The spiritual vision of an important modern Irish poet

The spiritual vision of an important modern Irish poet
Naming of the Bones by John F. Deane (Carcanet Press, £12.99/€14.95)

Thomas McCarthy

A founder of Poetry Ireland and Dedalus Press, as well as Secretary-General of the European Academy of Poetry, Achill native John F. Deane is highly unusual among our great humanist horde of world poets in that he has remained a man of profound Christian faith.

God’s presence in nature and Christ’s promises to mankind have featured significantly in nearly all of his work; and his work still glories in the liturgical calendar as if he were a child of some Catholic golden age. The great festivals of Christ’s patrimony have marked the circadian rhythms of the earth; and, for him, existence without faith is both intolerable and pitiful. Once a candidate for the priesthood, he has remained a highly sophisticated and demanding lay Catholic, now husband and father:

“Something of Yeshua/Jesus has left its caul

In my flesh, my skull is riven with a blood-feud darkness

Like the painfilled leftover reek in an ancient beehive cell.

Child years were a haze of fragrances, frankincense, myrrh,

The perfumes of papa God’s bazaars”.


He writes the above in By-The-Wind Sailor, a great meditation poem with its Chicago echoes of Lake Michigan and the Willis Tower.

Such luminous faith as well as the gift of poetry had brought him temporarily to Loyola University, Chicago, where he was Teilhard de Chardin Fellow in Christian Studies. But whether in far-off Chicago or walking the fields of his native Achill, his faith is the same, the endurance of belief is simply astonishing.

Here in poems such as The Dewfall or Quartet For the End of Time, both crucial sequences written in response to the music of Olivier Messiaen, he responds to the great questions of human existence in the absence of God. He sees in the great human darkness a Holocaust that may take us all; and faith, or at least human yearning for faith, as the greatest hope of our Earth.

“What I fear most/ is disillusion. From the forces of evil deliver us”, he writes in Exile, a poem written in memory of the English poet David Gascoyne.

But it is to Achill, its seashore and sea winds, that he brings his “demons down” in poems like Crossing the Sand or On Keel Beach. Family memories and family origins are a consolation and a restoration: in poems such as Bilberry Bells and Asphodel and The Wall the warmth of family attachments is beautifully displayed:

“how images fade into a grieved absence, how my hurting arms

would comfort her, as I reach out now towards a lost radiance.”


In Naming of the Bones, Deane has assembled poetry of the most sublime beauty, arising out of thought processes that are profoundly Catholic in their early formation, yet now embracing the widest possible Christian earthliness. He is unceasing, relentless, in his thinking quest for the incomprehensible heavens, for that sense of godliness between saffron light and full moon.

Poetry is often called to be a political witness and older poets are often criticised by the young for not caring enough about whatever current battles rage upon the face of this earth. But while John F. Deane’s thoughts embrace what happens inside the evil ways of men, his highest thoughts, and finest poems, create nothing less than a moving, modern-day prophetic hymnal.