I did not know Seamus Deane well when I asked him if he would be interested in examining my DPhil thesis in Oxford. This was the summer of 1992. I was in Dublin and went to see him in his office in UCD where he was literally boxing up books and papers prior to his departure for the University of Notre Dame. He seemed happy to have a distraction from a no doubt tedious task of sorting through stacks of material accumulated over the previous two decades.
He asked what I was working on, so I explained the topic – the way that philosophers like John Locke, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, and the Irish thinker Francis Hutcheson read travel accounts and argued about the moral content of human nature. Deane was not perhaps the obvious person to take on the assignment of examiner, given his reputation as a critic of Irish literature, especially in Celtic Revivals (1985), as editor of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 3 vols. (1991), and as a poet. But I had heard a lecture he had given that appeared in the first number of Eighteenth-Century Ireland on “Swift and the Anglo-Irish Intellect” (1986), which had something to say about Shaftesbury’s scepticism about travel writing. I thought he might appreciate a thesis which explored the issue in more detail. He was in good humour. “Sounds better than the last thesis I was invited to examine in over there,” he said. This was sufficient encouragement for me.
Some months later, when the time came for the viva, Deane arrived at the Examination Halls in Oxford with that characteristic upright gait and relaxed manner, and equally characteristic dark-hued, patterned jacket and jumper, with the slightly mismatched trousers. There was no sense of dressing especially for the occasion. The internal examiner and I, as required, were wearing academic robes. Seamus, who had done his graduate work in Cambridge, was no stranger to the system but he was also not one for ceremony, I detected. I had the feeling that the internal examiner, the eighteenth-century scholar, Prof. Tony Nuttall, was unfamiliar with him and his work, though eminently courteous.
Deane kicked off the proceedings and asked a question pitched at such an altitude that I had to ask him to explain it again. I am afraid that the second version was no easier for me to understand than the first. Challenging though it was to start this way, his manner of broaching things was not designed to impress or intimidate. He simply operated at a prodigious intellectual level and gave people the benefit of assuming they did the same. We soon got into a good conversation where it became clear that his interests lay in the later eighteenth century, in Diderot and others and their relationship to travel, and indeed to Burke, as befitted someone whose own doctoral work focused on responses to the French Revolution (published as The French Revolution and the Enlightenment in England, 1789–1832 (1988)). The challenge for me was to elaborate how and why attitudes to travel-writing had changed since the middle decades of the century. His report was generous. I got the degree.
I saw him next when he returned to Oxford to give the Clarendon Lectures in 1995, a series that became Strange Country: Modernity and Irish Writing since 1790 (1996). I was delighted to get a mention in a note to the opening chapter in a discussion of Burke’s Reflections, and to have contributed, however modestly, to his thinking.
His lectures attracted a huge audience and it was clear that his reputation and recognition in the UK had grown, perhaps from publication of The Field Day Anthology. Meeting socially after one of the talks, he spoke memorably about the writing process of what would soon appear as Reading in the Dark (1996), a brilliant work that had gone through many drafts and vicissitudes. When it came out, I remember sending him a copy of Camara Laye’s L’Enfant noir which I thought he would enjoy.
Future generations will face a daunting task of responding to his life’s work, with its range, depth, and mastery of sources, and much will be written about his place in Ireland’s cultural history during a key period of conflict, redefinition and regeneration, underpinned by remarkable connections with the great literary figures of his time. And I cannot but think that, in times to come, people will still discern in the weight and wealth of his scholarship, on disparate topics, an extraordinary intellect, great reserves of wit and an abiding humanity. Such was the person who, all those years ago, took time from packing for America, and another phase of a great career, to sit and talk with a graduate student working on philosophy and travel writing.
Daniel Carey, MRIA, is Director of the Moore Institute for the Humanities and Social Studies at NUI Galway and Professor of English in the School of English and Creative Arts. He is a Vice-President of the Royal Irish Academy and a board member of the Irish Research Council. He was Chair of the Irish Humanities Alliance 2014-16.