Father Dennis Dease and Michael D. Higgins.
President Father Dennis Dease with Irish Minister of Culture Michael D. Higgins, 1997.

Tales from the Archives: Irish Cultural Connections

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, it is time to celebrate all things Irish. But instead of a parade and green beer, take a look back at some of the intellectual and cultural connections St. Thomas has made with the Emerald Isle over its history.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the university welcomed a number of prominent Irishmen to campus to address the community. The noted poet William Butler Yeats, for example, appeared at The Saint Paul Seminary on Jan. 21, 1904. His talk on the “Intellectual Revival of Ireland” was a part of Yeats’ wider literary tour of the U.S. On Oct. 20, 1919, Eamon de Valera (then president of the Dáil Éireann) gave an address to the students and faculty of the College of St. Thomas. De Valera’s speech on the cause of Ireland was part of his monthslong tour of the U.S. to shore up political and popular support for the creation of an Irish republic.

The Libraries’ Celtic Collection can date its founding from the early days of the college as well. In September 1916, mere months after the Easter Rising, the Ancient Order of Hibernians of Minnesota voted to fund a gift to set up an Irish library at the College of St. Thomas. From this first gift of $600, the collection has grown to over 12,000 books with an emphasis on Irish local history, folklore, language and literature.

In 1960, College of St. Thomas President Monsignor James Shannon persuaded Dr. Eoin McKiernan to come to St. Paul. While teaching in the St. Thomas English Department, McKiernan cultivated his ideas for the expansion of Irish studies. In 1963, McKiernan wrote and presented a 13-part TV series on Irish history and culture for KTCA, the Twin Cities public television station. The series, “Ireland Rediscovered,” was so popular that it was syndicated for viewing on public television stations throughout the U.S.

Two years later, McKiernan founded the Irish American Cultural Institute (IACI) and based its headquarters at the college. The goal of the organization was to encourage, grow and deepen relationships between the U.S. and Ireland through educational programing. Through IACI-sponsored events, a variety of Irish academics, writers, artists and entertainers appeared on campus, from poet and diplomat Richard Ryan to musician Seán Potts of the Chieftains. The IACI moved its headquarters from St. Thomas to New Jersey in 1995.

St. Thomas established the Center for Irish Studies in 1996. Led by its founding director, Thomas Dillon Redshaw of the English Department, the aim of this new center was to advance teaching and scholarship in Irish studies at the university. The inaugural issue of the center’s scholarly journal, New Hibernia Review, was officially launched in February 1997 by Michael D. Higgins, Ireland’s minister of arts and culture (now the president of Ireland). The center’s work continues today through course development, speakers, events and its internationally recognized Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry.