Air Date: June 9, 1998 Program 9823


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 move forward."

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 it been?

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 embattled situation.

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 a peace?

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 Ireland.

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 those wounds.

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 end.

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....

DEANE: Yeah.

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 particular novel.

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 War.

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.

Tapes and transcript of this program with Irish writer Seamus Deane, are available. The tapes cost $5.00 and the transcripts are free of charge. To order a tape or transcript, write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore Street, Suite 500, Muscatine, Iowa; the zip code is 52761. When placing your order be sure to ask for program No. 9823, that's program number 9823. For credit card orders you can call 319-264-1500. We are also on the World Wide Web, at

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