BOOKS: Seamus Deane was a singular figure in Irish letters.


Against Mystique

REVIEW by Richard Bourke in Dublin Review of Books

Small World: Ireland, 1798-2018, by Seamus Deane, Cambridge University Press, 364 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1108840866

Any new book by Seamus Deane was certain to be eagerly awaited. He was a singular figure in Irish letters. Versatile, eloquent, passionate and inventive, he stood out as combining exceptional talent as a writer, critic and intellectual. This latest work is a collection of critical essays written over a period of fifty years and covering two centuries of Irish cultural life. Many of the figures to whom Deane has repeatedly returned are examined – Swift, Burke, Joyce, Yeats and Heaney – along with new essays on Elizabeth Bowen and Mary Lavin. The “small world” of the title was evidently an occasion for Deane to treat large subjects: fanaticism, nationalism, imperialism, republicanism, revisionism and national character among them. These are explored with a wealth of cultural reference. Swift alone is contextualised by comparison with Juvenal, Rabelais, Pope, Dryden, Voltaire, La Rochefoucauld, Hobbes, Mandeville and Helvétius. In many ways, this points to Deane’s signature approach: studying the Irish predicament through a cosmopolitan lens.

That predicament took shape in the late seventeenth century. It encompasses the plight of a small country in conflict with a near neighbour in possession of disproportionate military and economic power. The resulting standoff has been variously characterised, frequently as a relationship between empire and colony, although the meaning of this terminology has been fiercely debated, and indeed shifted dramatically over the history of its use. As a result, controversy over the causes of the conflict between the two islands has sometimes been as divisive as the original sources of strife. Throughout his career, Deane has examined the ensuing contest, especially by surveying what he takes to be its symptoms as registered in the history of Irish literature and thought. This project has often involved recourse to the ideas of Edmund Burke, the subject of a previous collection of Deane’s essays, Foreign Affections (2004). For Burke, the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution left Ireland under the administration of a colonial class which, as a result of conquest and confiscation, controlled most of the property of the country and dominated its apparatus of rule. This “garrison” state, in turn, was subject to severe commercial restrictions as well as legislative supervision from London.

According to Burke, Ireland’s best chance of improving its situation lay in the oversight provided by the British parliament. Already by the end of the eighteenth century, a series of enlightened legislative provisions by Westminster had opened up trade between the two countries and challenged the monopoly of a Protestant minority over their management of affairs. By 1793, under British influence, the Roman Catholic majority had secured the parliamentary and municipal franchise, now restricted on the basis of property qualifications rather than religious affiliation. Yet at precisely this time Burke’s preferred avenue to reform was being challenged by the United Irishmen, who included Theobald Wolfe Tone among their most effective publicists. In a long and detailed treatment of the writings of this revolutionary separatist, Deane strives to extract the core of Tone’s reasoning.

Tone’s approach began with an adaptation of the views of Molyneux and Swift, which included reducing their arguments to the basic claim that the “influence of England was the radical vice of our Government”. For Molyneux and Swift, the ambition to control that influence was accompanied by a demand for ongoing British support for the principle of ascendancy. Tone’s objective, on the other hand, was to “subvert the tyranny” exercised by the Dublin administration whilst at the same time breaking the “connexion with England”. Unlike Burke, Tone took this connection to be “the never failing source of all our political evils”. This amounted to the assertion that the Irish parliament was a tool of British oppression in Ireland, and not, as Burke had claimed, an institution restrained by the enlightened counsels of the Westminster legislature. Accordingly, Tone called for independence as the only solution to the damage that necessarily accompanied all forms of subordination and union. This proposal became the principal tenet of Irish republican ideology – its first “Gospel”, as Pearse would later claim.

As Tone well knew, and as Deane recognises, this doctrine is not without its complications. First of all, separatism did not always prescribe the type of constitution that should accompany national autonomy. As Tone confessed in the summer of 1796, “[m]y object was to secure the independence of my country under any form of government”. Second, neither a partial nor complete escape from British jurisdiction entailed liberation from the commercial might of the empire. This had been fundamental to Burke’s position in the 1790s, and it became evident in practice in Southern Ireland after 1922, though gradually the force of the argument has diminished in the wake of Irish accession to the European Union, along with the decline of British power. However, most conspicuous among the difficulties endemic to the republican vision is the fact that independence from Britain provides no automatic means of resolving Irish divisions. By Tone’s own reckoning, the “memory of all past dissensions” was still alive in the late eighteenth century, and it found expression in persistent social and denominational struggle. Substituting the “common name of Irishman” for these antagonisms was not expected as an outcome of independence. It was stipulated, instead, as its necessary precursor. Deane describes this as a “double policy” on Tone’s part (independence and reconciliation), whereas technically it was intended as a sequence of policies: harmony was to come before independence. The former was regarded as a “means” to the latter.

Many of the figures to whom Deane has repeatedly returned are examined – Swift, Burke, Joyce, Yeats and Seamus Heaney (pictured above) –  are are essays on Elizabeth Bowen and Mary Lavin.

These distinctions are not mere scholastic niceties for Deane but matters of life and death. As he relates in his masterful memoir of Seamus Heaney included in this volume, he comes, like Heaney, from the Northern Irish Catholic community. Both men attended St Columb’s College, a diocesan grammar school for boys in Derry and, later, Queen’s University in Belfast. It becomes evident that Deane was formed in the 1950s, substantially in response to the politics of the province: “In 1957, an IRA campaign had just begun, and the local police were more aggressively sectarian than ever before, especially at night; unemployment in our area was running at nearly 50 per cent; housing was appalling; discrimination, with a Sten gun behind it, was what we knew of British democracy.” These experiences are seared at a deep level into Deane’s consciousness. They shaped his response to the onset of the Troubles in 1968. By December 1969, a schism had appeared in the IRA itself, leading to the creation of the Provisionals. For sections of what was then the mainstream (or Official) IRA, progress with intercommunal cooperation was a prerequisite for united Irish independence. For the Provisionals, dismantling British authority had to come first. In the former case, consensus was a precondition for Irish unity; in the latter, Irish unity presupposed an end to British rule. Tone’s “double policy” was immediately relevant again, with either side of the republican divide offering divergent accounts of how the steps towards independence should be sequenced.

Throughout this book, the agenda is set by a feeling of political anger driven by a powerful sense of injustice rooted in the Northern Catholic experience but looking back to the longer history of Irish affliction. At the same time, the polemical impulse is qualified by an aesthetic sensibility. That sensibility finds expression in two distinct ways. To begin with, there is Deane’s craftmanship as an essayist: structure, tone and argumentative dexterity are adeptly managed throughout, matched by the elegance and force of the prose. Secondly, alongside Deane’s political intervention, there is also an abiding disposition to stand back from indignation. This is most obvious in the thrill of literary appreciation that guides each individual critical engagement, but it is also recalled in an autobiographical vignette on his earliest reading of Hazlitt: “We absorbed those texts deeply, drank them like hot tea and then felt the faint sweat of pleasure come out on our skin as they reacted within us.”

The mixture of purposefulness and discernment in Deane’s writing is encapsulated by Hazlitt’s own term: disinterestedness. It points to a posture of non-partisan affect and understanding. Deane himself exhibits this aptitude when he remembers reading Milton and Dickens at university after returning home in the early 1960s via the Protestant Sandy Row area of Belfast. The world of sectarian prejudice jostled in his imagination with English dissenting culture as represented by its literature: “I knew the bitterness of Protestantism, and its philistine pride, but for the first time I began to sense its magnificence.” Bias, this implies, can be disarmed by reflection without any sacrifice of principle. Enlightenment of this kind has been subject to much suspicion, yet the liberating potential held out by disinterestedness is nonetheless apparent. Deane himself is alive to its possibilities, admiring the artful balance in Heaney between aesthetic propriety and ethical urgency – the rapprochement, as Deane put it, “between a serene freedom and a haunting violence”.

Just as art is not reducible to interest, so knowledge need not serve power. This verdict presumably applies as much to history and philosophy as it does to criticism and imaginative writing. For this reason, the instrumentalisation of knowledge is liable to seem like a betrayal. In a blistering attack on the corpus of revisionist historical literature, Deane convicts what he dubs its “pseudo-scientific orthodoxy” of precisely this kind of treachery and deceit. The central object of Deane’s attention is Roy Foster’s account of the 1916 Rising in his classic survey Modern Ireland, 1600-1972. Deane takes Foster’s treatment to be an exemplification of “value-free” research of the kind promoted by leading Irish historians in the 1970s and 1980s. In truth, he contends, the posture was a cover for the dissemination of a specific value. That value was “pluralism” – the happy coming together of divergent attitudes. For Deane, however, there was something vacuous about this profession of inclusiveness. If opinions were to be plural in any meaningful sense, they would have to coexist in a social setting. Under modern conditions, that meant existing side-by-side within a nation-state. Where mindsets conflicted, exhortations to toleration looked like empty evangelism. They represented a brand of complacent sermonising delivered by bien pensant onlookers to members of a riven society.

As Deane reads it, Foster’s pluralism self-identifies with forward-looking modernity and is thus pitted against a retrograde and credulous nationalism. And yet Foster was a nationalist despite himself, Deane argues: by renouncing Irish nationalism in principle, he became a de facto advocate of British nationalism, “thereby switching sides in the dispute” whilst believing himself to be “switching the terms of it”. Deane’s claim was that Foster’s judgments were ideological rather than neutral. They offered a defence of British liberalism, which was not so liberal in action in Northern Ireland. Foster’s valorisation of his own position was secured by demonising Irish republicanism as anachronistic and irrational at once – “infused with demonic, atavistic, and chaotically ‘spiritual’ energies”.

If nationalism was the cause of Ireland’s ailments then what, if anything, was the role of Britain in stoking the malady? Deane summarised what he took to be the revisionist perspective as this evolved during the period of the dissolution of the USSR: the assumption was that “imperialism or colonialism were myths generated by nationalists, unless, that is, they are spoken of by heroic little republics struggling to free themselves from the Soviet embrace. That is reality, not myth. But British imperialism? In Ireland?” That was a figment, and a distraction. Deane’s purpose is to restore substance to what was standardly construed as a mere phantom. To realise this end, he takes a long view. In “Civilians and Barbarians”, which first appeared as a Field Day pamphlet in 1983, the story begins with John Davies, attorney general in Ireland during the Jacobean plantation of Ulster. In his Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland was Never Entirely Subdued of 1612, Davies insisted, with Ireland in mind, that “a barbarous country must be first broken by war before it will be capable of good government; and when it is fully subdued and conquered, if it be not well planted and governed after the conquest, it will eftsoons return to the former barbarism”. As Deane chronicles the development of the Davies thesis through time, it transpires that the inveterate barbarism of the Irish proved resistant to subsequent attempts at civilisation. In Walpole, Coleridge, Southey and Hazlitt, clannishness and superstition were used to explain Irish intransigence, above all the stubborn defiance of law and order. Through the nineteenth century, Irish character was merged with homo criminalis, and ultimately with anarcho-Fenianism.

Yet for all its quiet dismay about the persistence of these pathological depictions, the essay is not an endorsement of the barbarian against the civilian. It is, instead, a plea to step outside the constraints implicit in such antitheses. It appeals to our capacity to imagine alternative ways of structuring our relationships. Without some transformation, we are condemned to repeat the reductive simplifications, along with the attendant abuses, that accompany stereo-typification. Deane’s criticism applies at once to oppressor and oppressed, to both sides of the civilian-barbarian dyad. The strategies of domination as well as liberation are treated to the same sceptical investigation. In “Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea”, two opposing versions of the discourse of liberation are scrutinised – the Yeatsian and the Joycean, the romantic and the cosmopolitan. For Deane, both options prove constricting to the extent that they trade on a “mystique of Irishness”.

Fuelling Deane’s critique is his rejection of the idea of national character. The idea itself has been a recurrent theme in his writing since Celtic Revivals (1985), returning as a concern in A Short History of Irish Literature (1986), The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England (1988) and Strange Country (1997). The Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature, and now this book, were intended to expose its implausibility. In this volume, “Irish National Character 1790-1900” is a tour de force which charts the oppositions between “Irishness” and “Englishness” in a host of commentators including William Temple, Alexander Pope, Germaine de Staël, Maria Edgeworth, Thomas Carlyle and Standish O’Grady. Deane winds his way from descriptions of the ideal English garden to the dreamy Celtic personality with fluency and intelligence to illustrate how the moral categories imposed on the peoples of these islands have in truth been products of a deeper political intent.

Deane diagnoses the stylisation of national cultures as a product of “a long colonial concussion”. And although at one point he distinguishes between colonialism and imperialism – “As a system, imperialism is distinct from colonialism by virtue of its more coherent organizational form and its more fully articulated characterization of itself as a missionary project to the world at large” – for the most part they are taken as interchangeable enterprises. Given the diversity of the materials explored in the book, from Spenser’s Irish rebels to the modern hunger striker, a large burden is placed on these ideas to account for the cultural consequences being explored. Again and again, Deane returns in the book, above all in the closing ruminative section on “The End of the World”, to the spectacle of colliding worlds, temporal asymmetries and disappearing civilisations. This is largely framed in terms of a confrontation between empires and nations with the goal of anatomising the deformations caused by the encounter. The conflict, however, is largely cast as a struggle over representations: how one population regards and pigeonholes another.

In this Deane follows the precedent set by Edward Said. Political problems, past and present, are predominantly portrayed in terms of cultural “constructions”: typically, how a given “discourse” – say, the West – configures its “other” – for example, the East. This conceptual toolbox is closer than Deane and Said might like to ideas deployed by those whom they criticise – notions such as generic “civilisations” and underlying “identities”. Happily, in Deane’s work, the offending categories are probed and found wanting. Nonetheless, presumably he does not want the investigation to stop there. The Saidian assault on Western strategies of representation has proved a powerful weapon against suspect “essentialisms”, but it tends to confine political explanation to cultural commentary. Said is surely right that global inequalities are reflected in the literatures of societies affected by Western dominance. But the system of power on which domination is based is largely construed on the level of how conflicting groups depict one another – which boils down to examining how disesteem is distributed. However, the feeling of being deprecated is ubiquitous across human history, leaving the object of study indeterminate. Its actual significance depends on contextual specification in terms of governmental structures, social arrangements and economic systems. Analysis on this level would clear the ground for isolating exactly what is being rejected, and by implication what we might wish to retain. Said himself, for example, was broadly committed to the values of liberal democracy, although naturally he deplored its most conspicuous iniquities. In defending cosmopolitanism against chauvinism, he hardly offered a wholesale indictment of the West.

These concerns need not detract from Deane’s overall achievement. He devoted himself for more than half a century to interpreting the complexities of Ireland, raising the discussion to a new level of sophistication. There was no other student of Irish literature who might even think about the connections between Yeats and Spengler or the relationship between Joyce and Lukács. He was a product of a grand European tradition, now disappearing from the scene, in which the critic might at the same time be an intellectual. The combination in Deane’s case has leant a seriousness to his work that is unmatched among the burgeoning commentariat. Small Country offers a panoramic overview of his development, exhibiting his sympathies and accomplishments. The book contains a compelling blend of history and criticism, marshalling Deane’s finespun amalgamation of disinterestedness and passion.


Richard Bourke is professor of the history of political thought and a fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge. His publications include Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas (2nd ed, 2012) and Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke (2015). He has co-edited a collection of writings on The Political Thought of the Irish Revolution with Niamh Gallagher, which is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

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