From Deep Irish Roots, Irish Studies Continue at St. Thomas

About two dozen people sat or stood in a circle in the lower level of St. Thomas’ O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library on March 17. Green-iced cookies were nibbled. Green attire was compared.

“Every year we invite the president of Ireland,” lamented Jim Rogers, director of St. Thomas’ Center for Irish Studies (CIS). “And every year he doesn’t come.”

St. Patrick’s Day certainly brings other engagements for Republic of Ireland President Michael Higgins, just as it is a busy day for many around the world. At St. Thomas the CIS rings in the holiday with an annual gathering, complete with poetry readings in both English and Gaelic, and a message from the regrettably absent Higgins.

Many vocal notes were hit as readers detailed rainy days and pub traffic from poems old and new; they all contributed to, as Rogers described it, “sounding the Irish note at St. Thomas.” That has been the collective goal of CIS since its beginning in 1995, with two cornerstone efforts highlighting a center known around the world for its scholarly pursuits.

Growing from Irish roots

Like many Catholic universities, St. Thomas’ Irish heritage goes back to its beginnings. From the Irish immigrant, William Finn, whose land was donated to build the school on, to the founder himself, John Ireland, St. Thomas started thanks to Irish-Americans. Or, as former CIS director Tom Redshaw put it: “We’ve got Irish roots all the way back. Just look at the list of presidents (all have been of Irish descent) we’ve had. We try to emphasize that connection.”

Before CIS, the Irish American Cultural Institute (IACI) was the main vehicle of that emphasizing. Former English Department chair Dr. Eoin McKiernan – one of the country’s foremost intellects in Irish studies – founded the IACI in 1962. The IACI continued at St. Thomas through 1995, publishing the well-respected journal, Erie-Ireland, and annually giving the Butler Literary Award.

Both Redshaw and Rogers worked at the IACI but, when it moved to the East Coast in 1995, they feared Irish studies at St. Thomas was over. Lawrence O’Shaughnessy – son of St. Thomas’ great benefactor, Ignatius O’Shaughnessy – had different plans: O’Shaughnessy made a generous lead gift and the CIS was established.

“Suddenly we were back in the Irish studies world,” Rogers said. “So we did what we knew how to do: We published a journal.”

First in a generation

Published quarterly, New Hibernia Review is “unapologetically an academic journal,” Rogers said. “We try to represent the whole range of Irish studies ... but history and literature are really the backbone of what we do.”

When it began New Hibernia Review was "the first new Irish studies journal in a generation," Rogers said, and today it is considered one of the finest in the world. More than 1,100 libraries subscribe to its quarterly digital offerings and hundreds of print subscribers receive hard copies. New Hibernia Review is rare in its ties to St. Thomas; such journals usually are published by a professional organization, Rogers said.

“Everyone in the Irish Studies world knows the New Hibernia,” Rogers said, who took over editing duties about 10 years ago from Redshaw. “It’s been great to watch it grow.”

In 1997, CIS also built on the tradition of the IACI with the creation of the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award, an annual recognition of an outstanding Irish poet. In addition to a $5,000 prize, the award carries a huge level of prestige and global exposure for winners. A major point of emphasis is also that the recipient comes to St. Thomas, where they visit classrooms, give a reading and in general highlight several days of focus on the university.

“It’s a very big deal,” Rogers said. “Really without parallel in the United States.”

Going strong

Both Rogers and Redshaw refer to the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award and New Hibernia Review as “the cornerstones” of CIS’ offerings, twin traditions fast approaching four decades of combined existence.

St. Thomas is also home to an excellent Celtic Collection, the largest component of the university’s rare book holdings and one of the largest in the country at some 8,000 volumes. The university is one of only 13 in the country to offer Gaelic language courses and is active in sending students abroad – many on scholarship – to study it in Ireland.

“We’ve come a long way,” Redshaw said. “Journal publications, humanities centers … those are part of what it means to be a university. That’s why the O’Shaughnessy Award is so important. That’s why New Hibernia is so important.

“It is important for the university as a whole to have programs like (CIS),” he added.