Seamus Deane, author, Reading in the Dark
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MALE VOICE: I hereby give notice that the percentage votes given at the referendum was as
follows: Yes, 71.12 percent…. [sounds of large crowd cheering]
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: On May 22 the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to approve the
Irish peace accords, giving the troubled North a new opportunity.
FEMALE VOICE: This is a majority of both communities. It is three-in-one saying, “Let’s
DAVIDSON: During this edition of Common Ground, we talk with one of Ireland’s
pre-eminent writers about this new era and the difficulties in overcoming a troubled past.
SEAMUS DEANE: You know, you have a whole generation of children who grew up acclimatized
to violence. You have literally scores of people who spent years in jail.
DAVIDSON: Writer Seamus Deane is my guest during this next half-hour of Common
Ground. Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events.
It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Seamus Deane is an acclaimed poet and a renowned Joyce scholar. His first novel, titled
Reading in the Dark, was just published in paperback this spring. Reading in the
Dark can be read as a boy’s coming of age story, but the boy’s personal story works on
another level as a metaphor for Ireland’s troubled and violent past. A land which, just like the
boy’s family, has sorrows that have been handed down generation to generation. While Reading
in the Dark is fiction, much of it is autobiographical, says Seamus Deane.
DEANE: Most of it actually is based on events that really did happen. Some of the
patterning of the book is entirely my own. That is to say it’s, there is a fictional element or
fictive element in the degree to which I have tied events together very tightly. But essentially
it’s about my family history with another family’s history very gently inserted here and there.
DAVIDSON: In what way was your family involved in the Troubles, as they’ve been called, in
Northern Ireland at that time?
DEANE: In the twenties? Well, as the book indicates my father’s brother, Eddie, was in the
Irish Republican Army—the IRA as it’s called. And so to, though to the full extent of which I’m
not sure, so too was my grandfather on my mother’s side. And probably one or two other cousins.
And this has extended up to the present day where one of my, I have a first cousin who was
murdered by the Secret Air Services of the British Army in the late ’80s. And a number of cousins
have been jailed. So it’s a continuous history.
DAVIDSON: In this chapter of Reading in the Dark, titled “Pistol,” Deane recounts a
harrowing encounter with the police.
DEANE: [reading from his novel]
In that dark winter there were two police cars, black and black, that appeared to have landed
like spaceships out of the early morning light of the street. I saw their gleaming metal
reflected in the lacquered window glass of the house next door as they took off with us. But
first there was the search. A bright figure in a white rain cape came through the bedroom door
and stood with his back to the wall switching the light on and off. He was shouting but I was
numb with shock and could see only his mouth opening and closing. I dressed within that thin
membrane of silence. They were, I knew, looking for the gun I had found the afternoon before, in
the bottom drawer, inside the wardrobe of the room next door, where my sister slept. It was a
long, chill pistol, blue, black and heavy, which I had smuggled out the back to show to some boys
from Fahan Street up near the old city walls. Then my father, Liam and I were in the police cars
and the morning light had already reached the rooftops as a polished gleam on the slates that
fled as we turned the corner of the street, toward the police barracks, no more than a few
hundred yards away.
Where was the gun? I had had it. I had been seen with it. Where was it? Policemen with huge faces
bent down to ask me, quietly at first, then more and more loudly. They made my father sit at a
table and then lean over it with his arms outspread. Then they beat him on the neck and shoulders
with rubber truncheons, short engorged red in color. He told them, but they didn’t believe him.
So, they beat us too, Liam and me, across the table from him. I remember the sweat and rage on
his face as he looked. When they pushed my chin down on the table down for a moment I was looking
up at him. Did he wink at me, or were there tears in his eyes? Then my head bounced so hard on
the table with the blows that I bit hard on my tongue. For long after I would come away in the
small hours of the morning sweating, asking myself over and over, “Where is the gun? Where is it?
Where is the gun?” I would rub the sleep and fear that lay like a cobweb across my face. If a
light flickered from the street beyond the image of the police car would reappear and my hair
would feel starched and my hands sweaty. The police smell took the oxygen out of the air and left
me sitting there with my chest heaving.
DAVIDSON: Were you ever involved politically?
DEANE: No. I’ve been involved politically, not militarily. But usually in small ginger
groups, you know, that were trying to switch the sectarian course of the politics in Northern
Ireland. Not to much avail.
DAVIDSON: Well, is it possible for anyone in Northern Ireland to be non-political? Or has
DEANE: Ah well, incredibly, yes it is. I mean, it’s very difficult for someone in Northern
Ireland not to be affected in a fairly direct way by the Troubles. But, the Troubles are
concentrated in certain areas where resistance to the Unionist, the corrupt Unionist system is
strongest and the areas that were most punished by it; West Belfast, South Armagh, Derry City.
And there are many other sites as well. But it would be possible, has been possible for many
people, to live a middle class, comfortable middle class existence in parts of Northern Ireland
and to a large extent not be directly affected by the Troubles. Though of course they, everything
is so small there; the scale is so small, the population is only 1.5 million. The major cities,
Belfast and Derry, are separated by only 80 miles. So it’s difficult even if it’s just drinking
it in through the newspaper with your coffee in the morning. It’s difficult not to be emotionally
affected by it. But, as I say, there are areas that have been grossly affected by it, where
hundreds and thousands of lives have been deformed and distorted by the Troubles, and that’s for
a period of 30 years continuously that it’s happened.
DAVIDSON: I was thinking about the narrator in his search for the truth, that it seemed
too that while he was looking for perhaps an answer to things, he was also more willing than some
of those around him to see complexity.
DAVIDSON: Not necessarily those in his family, but, in one of the early chapters he saw a
boy who was run over by a truck but the story that went around in the community later was that a
police car ran over the boy and didn’t even stop.
DEANE: Hmm, hmm.
DAVIDSON: And it, he actually had a feeling of sympathy for one of the police officers who
was attending to the scene of the accident. And maybe that set him apart from the others, in his
feeling some humanity for that officer who is portrayed by much of his community as the enemy.
DEANE: The recognition of there being complexity is inevitable if you live within a
ghettoized society which has to keep a solid front against the enemy. And you will recognize, he
recognizes that incident as, yes indeed, one of the telling early incidents that demonstrate
this. He recognizes that to feel sympathy for a policeman is in fact, in some way, constitutes a
betrayal of his community. And his community recognizes that, to say, you know, something which
was an accident, a boy had been run over by a truck, can be converted into yet another narrative
of hatred against the police. Because that’s what holds this community together. The narratives
of dispossession, of being wrongly done by, even though this immediately means that all policeman
have to be solidified into one stereotype of the police. All of them are brutal, sectarian,
murderous. And, of course, the narrator recognizes situations are actually more complex than
that. But he also recognizes complexity is a luxury that perhaps you can’t afford in such an
DAVIDSON: I was trying to think of how to talk about some of the changes in the, maybe,
black and white thinking. You’ve got Catholic/Protestant, British/Irish, and if the breaking down
of some of those things by politicians such as John Hume have led to some progress in working out
DEANE: Absolutely. Yeah. And John Hume I think is one of the, if not the central creator
of that possibility of peace. Certainly that Good Friday agreement this year, I think, although I
could sit here for ten minutes and say, “I don’t like this about Strand 1, Strand 2, Strand 3,”
and going into the detail of it. But nevertheless I think that there is something or that there
might be something in this peace agreement. Which is different not just in technical terms from
the agreement of ’73, which collapsed and was the last time that anybody in Northern Ireland had
reason to hope for escape from the violence. What’s different here is that I think Hume has
actually perhaps persuaded—the situation has also persuaded—many people to, on both sides,
Republican/Nationalist, Unionist/Loyalist, has persuaded people that there is actually a way of
having an agreement, however frail it might be, in which let’s say take the Unionists, in which
they say, “the status quo is preserved and safe.” And which the Republicans now can say, “the
status quo is not preserved or safe; it is capable of development into something like a united
DAVIDSON: A united Ireland, right.
DEANE: Which is what we desire. But both of them can be of that opinion and both of them
can recognize the opinion of the other and have the imagination or the flexibility finally, to
accept this is the case. There are two desires here. And those two desires while they may not be
happy to have to live in the same house together, nevertheless they have now decided they’re
going to make a serious attempt to make cohabitation without violence possible. Now I think
that’s actually a transformation, an imaginative transformation, in the political system. It
seems very small when I enunciate it here but it is in fact, it’s the spirit of that agreement
rather than the detail of that agreement that I think gives ground for hope.
DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break and after that we’ll continue our
conversation with Seamus Deane.
You’re listening to Common Ground, a program on world affairs, sponsored by the Stanley
Foundation. My guest is Irish poet and author Seamus Deane, whose novel Reading in the
Dark was recently released in paperback. Deane was editor of the Field Day Anthology,
which is regarded as the definitive collection of Irish literature. Seamus Deane grew up in
Northern Ireland. He now lives in Dublin and teaches at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana
during the Fall.
The Stanley Foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that works to promote thought
and encourage dialogue about the world. Tapes and transcripts of Common Ground programs
are available. At the end of the broadcast, I’ll give you information on how to order.
What does it do for the people who live in a violent society? I’m talking about the people who
for 30 years have lived this, and longer.
DEANE: Well, it has, not very surprisingly, it has terrible effects. Mostly what you’re
talking about are communities that have been economically underprivileged, politically
discriminated against. They would have had a difficult time anyway, without the police and the
army doing their worst in those areas. So the effects are that you know, you have a whole
generation of children who grew up acclimatized to violence. You have literally scores of people
who spent years in jail. Almost all of the men but with some women spending long periods in jail
as well. So you have every conceivable form of social disorder. And also of anger because some of
those people in jail are in jail on perjured testimony or on testimony that would not hold up in
a normal court of law, not that there’s been a normal court of law in Northern Ireland for a long
time. So you’ve got a bitter sense of injustice. You have all of the ills that go with working
class, ghettoized existence. And despite efforts to improve this, I mean there’s been what, four
attempts to investigate the police force? The RUC as it’s called. Even the recent Good Friday
agreement which gives some reason for hope, even in that the police force is again going to be
investigated by a commission rather than be disbanded as it should be. So you’ve got a great deal
of social disorganization and traumatized communities. And it’s not going to be easy to heal
DAVIDSON: In a way I saw Reading in the Dark as somewhat a hopeful metaphor for
Ireland in that the boy did not really discover his identity through his family, which leads me
to think, well, he’ll have to create his own identity and I’m thinking in terms of the
post-colonial literature and maybe recreating an identity. In a way is that hopeful for Northern
Ireland to perhaps eventually be able to move away from the trauma? I mean, if it does indeed
DEANE: If indeed. Well, the kind of identity that young man achieves is a little anorexic
you know. The relationship between him and his parents, which is also a relationship between him
and his past, and an attempt at interpreting it, does not in fact, what shall we say,
sufficiently yield the kind of narrative that those novels that tell a successful, tell of a
successful final celebration of identity, generally do. The post-colonial element, I suppose,
yeah. That’s there, though I would say to this extent, more than in the gaining or the attempt to
gain—or regain—an identity which might be too deformed to be ever full. So in that sense it’s
not at all a celebratory work about the achievement of identity. It’s really rather a melancholy
study of the attempt to forge an identity which might, which you might say, but not with any
confidence, exists or is attained at the close of the novel.
DAVIDSON: Well, that seems more realistic too. It’s hard to celebrate when there’s been
that on-going trauma.
DAVIDSON: Because then it would seem that you’re almost ignoring that past and that is a
part of who you are. So maybe it’s more of a mixed….
DAVIDSON: That’s why I said hopeful in that, you know, you’re not forgetting what happened
in the past, but maybe can move on to a more positive way of living.
DEANE: Well, to a limited degree but you know I even heard myself say there when I was
talking about, I’d use the famous Joyce verb, forge the identity. And when Joyce talks in
Portrait of the Artist about forging the creative conscience of his race, he’s talking
about the same sort of thing. And you know, what we are, what is shared right through the last
century in Ireland is a kind of, you know, colonial/post-colonial condition from which recovery,
recovery is not only slow and painful, but it’s a recovery that goes through various stages. And
one of them might be called….
DAVIDSON: It’s not a linear stage, either.
DEANE: No, no, no. Linear—and you know, one might be imaginative. One might be political.
One might be economic. But at some point the feeling of having recovered or not needing to have
to recover anymore, one would hope would be born. And I think it has been born in the generation
behind me. But that the echoes of that condition of coloniality are still quite audible in this
DAVIDSON: People who aren’t all that aware of what has, of the history of Northern
Ireland, you could read this novel and not really get the full picture. But if you do know the
history of the country then there are so many important elements that work on different levels. I
was thinking about the boy’s house which is haunted by the ghost and it seems again Irish society
will be haunted by this for a time. And perhaps maybe every society. I mean every society is
haunted by things in its past.
DEANE: Umm hmm. Umm hmm. There are certainly things that one doesn’t wish to admit. But
there’s two things I’d say about that. The initial haunting, the shadow on the stairs, that the
reader meets on the first page—one of the things that the boy recognizes of course, when it’s
altogether too late, is that he has become the shadow. He is the one who’s darkening his mother’s
life. And he has become the threat to the family, to the peace in the family. And this is meant
to be as bitterly ironic as he feels it to be. The second thing I’d say about him, and that
relation, is that this young boy’s representative in another way. He’s representative of that
generation of the Catholic minority which gained access to free education for the first time in
the late 1940s, as a consequence of British Socialist legislation in the aftermath of the Second
But also what the young, what I emphasize here, because I tell really two kinds of stories
throughout that novel; one is if you like a secular detective, investigative story, and the other
is a story that is dominated by folk tale and ghost story and hauntings and such like. And I
weave these together partly to demonstrate that the old kind of story that of course is coming to
him from the earlier generation—Grandfather, Aunt Katie, people like that—that that’s a story
which is even more sophisticated, in fact a good deal more sophisticated, than the kind of story
he’s trying to produce. It’s a story—the ghost stories and such, haunting stories—are ways of
dealing with trauma. But they’re ways of dealing with trauma by bringing the trauma away from an
individual back into a communal embrace. But the young boy doesn’t recognize that these are
heavily coded stories.
Because he is being educated—he’s learning Latin and French and Greek and such at
school—because he’s being educated he has a certain dismissiveness towards, even derision for,
those older stories. But in fact they’re telling him, they’re telling him his history. He just
hasn’t, at this moment he doesn’t have the ears to hear. Precisely because he’s been educated.
And it’s, so he stands at the confluence if you like of two, or at least at the transitional
point between two versions of Northern Irish society, especially on the minority side. The
society that was formally speaking, uneducated but was in terms of cultural habits given to that
vision of existence in which life is a mystery, and he on the other hand belongs to the educated,
to the new educated generation which has been one of the driving forces behind the need for
reform in Northern Ireland, but for him life is not mysterious but problematic. And therefore is
of course capable of a solution. So, and on one, at one level the older people live in eternity
and he lives in time. And in between them this mist connecting them is history. You know. And
he’s trying to, he doesn’t quite recognize this until it’s too late.
DAVIDSON: What are the cultural implications of a lasting peace?
DEANE: Well, they may be able to shut the writers up, you know. [laughter] Maybe the world
will lose interest in things Irish for awhile again, because now a hot spot has cooled off.
DAVIDSON: Yes, it does certainly have, at least in the United States, great currency.
DEANE: Uh huh.
DAVIDSON: Literature, film, history.
DEANE: Indeed. Dance, music, all those things. Yeah. But I think in some ways it doesn’t,
the cultural implications, no let me put it differently. I don’t think the kinds of cultural
energy that have been released over the last 20 years or so—let’s say since you know, Brian
Freeland, Seamus Heaney, just to mention two obvious examples—since they began writing. In that
period a great deal has been done that, all right, owes some of its visibility to the Troubles
and to the world’s recognition that this is, if not a global flash point at any rate a
troublesome red light that’s winking on and off every so often on the global map, but I think now
the situation is such that cultural energy is not—and I would like it to be shown not to
be—dependent upon political disturbance.
DAVIDSON: We had talked earlier about the influence of the thinking of the John Humes in
reaching this current state of the peace accords. And I’m also thinking economically the Irish
Republic has fared much better in recent years and especially as it becomes more integrated into
the European Union. Do you think that has had an effect on Northern Ireland?
DEANE: Yes, it’s had some effect. You see there, that, because, I suppose its most
profound effect is that it reversed a stereotype. You see Northern Ireland which is heavily
subsidized by the British Treasury, and that had a brief period of economic superiority because
of the ship building and the plane building during the Second War….
DAVIDSON: Superiority to the South, to the Republic?
DEANE: Economic superiority, yeah. And the South of course having been undercapitalized
for so long. I mean, it had and then having followed rather to say the least, rather unwise
economic policies for the first 30 or 40 years of the state, the stereotype grew up that the
northern state, which was industrial, high tech in those terms, and British, was of course
economically more prosperous than the Roman Catholic state, which was much more, what shall we
say, Neapolitan in its politics and economics than the North. Now that has been shown to be a
nonsense. It’s just, it’s not any particular, it’s not a spirit that belongs either to
Protestantism or to Catholicism. Even economics, you see, have been sectarianized. It has to do
with certain conditions.
And the South has followed after some one or two disastrous prime ministers like Jack Lynch who
put it in heavy debt, but since then has followed prudent economic policies and has, is now
reaping the benefits in these amazing growth spurts of six and eight percent and sometimes even
almost ten percent per year for the last, oh, what is it, five years now? So, yes, the prosperity
of the South, of the Republic, the integration with Europe, the inversion or reversal of a
stereotype which was, as most of them are, based upon sectarian blindness, these are all agencies
operating to make the relationship between the South and the North something different than it
has been. And this is something that of course the British government is also to. Of course one
should always remember that the British government is very expert in playing the role of
impartial judge between warring positions whereas in fact it is itself the major participant in
the Northern Irish Troubles.
DAVIDSON: Irish critic and author Seamus Deane has been my guest on Common Ground.
His first novel, titled Reading in the Dark, came out in paperback this spring. For
Common Ground I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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