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Entering Second Decade, Irish Institute Aims Higher


To Eoin O’Connell, a visiting Ph.D. candidate in philosophy from Dublin, and administrative director of Fordham’s Institute of Irish Studies, meeting Irish in the American diaspora has been “an eye-opening experience.”

“Students have this inchoate sense that they’re Irish,” said Eoin O’Connell, at left, administrative director of the Institute of Irish Studies.
Photo by Ken Levinson

“Their appropriation of what Irish is, is hugely different,” he said. Fordham College’s Irish Studies minor allows students to examine those Celtic roots. “Students have this inchoate sense that they’re Irish,” said O’Connell. “But they’re not sure what that means, and they want to explore it further.” His course in Fall 2007, Questioning Irish, will ask the question: “What does the ‘Irish’ before the hyphen mean?”

O’Connell and his teaching colleagues continue to probe what exactly Irish Studies is. “We know why we study math and biology,” he said. “But why Irish Studies? It’s a discipline that needs to find a justification for itself.” These are the issues that concern the University’s evolving Institute of Irish Studies, he focus of which has been evolving since its founding in 1998.

Belfast-born poet Joseph Campbell founded an original Fordham School of Irish Studies in 1928. Campbell taught classes on Irish drama, literature and poetry. The program began with four courses, five public lectures and two plays. Nearly 300 students registered in the 1928-1929 academic year, and enrollment was steady over the program’s four years.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s. A group of faculty saw the need for and interest in Irish Studies at the University. John McCarthy, Ph.D., professor emeritus of history, was the early driving force behind the program’s reincarnation, and several public events were hosted at the Lincoln Center campus. Gale Swiontkowski, Ph.D., the current program director, also credited Robert Grimes, S.J., dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center, as an early proponent of the Institute. When McCarthy retired in 2002, the division of labor between public programs and academic was split, and Swionkowsky assumed the academic role.

Gale Swiontkowski, Ph.D., program director.
Photo by Ken Levinson

Irish Studies is currently offered as a minor to Fordham undergraduates, who must take one literature, one history, and four other courses to fulfill the requirement. O’Connell is optimistic about formalizing a summer exchange program with universities in Ireland for the summer of 2008, through which groups of Fordham students will be able to go to Ireland together. If interested, they could then expand their studies into a full Irish Studies major.

The institute is beginning to connect with students on a cultural as well as intellectual level. Last semester’s one-credit Introduction to Tin Whistle, taught by a visiting scholastic, Ryan Duns, S.J., was filled to capacity at 35 students. Duns connected to the students through the most modern of techniques, posting lessons and information on the website, and his own blogspot, “A Jesuit’s Journey.” A YouTube broadcast of Duns playing the classic “Star of the County Down” and other lessons are currently available online. Next semester a one-credit course in Irish dance will be offered, and the Institute plans to have an Irish Gaelic language class in the 2007-2008 academic year, as well.

“It’s a way to connect to what students want,” said O’Connell. “The way forward for us is to really promote these cultural aspects.” He said that while growing up in Ireland, Irish dance was looked down upon by the majority of his peer group as “terminally uncool”— perhaps because of the long-term effect of the ‘internalized colonial’ mindset of the Irish people themselves. Yet in America, Irish dance is much more popular and accepted, he said.

The institute co-sponsored the recent lecture on Jonathan Swift by Ian Campbell Ross, Ph.D., of Trinity College, Dublin, as part of the Eighteenth Century Seminar. Nancy Curtin, Ph.D., professor of history at Fordham College Rose Hill, assumes the program director’s role in September. O’Connell called Curtin “one of the preeminent scholars in Irish History. She’s internationally recognized.”

Entering its second decade, the Institute of Irish Studies continues to reach out to students and emphasize, as O’Connell said, “that being Irish doesn’t just mean coming from Ireland.”


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