Skip navigation

University College Dublin Logo

Advanced Search

UCD News

Nuacht UCD

Posted 18 June 2012

<< Back to story

TEXT OF THE INTRODUCTORY ADDRESS DELIVERED BY DR FIONNUALA DILLANE, UCD School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin on 16 June 2012, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa on DANIEL Day-Lewis

‘Are we genes, bodies, brains, minds, experiences, memories, or souls?’ the medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum has asked in her elegant exploration of the body, identity and memory. There is no simple or singular answer to this question. Bynum proposes instead that we think about how the physical body, our outward shape that constantly evolves and changes, identifies who and what we are through time; it is a shifting, layered signifier of our own ‘story’. 

In his work, Daniel Day-Lewis offers a similarly plural take on that enigmatic question of what it is that makes us human. He refuses to polarise Bynum’s listed signifiers of identity in his expert physical and intellectual animation of the full complexity of being through men like the sensitive, angry, creative Christy Brown in My Left Foot; the misanthropic, broken and tender father, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood; the overtly performative and painfully shy Cecil Vyse in A Room with View; the doubting, charming, terrifying Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting in The Gangs of New York. It is a unique mark of his controlled craftsmanship and visceral understanding of the human being that he ensures each individual’s unique shape tells each individual’s unique story but in such a way that the story resonates beyond the parameters of one person. Daniel Day-Lewis embodies to such persuasive and compelling effect the multiple contradictions of being that we are unable to answer definitively, simplistically, what it is that makes a man. Instead, we are left to marvel at the mystery and the contradiction, the joy and the pain of being itself.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s great gift shows us how the work of the best actors explicates the condition of the poet described by John Keats: the poet, Keats explains is ‘the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body’. There is no centre-stage place for the actor’s ego in Daniel Day-Lewis’s performances. What his art offers us is a particular type of selflessness.  It is the poet, and I suggest, the actor, as ‘Negative Capability’: the artist, as Keats puts it, who ‘is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’, the artist who leaves us and himself in a state of ongoing speculation.

Here are things for the record about the individual Daniel Day-Lewis. London-born, he is also an Irish citizen; he made a home in Wicklow with his wife, the writer and director Rebecca Miller, and their sons. His father, a Laois man, the Anglo-Irish translator, critic, writer of detective fiction, C. Day-Lewis, was a leading voice in twentieth-century British poetry and poet laureate from 1968 until his death in 1972. His mother, the actress Jill Balcon, amongst other roles, brought British poetry to life in her BBC radio readings. His maternal grandfather, Michael Balcon was the head of Ealing studios, a pioneer of great British cinema; his sister, Tamasin, is a writer and chef: genes, brains, minds, souls and bodies that provide markers of individual and communal identification and signals of possibility.

Daniel Day-Lewis has been committed to the portrayal of formative Irish stories in his work with renowned Irish director, Jim Sheridan, in a trilogy of seminal films. As Christy Brown (My Left Foot, 1989), Gerry Conlon (In the Name of the Father, 1993) and Danny Flynn (The Boxer, 1997), Daniel Day-Lewis provided internationally-acclaimed, award-winning interpretations of marginalised Irish men, discriminated against unjustly, who battle with social, political or physical adversity, or more interestingly, men who become who they are precisely because of the social, political and physical conditions in which they find themselves.

The most cursory overview of Daniel Day-Lewis’s stunning ‘filling of some other Body’ gives us a sense of his mastery of his trade. In particular, this mastery expresses itself in the ways in which he never closes off his characters into neat summary but always leaves open that speculative possibility that leaves us, his audience, sometimes unsettled but always in wonder. The light and shade, the shocking and discomforting, the guff and the gusto, and the pure exhilarating joy, colour and breathe full vibrant life into all of the men Daniel Day-Lewis has embodied on screen. They are rendered equally, unequivocally themselves in extraordinary physical articulations of how shape carries story; how the body and the inner life are fused and feed into and off each other until we better understand the limitations and the possibilities of individual and social identity, the potential for change, and the painful realisations of the things we can’t change.  Plainview’s limp; Christy Brown’s contorted hands; Johnny’s skinny- jeans stride and the equally hesitant and overtly challenging shock of bleached blonde hair over ordinary brown in My Beautiful Laundrette; the emaciated, falling-away body of Jack in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, all these markers are made intrinsic to the story – are made the outward carriers of complicated identities.

It is commonplace to say that Daniel Day-Lewis is widely acknowledged to be an outstanding actor. A distinguished career in theatre (at the Bristol Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre) has been followed by an exceptional career as a screen actor. The accolades are simply too numerous to list here but include two Academy Awards for Best Actor in 1989 and 2007; three BAFTAs (1989; 2002; 2007); multiple awards and nominations from such varied groups as the Screen Actors Guild, New York Film Critics Circle, Montreal World Film Festival, Russian Guild of Film Critics, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. The range of awarding bodies is just one indication of his incomparable international reputation. Another is the list of highly-acclaimed directors who seek to work with Daniel Day-Lewis, which includes, along with Jim Sheridan: Philip Kaufman; James Ivory; Rob Marshall; Nicholas Hytner, Rebecca Miller, Paul Thomas Anderson and Stephen Spielberg. That these directors seek him out is not surprising. Daniel Day-Lewis has spoken of the collaborative contract that needs to exist to tell a story as film; as he said of his relationship with that master New York storyteller, Martin Scorsese, with whom he has made two contrasting and compelling nineteenth-century New York films, Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York, the actor is the director’s ally. Michael Mann, who directed Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans put his professional and personal commitment in other terms: ‘He is immensely concentrated and he’s fearless. He will do and try anything.’

So today we honour Daniel Day-Lewis for that matchless talent, the commitment, and the diversity yet consistent brilliance of his screen performances that have shaped so many unforgettable, complex and challenging stories and that have enriched our own understanding of what it is to be human.


Praehonorabilis Praeses, totaque Universitas,

Praesento vobis hanc meam filiam, quam scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneam esse quae admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Litteris; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.

(Produced by UCD University Relations)


>> More News and Events
<< Back to Home

Daniel Day Lewis