This essay was initially delivered as the Madden-Rooney Public Lecture in honour of Seamus Deane at the Keough Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, O’Connell House, Dublin, on June 17th, 2022. The lecture commemorated the work of Ireland’s foremost scholar, cultural critic and activist, and public intellectual, with an emphasis in particular on Deane’s contribution in his later work to the timely rethinking of a distinctive Irish tradition of radical republicanism. The lecture also launched Deane’s final book, Small World, Ireland 1798-2018, which was published posthumously in the month of Deane’s death in May 2021.
Let me begin with two paintings, both by Jack B Yeats, Ireland’s first “national painter” and a lifelong republican. Both were painted one hundred years ago, in 1922 and 1923 respectively, as the Irish Civil War drew to the dismal close that spelt the effective end of left republicanism for several generations. Jack B Yeats’s The Funeral of Harry Boland (1922) is unusual in his oeuvre. Its uncharacteristic quality is not due to its explicitly political theme, commemorating the funeral of the anti-Treaty Republican who was murdered by Free State forces while seeking to escape arrest. It belongs among a number of paintings, sympathetic to Irish nationalism and to the Republican struggle, that Yeats produced throughout his life. It is, rather, unusual for its formal qualities. Yeats’s paintings are generally composed around strong visual triangles that converge at a vanishing point beyond or at the limit of the picture plane. The Funeral of Harry Boland, however, is marked by a line of vertical forms ‑ mourners, gravestones, trees ‑ that virtually bisects the painting horizontally, and these elements are united by the lower portion of a round tower that amplifies the vertical thrust of the painting and dominates the centre. Separated from it by the line of mourners, and balancing it as the visual focus of the painting, is the wreath-covered grave of Boland, which forms a visually peculiar horizontal space among the standing mourners. Every potential visual triangle is truncated and collapses down into a peculiarly illuminated space that powerfully holds the eye. It is as if the gap that Boland’s grave shapes prevents us from seeing his commemoration as closure, making of memorial a temporal rupture rather than a resurrection.
I know only one other painting by Yeats that shares something of The Funeral of Harry Boland’s formal design, a painting done a year later entitled An Island Funeral (1923). Here too, though differently oriented, the coffin occupies the visual centre of the painting, its clearly lit form compelling our attention. The grouping of figures around it gestures once again towards a kind of foreshortened visual triangle that culminates in the figure standing at the mast, looking aside, cutting off the scarcely visible sunlit mainland towards which this sombre company is heading. There were no graveyards on the Blaskets, as Sligo’s Niland Collection’s curatorial note tersely reminds us.
How should we read this luminous opening at the heart of these paintings from 1922-23? Does the interment of republican Harry Boland encrypt the promise of an unrealised republic, a possible alternative to the state that closed off the revolutionary possibilities so many had envisaged? Does the island’s dead, transported not to the other world but to the material and rapidly modernising mainland, emblematise the passing of a culture that is spatially and temporally, to borrow Deane’s own pun from an essay on the western islands, “this world’s end that is also the end of a world”? There, “an individual death is absorbed into the death of a small community, that of the community seems to merge with the imminent death of the ‘Big World’ beyond.” The ends of small worlds each prefigure the end of the world that, as we increasingly must fear, faces us all right now, brought on by the globalisation of a colonial capitalism for which the whole world has never been anything but a set of resources to be exploited.
But what, then, is to be retrieved from this luminous space that haunts both paintings with the passing of small worlds and of utopian hopes, marking a loss that is, perhaps, also an opening? Deane’s work is haunted by empty and silent yet luminous spaces. Often they represent quite literally a haunting, as with the simple but unforgettable, and characteristically redolent sentence that opens his great novel, Reading in the Dark: “On the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence.” In an essay on Heaney, Deane reflects on the significance of such “clear, plain silences”:
It is remarkable how fond Heaney becomes of empty spaces that only light can fill; how within them there remains in the memory the trace of a physical object that defines the emptiness. It is a parable of what happens in his poetry, how all the quidditas, haecceitas ‑ the thinghood of things ‑ is transmuted into an air that remains alive and actual.
This essay seeks to draw out what “remains [not only] alive and actual” but vital in Deane’s work at a time when, with a peculiar intensity, we collectively and all too consciously face the end of the world. There was nothing consolatory in the lament Seamus voiced for all that has gone down, and goes down, in our disjointed world. But perhaps in our own thoughtful lament today for the person and the voice we have lost, we too can trace the quality, the quidditas, of the thinking he bequeathed us.
I started with Yeats’s two paintings because they strikingly emblematise the two dominant themes that, as it seems to me now, Deane was seeking to bridge in his late work: the question of the end of the world, of what happens at the end of the world and after the end of the world, and the question of “republics that were and might be”, to cite the title of his own inaugural Field Day Lecture in Derry in 2015. Here I want to dwell both on what Deane achieved in the magnificent, complex, brilliantly woven essays of the last fifteen years or so of his life and with the gaps and apparent silences that nonetheless speak, like open mouths, like the open wounds of our collective past and our present, and that seem to me a constitutive part of the form that defines Deane’s “late style”. Reading these essays as they were published, and then again in the wake of his untimely passing, I’ve grown convinced that Deane was mapping for us a retheorisation of republicanism for our times, a theory that is there for us to read and elaborate, gapped and unfinished as it may be. It is a theory that seeks to reckon adequately with the Irish past, with its losses and its failures as well as with the specific and particular openings it offers for our collective futures. What, he was asking, does the Irish tradition of republicanism, forged in struggle and destitution, still have to offer to our global present, under a neoliberal regime that came after the much-proclaimed “end of history” and with the disasters, human and natural, that it continues to unleash and that are defining our futures and their limits?
What I am calling Deane’s late style may in fact represent his development of a method akin to the constellatory practice that he explored in an essay on the German critical theorist Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. Benjamin produced what Deane describes as “the unfinished, unfinishable and deliberate ruin of The Arcades Project” in face of post-revolutionary disappointment in the 1920s and 30s. Ruins, gapped and thrown open, are forms of constellation: they expose a structure but also leave open alternative possibilities that their fragmentary forms sustain. The gap or opening is as much part of their meaning, as an index of loss and as a sign of value and possibility, as are the concrete elements that communicate across it. The constellation offers the means by which, in Deane’s words, “the ‘passagework’ between arbitrary detail and significance could be negotiated”: it sustains a “dialectical enterprise, predicated on the notions of intense fracture of experience and a countervailing order to be discovered or asserted within it”. (my emphasis)
Irish history is notoriously a matter of the ends of worlds, a dismal and discontinuous sequence that Deane characterised in his earlier book, Strange Country, as a “serial apocalypse”: the panorama of Irish history is one, obsessively so registered, of discontinuity and rupture, or, to use Deane’s phrase again, of “intense fracture of experience”. The question he poses is how to interpret the Irish past in a way that does not betray such a sense of fracture by imposing an all-too recuperative and continuous narrative, and that can yet apprehend in the serial apocalypse some kind of significance or ordered pattern that constellates the particulars of our history. Deane’s essays, which always move between the striking individual experience and its allegorical significance, urge us always “to recognize that atomized personal experience does in fact have as its other ‘face’, historical, collective experience.”
We should stress here that Deane’s emphasis is precisely on the collective, not on the “universal” that so many artists and critics have made the alibi for conformity to the economic and aesthetic norms of global culture. For the shattering of colonial Ireland, like that of any colonised culture, was aimed at its incorporation into a modernity that, in Frantz Fanon’s brilliant formulation, unilaterally declared its universality. How can Irish history, this “serial apocalypse” of collective catastrophes which were aimed at the destruction of the forms of Irish sociality that resisted British colonial capitalism, lend itself to any realisation of political liberation from domination? For that is the central tenet of the republicanism that Deane, following the work of political theorist Philip Pettit, characterised as freedom from domination, as opposed to the liberal theory of freedom as non-interference:
Central to all republican thinking and politics is the claim to freedom from domination. No government that is factional or colonial can be legitimized even when it does not actually interfere in a person’s liberty; as long as it may do so, it enslaves.
To put Deane’s question another way then, what does the particular Irish historical experience, its long experience of domination and of destruction under a colonial state, offer to the (re)thinking of republicanism? Given how the “intense fracture of experience” that is a general if not definitive feature of modernisation seems to impact the Irish passage into modernity with peculiar force, on what can an alternative life-in-common be predicated that is not just a form of gradual absorption into modernity such as the recent history of the Irish post-colonial state has represented?
This question is made all the more urgent by the convergence, in settler colonial nations around the world, between the ideal of non-domination and libertarian alibis for white supremacy that undergird the racist state, possessive individualism and the ongoing destructive exploitation of the earth as “resource”. In this vicious history of white supremacy, the Irish diaspora has not been innocent, and Deane’s commitment to rethinking the Irish republican tradition, marked as it always was by his wary scepticism, is all the more urgent. In what follows, I will try to track the motifs though which Deane reckons with the serial apocalypse of Irish history in order to draw from it both its specific contribution to republican political philosophy and the alternative possibilities it suggests not only for understanding Ireland’s long decolonisation but also for imagining alternative futures in a world haunted by its imminent end.
Across a series of essays, mostly published in the Field Day Review, Deane recurred consistently to a number of interconnecting motifs that form the singular constellation of his thought, the Irish Famine, the apocalypse and the state of emergency, and the tradition of Irish republicanism. The latter Deane regards as embodied in three moments and figures: 1798 and Wolfe Tone; 1847 and Fintan Lalor; 1919-21 and Ernie O’Malley. Though these motifs everywhere intersect as part of the intricate weave of his writings, I’ll treat them here at first as distinct threads before seeing how they come together in Deane’s critical rethinking of the republican tradition.
The Famine is generally understood to have represented a watershed moment in Irish history. It has largely been understood to have sounded the catastrophic death knell of traditional oral culture and the Irish language and of distinctive Irish life-forms, the clachan communities and the remnants of land use in common. It represents, that is, a particular end, that of a life-world in the course of its violent subjection to modernisation. This interpretation of the Famine has provoked a peculiar mix of lament and opportunism. On the one hand, a sympathetic folklorist and medical man like Sir William Wilde could mourn the passing of a rich oral culture in elegiac terms:
The great convulsion which society of all grades has here lately experienced, the failure of the potato crop, pestilence, famine and a most unparalleled extent of emigration, together with bankrupt landlords, pauperizing poor-laws, grinding officials, and decimating workhouses, have broken up the very foundations of social intercourse, have swept away the established theories of political economists, and uprooted many of our long-cherished opinions. … Unwaked, unkeened, the dead are buried, where Christian burial has at all been observed; and the ear no longer catches the mournful cadence of the wild Irish cry, wailing on the blast, rising up to us from the valleys, or floating along the winding river …
On the other hand, one of those Irish political economists, JE Cairnes, regarded the Famine as a necessary stage in the development of a sense of private property, in “a process of ‘gradual disentanglement of the separate rights of individuals from the blended rights of a community’”. Cairnes went on to celebrate the very developments that Wilde regarded with ambivalence, “the spread of education, and the introduction of railroads, colleges, industrial and other educational schools” as well as other modern institutions of an industrialising society and English-style capitalist agriculture. We may safely say that, despite a long sesquicentenary of commemoration, it is Cairnes’s interpretation of the Famine, as developmental stage rather than destructive apocalypse, that continues to prevail. As Deane himself put it, in a review in these pages of Breandán Mac Suibhne’s fine historical work The End of Outrage: “From the Catholic clergy to the Protestant politicians and landlords, from Oxbridge historians … to the Leninist assaults on the dangers of traditional ‘habit’ among the peasantry … the chorus of approval for modernity’s demolition of the peasantry and its culture is deafening.”
It was, however, through the writings of Young Ireland nationalist James Fintan Lalor that Deane read the significance of the Famine and its relation to a specific Irish inflection of republicanism. Lalor was unambiguous in his letters to The Nation journal in 1847 as to the apocalyptic nature of the Famine:
The failure of the potato, and consequent famine, is one of those events which come now and then to do the work of ages in a day, and change the very nature of an entire nation at once. It has even already produced a deeper social disorganisation than did the French revolution ‑ greater waste of life ‑ wider loss of property ‑ more than the horrors, with none of the hopes…. It has unsettled society to the foundation; deranged every interest, every class, every household. Every man’s place and relation is altered; labour has left its track, and life lost its form … Society stands dissolved.
For Lalor, this was a revolutionary situation: if society is dissolved, it also destroys all rights to property for the “eight thousand persons” who have deprived eight million of “all rights of property, security, independence, and existence itself”. He demanded “not to repeal the Union … but to abolish the Empire forever” and “to found a new nation … based on a peasantry rooted like rocks in the soil of the land …” For Deane, Lalor’s intense vision of the Famine set him apart even from the radical republican John Mitchel who read his essays enthusiastically at the time. Mitchel continued to advocate the extension throughout Ireland of the traditional “Ulster tenant right” and predicated his republicanism on the independence of the yeoman small farmer settled in possession of the land. Lalor’s vision is considerably more radical in its call for the abolition of property rights ‑ a point which James Connolly would later grasp in Labour in Ireland.
Jacques Derrida has reminded us that the root meaning of “apocalypse” is an unveiling or uncovering “that shows what till then remained wrapped, withdrawn, reserved, as for example the body when one removes the clothing …” For Lalor, the apocalypse of the Famine, its absolute dissolution of social relations as they stood, laid bare the soil that underlay the dress of private property and the rights that rested on it; the Famine exposed the elemental soil that is always the ground of the commons and of another life-in-common. As Deane puts it:
The fiction of occupancy has been stripped of its figurative extensions ‑ land and landscape. It has been replaced by the naked soil itself, a sheer materiality, that which has a primal relation to the people, its spontaneous possessors who have yet to relieve it of its nakedness and transform it into a culture.
Extrapolating from what Deane says here, we can see that “soil” is, then, Lalor’s name for the relation that the utterly dispossessed have with the earth, an earth which when possessed, as property, becomes “land” or “landscape”. This yields, Deane goes on, “a politics of elements, an elemental politics and also an elementary form of occupancy no colonial fiction can challenge”.
This elementary politics is prior to any institution, any law; it exists on the naked and undivided soil, prior to the establishment of what Carl Schmitt, the German legal theorist with whom Deane engages extensively in “Legalizing Atrocity”, calls “nomos”, referring to the successive regimes of law that are each grounded in a specific historical division of the earth. Nomos, a set of reigning legal norms, rests on a prior distribution (in Greek, nemein) that is fundamentally world-making even as, for those whom it dispossesses, it is world-unmaking, world-ending. Normally and normatively, the successive regimes of law, or nomoi, are in their foundation regimes or distributions of property. But it is, again, an “elementary politics”, prior to the division of property and the law that rests upon it, that emerges from the specific conditions of the Irish experience of colonial domination and of world-unmaking, from the experience, that is, of dispossession. This, Deane argues, marks the birth of modern Irish republicanism, one in which “a new element had been added, one that gives to the modern version a specific and identifying difference, one that differentiates it from other kinds then current in Europe”. As we shall see further, this distinctive Irish version of republicanism proves also to be one that radically revises the standard theory of republicanism, a revision that, I would venture to suggest, limns a republicanism rethought for our own times, our own end of times.
First, however, I want to explore further the figures that, in an apocalyptic “laying bare”, constellate through these late essays of Deane’s this figure of the naked soil with that of the naked body and those in turn with radical dispossession or deprivation. A chain of iconic figures connects the near naked Famine victim to nineteenth century Irish political prisoners like O’Donovan Rossa and Thomas Clarke and to the H-Block Blanketmen of the 1970s:
Irish republicanism clings to the idea that in hunger and nakedness … this very condition indicates the existence of a world elsewhere, not a utopian ideal but a politically realisable condition in which the prevailing law is that of justice. So too with the distinction between land and soil; it indicates whatever technological or physical development is made on the land, it always belongs in a deep radical sense to the people of Ireland.
Throughout the Irish republican tradition, Deane shows, “the figures of clothing and nakedness are deployed to address the thematic issues of servility [that is, the condition of domination] mutating into revolt, how the people form and re-form themselves as an historic and moral community in the midst of very real economic deprivation”. The endurance that allows for the formation of community in destitution is a profound political paradox: that a people stripped of goods and stripped of rights, of which the nudity of the starving or of the political prisoner is the emblem, could forge a form of sociality out of what Lalor considered to have been the dissolution of all social bonds would seem, particularly from the perspective of republican political theory, an impossible thing. Reduction to the state of necessity, which exposes the human to utter dependence or death, is ‑ as we shall see ‑ the conceptual antithesis of the state of non-domination and civic life on which republicanism has traditionally been based.
Drawing out the connection between colonial attitudes towards the Irish and towards Native Americans, Deane cites the US Justice John Marshall, who justified the dispossession and elimination of Native Americans on the grounds that “Indians did not exist legally”. Deane continues: “Savagery, Irish or Indian, operates as an aporetic condition. It is both the condition and the possibility of sovereign law and a counterfactual. These native people are there but they must be erased in order for law to exist.” In turn, their erasure is grounds for their dispossession: “Like the Indians, the Irish were not there legally although they were actually (physically); but their actuality operated only by ‘negation’, to assign the ownership of the land to others.” In this condition of constitutive exclusion, at the threshold of the law that does not apply to them, the dispossessed Irish and the American Indians are instances of what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has termed “bare life”, that is, in Italian, nuda vita, naked life. Those who occupy the status of bare life, as Denise Ferreira da Silva has pointed out in somewhat different terms, inhabit the state of necessity in a double sense: as savages or, in her terms “no-bodies”, they are subject to a state of nature that is at one and the same time a state of necessity or need. They are “affectable subjects”, subjected to need, appetite, desire, fear ‑ in short, to the force of nature. But they are likewise subject to the naked and untrammelled force of “bare law” in that state of necessity or emergency that constitutes the exception in which the law is suspended. It is the state of exception that, for Agamben, constitutes “bare life” as the threshold figure of the law.
The Irish Famine was, in every sense, an exception, and an apocalyptic one, uprooting “the very foundations of social intercourse”. But Deane on many occasions also reminded us that colonial Ireland was under a virtually permanent state of exception: “Sovereignty was constantly exercised by the suspension of the law, the state of exception and the normative rule in continuous strife, in a colony that was not a colony, the Ireland-Algeria margin to or of metropolitan Britain and France.” As a Derryman, Deane had every reason to know how it was to live under that peculiar state of exception that was the Northern Irish Special Powers Act, in force for the first fifty years of the Protestant state’s existence. In Ireland as a whole, over one hundred Coercion Acts, the British term for the suspension of the law that underlay the Special Powers Act, were declared between the Union and 1922. This was, in effect, to declare “the exclusion of the bulk of the population from civil rights”, to deny them what German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt saw as the cornerstone of liberal citizenship, “the right to have rights”. In Ireland the exception was the norm and domination the rule even as the colonial power that ruled furnished the prime example of a liberal polity where freedom was defined by non-interference.
Across Deane’s essays on republicanism, a dialectic of clothing and nakedness corresponds to the evolution of a distinctive Irish republicanism. In 1798, United Irish leader Wolfe Tone’s French military uniform corresponded not only to Tone’s embodiment of martial republican virtue but also to his aspiration to effect “a switch from the English claim of Protestant Liberty [to] French universal Liberté” and to create “a rights-based form of separatist democracy”. Tone’s dress is the index of traditional republicanism with its emphasis on civic virtue and the propertied elite. But the trajectory of republicanism takes a different direction as it moves through Lalor’s naked soil and bare starving bodies down to Ernie O’Malley, whose ragged revolutionary garb as an IRA organiser on the run in 1920 constitutes in Deane’s view a motley montage of the republic to be:
O’Malley writes in his classic On Another Man’s Wound: “My clothes were now a composite collection from many counties. I had my coat from Donegal, my waistcoat from Dublin … my shirts and socks generally belonged to the county I happened to be in at the time.”
O’Malley’s ragtag appearance, emblem as it may be of the Irish soil to which, like Lalor, he attributes the Irish capacity for endurance, is a far cry from Tone’s uniform. In it, “These sheaves of particulars come to be owned collectively. The perceptual experiences become a conceptual shape, the effect of the book’s republican, collective dynamic.” This new shape, this sheaf composed of divergent particulars forged into a collective assembly, Deane suggests, emblematises the Irish mode of republicanism that has emerged in the interval between Tone and O’Malley.
As we have seen, Philip Pettit defines republicanism as a political philosophy that defines freedom as non-domination. But that ideal of freedom as non-domination could only apply to those who were economically independent, for what he calls “a small élite of males: the property-holding, and indeed mainstream, males who made up the citizenry”. If republican ideals are predicated on property-owning and masculinity, Pettit asks, what happens to the demand for non-domination when the claim to equality is increasingly laid claim to by the “men of no property”, by women, or by the servant or employee? More radically, what if domination is repudiated by those who are utterly excluded from the laws that ensure freedom, the colonised, the indigenous and the enslaved? Pettit’s answer is that any republicanism rethought beyond the version that served the “propertied elite” would be “a characteristically modern or inclusive brand: one that shares with liberalism … the assumption that all human beings are equal, and that any plausible political ideal must be an ideal for all”. This version of republicanism “must be universal in scope”.
Pettit’s assumption is more problematic than it might first seem, especially in light of the trajectory of Deane’s thinking. First, in a very general sense, any republicanism that takes shape in resistance to the world-unmaking domination of colonial modernity, whose agenda entails the programmatic destruction of particular ways of life, of whole cultures and modes of social relation that are incompatible with a capitalist mode of production, places a critical value on the particular and the different that it defends. To what extent can a politics predicated on the survival of cultural particularity be integrated with a project whose claim to universality grows from a claim to equality that skirts close to an assertion of general equivalence? “Inclusion” risks becoming no more than assimilation to universal norms that obliterate what they subsume. Secondly, and more critically still, how is it even possible to envisage a republicanism predicated on the experience of bare life, when traditionally republican political philosophy has assumed that its foundations lie in citizenship and civic participation, which are precisely the attributes that bare life, by definition, is denied? Bare life, to the contrary, is the condition of absolute dependence and domination.
At the core of the republican ideal lies the idea of individual and collective independence. As the foremost recent historian of early modern republicanism, JGA Pocock, has shown, the medieval imperial state was understood to be a representative of the eternal in human time, and the individual merely a contingency, subject to the random effects of Fortune/Fortuna. As against that imperial ideal, Pocock argues, the task of republican political theory became that of stabilising and perpetuating the civic institutions of the polis so that both the independent city or republic and the independent individuals who were its citizens could find the means to realise their full potentials and their “virtues”. Strikingly, given Deane’s own preoccupations, early modern political theorists legitimated this republican ideal, according to Pocock, by invoking an apocalyptic view of history. For them, the apocalyptic represents the end of the world only in so far as it prefigured the redemptive power that can be deciphered in time and that intersects with the idea of the prophetic moment in history. Apocalyptic thought made the secular republic an exemplary instance of the advent of earthly justice: “The effect of civic humanism … was to isolate the community in its present moment of time; apocalyptic history presented time as a series of moments of unique significance in which any community might find itself called to play the part of Israel or Rome.” This mode of thinking represents, Pocock suggests, the first step “toward modern secular historiography” that finds redemptive power “within the world of time” and in the emergence of civil society and the state. But as history became “the instrument of secular power” it is one short step from there to the institution of historicist notions of progress and development, the notorious narrative of secular redemption that Walter Benjamin famously critiqued in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. In this dialectical movement, classical republicanism joins hands again with settler colonialism and imperial genocide.
Extending this line of argument, we can see what is so crucial about what Deane identifies as the distinctive Irish contribution to republican theory. Pocock’s argument suggests that classic republicanism, which initially opposed the medieval Catholic conception of Empire, converges over time, though the secularisation of history as progress, with the imperial ideology of modern colonial capitalism. The apocalyptic vision of the redemptive in time gets secularised as the progressive role of modernisation or ‑ in the terms used by the nineteenth century British state ‑ “improvement”. From the perspective of the Irish as colonial subjects, that serially apocalyptic history represents not redemption but destruction, not the advent of justice but their reduction to bare life excluded from the purview of law and rights. The serial apocalypse that is Irish history is not a series of instantiations of the realm of justice, but a series of ends of worlds that make way for the relentless establishment of the imperial state and its institutions.
But what remains of republican hopes when the apocalypse does not prefigure the advent of a new heaven and a new earth, but spells the end of the world without any prospect of redemption? The Irish experience, according to Deane, is that of those perpetually at risk, at the least, of being reduced to bare life, of which the twin conditions of famine and political imprisonment, the apocalypse and the state of emergency, are correlative instances. For them, as for Walter Benjamin’s oppressed, “the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule”. Deane’s reading of the evolution of Irish republicanism presents a radical challenge to the Atlantic traditions of republican thinking and to the assumptions of independent subjecthood and universal equivalence that had subtended it. The apocalypse that prepared the ground for what Deane understands as the specific Irish modification of that theory was shockingly destructive of precisely what its classic form was designed to further and safeguard: on the one hand, the propertied individual; on the other, the capacity of that individual to realise “his” potentials through civic engagement.
The Famine, during which Lalor formulated his revolutionary principles, was an apocalyptic event that destroyed both the legitimacy of property ‑ whose necessary obverse is radical dispossession ‑ and the potentialities of the Irish, whom it left in the numbed and destitute state of bare life. Colonial capitalism, to which the Famine opened wide the door in Ireland, is nothing if not the destruction of potential. Neoliberalism, for which colonial capitalism furnished the model and, in the globalisation of accumulation, the conditions of possibility, is no less destructive of social formations that offer other ways of imagining life in common. If the republic is to be thought again, and to realise the alternative possibilities that, despite everything, still persist in Ireland, Deane argued, it must be thought from outside or beyond all the assumptions that inform the state and its conception of justice and its goods:
If Irish republicanism is to follow the logic of its own history, it should awaken to the distinctions that create the naked and the dead … the people who are born below or who fall below the horizon of the law, those who are classified as non-human, less than human, and who are in any sense rendered invisible in the eyes of a purblind system of laws.
To be clear, I do not for a moment seek to suggest that Deane believed that we Irish in general now stand in the place of bare life. On the contrary, the iniquitous, still unrepealed 27th constitutional amendment of 2004, assiduously promoted by the state and approved by 80 per cent of Irish voters, continues to cast its dim and toxic shadow over any celebration of subsequent Irish liberal and “inclusive” amendments on abortion and marriage equality. Its abolition of republican birthright citizenship (jus soli) in favour of a narrow nationalist bloodline citizenship (jus sanguinis) disgracefully commits the nation to the ongoing and state-sanctioned shaping of exclusionary zones of bare life, of populations denied the rights of the citizen. It was the overture to the proliferation of direct provision accommodation centres whose scandalous segregation of asylum seekers, as Deane pointed out in a talk still available from the Field Day podcast, is the logical corollary of the reduction of human rights to the rights of the citizen of the state alone. It constitutes a paradigmatic case of exclusion by inclusion, and of the effective reduction of persons to dependency on the arbitrary will of the state along with the loss of civic identity or participation. Through such measures, the Irish state seeks to align itself subserviently with the neoliberal population management of the European Union, apparently with the overwhelming support of a quiescent, post-republican citizenry.
Deane’s call is, rather, that we think from the legacy of a republican thinking forged once more in the crucibles of state terror and catastrophe, even as a planetary catastrophe threatens once again, and ever more imminently, to engulf most of humanity. This impending doom is prefigured by the hundred million globally displaced persons, the migrants and refugees of our immediate present, who suffer under the increasingly militarised generalised emergency that is the neoliberal economic and political regime. In Deane’s late work, we receive the tremendous gift of his understanding that already, within the legacy of the Irish republican tradition, which thought beyond the nation state it sought to establish, the figures of such thinking.
In his essay “The End of the World”, Deane cites the prophecy that the ‘King’ of the Blasket Islands uttered in the midst of the First World War: “the end of the world is coming … and England is going to send out conscription through the whole of Ireland.” How is one to reconcile, or even hold in meaningful juxtaposition, two such different time scales: on the one hand, the apocalyptic end of the world, which, as Deane painfully recounts, the islanders and their own “small world” indeed faced within a generation; on the other, the mundane military-bureaucratic measure that was the imposition of conscription on a reluctant population? Yet is not this intellectual leap, which the King had no difficulty performing, what we have always had to do, at least since cosmic time revealed to us its sublime quasi-infinitude: to bring into relation our individual and cultural finitude and the scale of geological time?
But with the advent of the Anthropocene, which is really only another name for colonial or racial capitalism, that scalar incommensurability has imploded: now the (hopefully) finite work of a Western or capitalist civilisation, in individual and collective choices, impacts directly the fate of the earth. As Luke Gibbons has said, in his review of Small World, “it is now the universality of the modern itself that has brought the planet to the edge of destruction in the age of the Anthropocene”. In his last essays, Deane was preoccupied with this question of temporal scale that is framed in the idea of the end: what is it not only to imagine, but to live the end[s] of world[s], whether we speak of the end of life on “small worlds”, the Blaskets or other islands, from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean; or of the end of limited war and the advent of total and endless war that, in turn, threatens, along with the climate warming it accelerates, the end, for better or worse, of human civilisations, and worse, of the planet itself?
In face of such a possible concatenation of ends, each intimately connected to one another through the suicidal, headlong, and indifferent destructiveness of colonial capitalism, of which our neoliberal moment is only the latest iteration, what is there to learn from the living-on of those who have already lived through the end of the world? What do the voices of the excluded have to say, out of the past and into the present, to the impending future that we not only face, but continually, actively, shape? Never, perhaps, have human beings confronted so consciously an epochal moment of decision, one of such nakedly self-evident consequence. Never has it been so necessary to summon, as imprisoned Egyptian activist and writer Alaa Abd El-Fattah warns we may be failing to do, the imagination of an alternative to the authoritarian capitalism ‑ so definitively at odds with democracy and justice ‑ that has brought us to the edge of doom. How shall we find the forms to live on?
It was Seamus’s gift to us to trace, in our own historical experience and in the multiple resistant voices that articulated it, the outlines of such an imagination: particular, specific, embedded in the histories that have made and unmade us. His voice may be gone from us, but he has now become part of that legacy of thought and activism that he did so much to teach us to understand. He has left us the chance to read with him and to read, in the magnificent and perhaps “deliberate ruin” of his late work, the openings that speak and the constellations of figures in whom our time must be thought again. Like the luminous spaces that in Yeats’s paintings open in the face of death or of hopes dashed in the endings of worlds, those openings leave us room to read and to imagine otherwise in the wake of all that Seamus traced for us. And read him we shall, time and again, knowing that his work offers the hope that we may, in the words of Black American poet Ed Roberson, “see the earth before the end of the world”.
David Lloyd, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, is a poet, playwright, and critic, working primarily on Irish culture and on postcolonial, settler-colonial, cultural and aesthetic theory. His most recent books are Counterpoetics of Modernity: On Irish Poetry and Modernism and The Harm Fields.