Sounding the Irish Note

The Center for Irish Studies celebrates its 10th anniversary

Google the phrase "Irish Studies" and you'll have your choice of nearly 700,000 Web pages to sift through.

But if you move out of cyberspace and into the on-the-ground work of Irish Studies in North America, it won't take long to find yourself on the St Thomas campus - where the Center for Irish Studies plays a conspicuous part in the flourishing study of Ireland.

Founded in March 1996, the center observed its 10th anniversary in 2006.

Irish have a long history here

St. Thomas' founder, the County Kilkenny-born Archbishop John Ireland, would no doubt be pleased. As would William Finn, the Irish farmer on whose farm the campus now stands. Or Irish-born president Monsignor Humphrey Moynihan, who welcomed no less a figure than Irish poet William Butler Yeats to our campus on a bitter January night in 1904.

Like many Catholic schools in North America, St. Thomas' early years owed much to priests and other faculty born and educated in Ireland. John Ireland himself believed passionately that education was the key to Catholic advancement in the new world, and the children of immigrants - from Ireland and elsewhere - made up a large portion of the student body for much of the school's first century.

The late Eoin McKiernan of the English Department made sure that the Irish note was prominent at St. Thomas during the 30 years that St. Thomas hosted the Irish American Cultural Institute's headquarters. After the group moved in 1995, the university looked for new ways to continue its longstanding links to Ireland, and a lead gift from former trustee Lawrence O'Shaughnessy made the next chapter in St. Thomas' Irish story possible in the shape of the Center for Irish Studies. (About 40 other annual donors contribute to the center's "Celtic," "Kilkenny" and "John Ireland" circles of support.)

Irish interest classes
Irish interest classes taught at the university include survey courses of Irish literature and topics courses on Irish film, James Joyce, Gaelic literature in translation, Irish drama and modern Irish history. Also, periodic J-Term courses on topics such as Celtic spirituality, Irish folk music and the conflict in Northern Ireland are offered.

"Irish studies is necessarily interdisciplinary," said Dr. Thomas Dillon Redshaw, academic director of the center and editor emeritus of New Hibernia Review. "History, economics, politics - they're all part of the mix. There's a rich tradition of lore and writing, but it's always in dialogue with the larger world. Ireland is now a cosmopolitan European nation." For example, last year the journal Foreign Policy ranked Ireland as the "most globalized" nation in the world for the fourth straight year.

Junior Anna Donnelly, who recently returned from a semester at the University of Limerick, agrees. "In Ireland," she said, "I got to see both a thriving local culture and the influence of globalization. In Limerick, traditional musicians are still jamming in the pubs like they did years ago. But the tourism industry continues to grow, and the Irish economic boom brings in outside companies, people and cultures."

At St. Thomas, students can minor in Irish Studies by petitioning the Studies Committee for an individualized plan in this area. Sara Houlter, a sophomore at St. Thomas, is planning to minor in Irish Studies. "My case might be a little unusual because I have absolutely no Irish heritage," she says. "But now I'm obsessed with how rich Irish culture can be. My interest in Irish things started with the music, but after taking classes in literature and language, I find more and more that I want to learn."

The musical dimensions of Irish culture was the topic of a J-Term class taught by no less an authority than Daithi Sproule, one of the most respected Irish folk musicians in the world and a guitarist with the traditional supergroup Altan.

St. Thomas' Department of Modern and Classical Languages offers an option unavailable - at least on a regular basis - at any other university between Chicago and the West Coast: the chance for students to meet their language requirement in Irish Gaelic. Since 1997, St. Thomas has offered the first two semesters of Irish Gaelic on its St. Paul campus. Students travel to an intensive summer course in County Galway to finish their language study.

New Hibernia Review
The cornerstone of the center's programming is New Hibernia Review, a quarterly journal of Irish Studies. Considered a "journal of record" for Irish studies scholars, New Hibernia Review is the only quarterly Irish studies publication in North America. Launched in 1997 when the Irish minister for arts and culture traveled to Minnesota to receive the first copy, it has nearly 400 subscribers to its print version and is available online to more than 1,000 libraries worldwide via the Project Muse; service of Johns Hopkins University.

The journal's editorial philosophy amounts to three words: plainly argued scholarship. Though it aims for the highest standards of scholarship, the journal's editors seek to address an audience of both scholars and nonspecialists

A sample of enticing article titles over the past year includes "The Discovery of Irish Folklore," "Murder and Madness: Gender and the Insanity Defense in Nineteenth-Century Ireland," "The Heavyweight Champion of Irishness," and "Sex, Guns, and Violence: Deborah Warner's Adaptation of The Last September ."

Articles on Irish history and politics, essays on Irish writing and perspectives on Ireland and the Irish from disciplines such as art history, economics, cultural studies and technology fill its pages. Besides scholarly articles, new work by Irish poets, personal essays and memoirs, and book reviews also appear in its pages. Full-color art covers complement its scholarly content.

O'Shaughnessy Poetry Award
An event unique in North America anchors the literary aspect of the center: the annual presentation of the O'Shaughnessy Award of Poetry, a $5,000 cash gift named for and funded by Lawrence M. O'Shaughnessy, a former trustee and the lead donor to the center. Each spring since 1997, a prominent Irish poet spends a week or more at St Thomas. The stay is always capped with a free public reading. The 2007 honoree, Sen Lysaght of County Mayo, will read on April 13. He also will take part in classroom visits, radio interviews, and a "writers-in-conversation" event co-sponsored by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library.

One happy confluence occurred in 2002 when the award winner, Belfast native Frank Ormsby, was on campus when all English 112 students read and watched Brian Friel's "Freedom of the City," a drama set in the Ulster "Troubles." During a question and answer session, Ormsby met with the cast and students and discussed his personal experience of terrorism.

Last year, poet Dennis O'Driscoll's New and Selected Poems was the English Department's Common Text in the spring semester. More than 400 students turned out to hear O'Driscoll. Noelle Buss, a double major in English and public relations was one of them. "It was really special to have someone as prominent as Dennis O'Driscoll reading right here with us," she said. "But he was so humble, and so entertaining. And the fact that he works full time in a government office somehow made it even more moving. It showed me that poetry can happen in anyone's life." O'Driscoll's poetry often deals with the realities of life in the new, corporate Ireland, in lines like, "We are the people at the other end / Of telephone extensions when you ring, / The ones who put a good face on the firm..." ("In Office," 1994).

The center also sponsors the publication of fine press books created by book artist Paulette Myers-Rich of St. Paul, introduced each year near St. Patricks Day in an event in O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center. The limited editions have been nominated for Minnesota Book Awards and are collected by institutions such as the British Museum.

"St. Thomas now has a national - no, an international presence - as one of the voices of Irish Studies," said Redshaw. "It's an honor to be allowed to keep sounding the Irish note on this campus beyond. When we hosted the annual meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies in 2004, more than 300 scholars from 40 states and five countries came here - and they all left impressed by St. Thomas' commitment to this distinctive tradition. The Center for Irish Studies starts its second decade secure in its reputation."

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