes of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing.

 

Professor Deane is sadly missed by his former students and colleagues. Professor Gerardine Meaney, Director of UCD Centre for Cultural Analytics, writes: “During his time as Professor of Modern English and American Literature, Seamus Deane made a very significant contribution to modernising literary studies in UCD and nationally, and to the formation of a new generation of critics and cultural analysts. The impact of his research on the application of postcolonial theory to Irish literature is very well known, but he also sponsored the inclusion of critical theory in the teaching of literature in English at UCD. From his early work on the Enlightenment to his late essay situating Edward Said’s work in relation to Foucault and Derrida, he contributed to the ongoing dialogue between literature and modern European philosophy. In doing so he created a space for his students and colleagues to think in new and dynamic ways about the processes of literary research.”

 

Professor Christopher Murray also fondly recalled his late colleague: “Seamus Deane was a star performer, brilliant, eloquent and stimulating as teacher and colleague.  In succeeding Denis Donoghue to the chair of Modern English and American Literature in 1980 he changed the atmosphere to meet contemporary ideas, dropping the emphasis on practical criticism and opening up the syllabus. His style as leader was friendly and collaborative, and he led by example in the area of publication, whether of reviews , articles, or books. Ironically, perhaps, while continuing to lecture on English literature he swerved to Irish writing as his main interest, publishing Celtic Revivals in 1985. It was after this he began work on the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, having joined the board of the Field Day Theatre Company founded by Brian Friel and Stephen Rea in 1980. His leaving UCD for Notre Dame later in the decade took away from the School the work of a colleague and leader who had contributed a great deal to advancing its flourishing at that time. At his passing, we acknowledge his dedication, his energy and his brilliance.”

 

Associate Professor P.J. Mathews, Director of the UCD Creative Futures Academy, writes: “As an undergraduate, I remember Seamus as an intellectual powerhouse in the UCD English Department in the late 1980s. He was an astounding teacher who had the amazing ability to deliver the most carefully crafted and sequenced lectures without recourse to a script or notes. In his lectures I often found myself compelled to put down my pen and listen, yet his brilliant insights lingered long afterwards. His classes on topics such as Swift, Burke, literary modernism and modern Irish writing are still vivid in my mind. As a scholar he was groundbreaking in the manner in which he shifted Irish literary criticism away from a self-satisfied, parochial exceptionalism, focusing instead on the complex relations of Irish writing to British, wider European and other decolonial contexts. In the dark days of the Troubles, in which academic exchange was often stressed and rancorous, he bravely pursued ways of thinking about the conflict in Northern Ireland in terms of rights and citizenship rather than tribal claims. To a generation of UCD students brought up in an atmosphere of evasion and fear over the Northern conflict, his critiques of the Southern Irish intelligentsia were eye-opening. Deane was an audacious yet scrupulous scholar. His publications were greatly anticipated and always landed with impact, gaining him an international reputation as one of the greatest Irish minds of his time.  As one of the major intellects behind The Field Day project he played a vital enabling role in the intellectual and cultural debates that prefigured the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. His engagement with influential academics such as Edward Said and Fred Jameson opened up new and exciting modes of intellectual possibility in Irish cultural debate. He believed in the power of culture to change the world but also understood with absolute clarity the important role that critical discourse plays in the construction of cultural narratives. Deane was himself a very fine poet and acclaimed novelist as well as an academic of the highest calibre. The great achievement of the Field Day movement, under his influence, was the mobilisation of art and criticism with equal seriousness, ambition and purpose to confront the crisis of the late twentieth century, and to remake Ireland as a centre of imagination and possibility.”