By Denis Donoghue

Knopf. 196 pp. $19.95

BACK IN the 1960s I was a student at University College, Dublin, where Denis Donoghue was then a lecturer. I attended his lectures on among others, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the metaphysical poets and Shakespeare. His presence is still vivid in my mind: Standing well over six feet tall (6 feet 7 inches, according to Warrenpoint) before hundreds of students in a large draughty lecture theater, he spoke out perfectly formed paragraphs of sensual complexity without the slightest hesitation or tedious stopping for consultation with students or notes. To this day his performance is the basis for my criticism of all lectures I attend on literary matters.

His theme for the Shakespeare lectures was drawn from Cordelia's reply in "King Lear" to her father's demand for an avowal of love: "I cannot heave my heart into my mouth." I would assert, now, that this is the central theme for Donoghue's autobiography, Warrenpoint: How to give words to his love for his father.

Donoghue is now probably the best known Irish academic and literary critic. He divides his year between New York and Dublin. Three volumes of his collected criticism have been published recently -- England, Their England; We, Irish; Reading America -- which join 15 other books either written or edited.

In politics Donoghue is an Irish nationalist; in religion, a traditional Roman Catholic, and in literary taste, a high modernist whose poles of reference are T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and Kenneth Burke.

Born to an Irish-speaking farmer's son who was a policeman in what became Northern Ireland, Donoghue spent most of his childhood in the police barracks at Warrenpoint, a seaside town, where his father was the sergeant in charge.

Donoghue refuses all the easy recountings of childhood, the accustomed re-creation of events, the careful delineation of "interesting" and significant "characters" who usually haunt with boring regularity so much modern autobiography. Instead Warrenpoint is written in the form of wonderful discreet meditations, which eschew for the most part mere narrative:

"Another danger to be avoided was a draught. If a window was open, the door must be closed, else a lethal draught would develop. Except for wet, there was nothing as bad as a draught. When a window had to be opened, my father told me to sit in the safe corner of the room, far out of harm's way. In the event, the most vulnerable part of my body turned out to be my chest, but my father seemed to think, till I got sick, that the chest could be left to look after itself. Mind your back, you're in a draught."

Because of the flexibility of his form Donoghue is able to wander nearly at will where he may, though an unkind person, and there is always one in the room, might mutter that unlike the stereotypical Irishman, Donoghue is always reaching for a book as easily as another might reach for a bottle. Early on in Warrenpoint Donoghue will tease out in one meditation the implications of his shoes wearing unevenly and in the next begin:

"When should one begin to remember? I am dismayed to discover that the first three and a half years of my life are a blank. I remain sceptical about the powers of memory that other people claim, though in some cases the evidence is firm. One of my favourite books is Henry James's A Small Boy and Others, and my favourite chapter in it is the fifth . . ."

It is important to get such a reservation or easy gibe out of the way because Warrenpoint is likely to become one of the classic accounts of the relationship of a bookish son to his father.

At the partition of Ireland, Donoghue's father had the choice of going to the North and becoming a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary -- where because he was a Catholic he would be forever denied the chance of promotion -- or of becoming a policeman in the Irish Republic. He hesitated, went to England seeking alternative employment but came back to Ireland, to Northern Ireland, and was a member of the R.U.C. until his retirement after 24 years of service. From Donoghue's account it is unclear, really, why his father chose such a course of action. He does provide the veiled hint that his father felt a certain distaste for "police work in a violent time." And his hint is all the reader gets.

"I know that my father, as I describe him, is not a well-rounded character; he appears partial and brittle. What I denote as his straightness could easily, by a flick of the wrist, be construed as merely rigid, inflexible. I can't help that. I am bound to believe that he was as I remember him -- no more, no less. . . . He loved his children, I do not doubt, but we were left to deduce the fact from mainly negative evidence: that he was just to us and honorable to everyone. As evidence, it is not much. At the time, I did not feel that he lacked anything: to have had a different childhood, I should have had to imagine one. My father filled all the space. It may say something about me, rather than about him, that I needed from my father only what he gave me. The rest I could imagine, or find elsewhere, or do without."

But Warrenpoint succeeds so well because it is also the portrait of this father's son -- a Denis Donoghue who is able to see himself with a rare scrupulosity:

"It did not grieve me that I lacked inventiveness, could not make up a story or imagine a sequence of thoughts requiring rhyme. All I wanted was to observe a relation between myself and structures I had not invented. . . . I liked poems more than novels or short stories because their formal character was more completely in evidence. I admired the dogmas and doctrines of the Church all the more because they did not consult my interests. I revered the law because my father administered it and bore witness to its integrity. Mine was the intelligence that comes after."

However, Warrenpoint portrays not a cold intelligence -- that contemporary vice -- but a love free of sentimentality:

"That last summer for the first time, I saw my father vulnerable. A coal boat had docked, and the crew went to the nearest public house. One of them got drunk and started breaking the peace. My father was sent for. I was sitting on the Crawfords' seat, reading, and I saw my father walking toward the public house; in uniform, as always, steady. A few minutes later, I saw him scuffling outside the public house, trying to arrest the drunk man. They were wrestling on the footpath. My father was trying to handcuff the sailor but failing: the sailor was bigger, heavier than my father and, besides, drunk enough to be unmanageable. There were several men looking, about, but none of them would go to my father's aid: in Northern Ireland nobody helps the police. In the scuffle my father's cap fell off. Without it he seemed to me a man like any other; his face and forehead lost their authority. He was just a man, his little, brief authority grappling with a sailor and failing to subdue him. I closed the book and clenched my teeth upon the leather spine and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I saw my father dragging the sailor by the feet across the square toward the barracks. It was all right. He had won, in a fashion."

And finally taking a hint from Donoghue, "I transcribe fine sentences and stanzas so that I might more thoroughly remember them, but also for the satisfaction of embodying a privileged relation to their merit. I had not composed any of those splendid pieces, but at least I could claim the distinction of having appreciated them", I will transcribe one more time:

"At Mass I heard things I did not understand, and devised for myself the exotic pleasure of being in their presence without comprehension. 'For the children of darkness are wiser in their generation than the children of light.' What could it mean, unless the Prince of Darkness was wiser, too, than the Prince of Light? Or wiser in the beginning, even if proved a fool in the end. But I wasn't worried by my failure to comprehend. I was content not to understand, so long as I was in the vicinity of the words themselves. The syntax of the sentence was assured, and I took consolation from the march of its certitude."

Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and the forthcoming "St. Patrick's Day."