Perhaps most well known for his Guardian Fiction Prize-winning and Booker Prize-shortlisted debut novel Reading in the Dark (1996), he is also notable for his poetry collections such as Gradual Wars (1972) as well as for such nonfiction works as A Short History of Irish Literature (1986).
He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Queen's University Belfast and his doctorate from Pembroke College, Cambridge University.
He held professorships at both University College Dublin and the University of Notre Dame. In addition, he was a founding member of the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry, Northern Ireland.
Raised in an Irish Catholic and Irish nationalist family, he spent his youth in Derry, Northern Ireland.
He and Nobel Prize-winning author Seamus Heaney were schoolmates at St. Columb's College.