Speaking of Irish

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Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Two and a half years after Caitlin Myron showed up as a freshman in Professor Tara MacLeod’s introductory Irish language class to give the challenging tongue a “tryout,” she found herself standing inside the grand Dublin home of Michael D. Higgins with a set of books in her hand — a gift for Ireland’s new president — and a short message to deliver to him. In Irish.

The path Myron took to the receiving rooms of Áras an Uachtaráin in the Irish capital’s historic Phoenix Park traces the fondest dreams that Professor Christopher Fox and the extraordinary array of Irish history, literature and language professors he’s mustered at Notre Dame since 1993 have for their students.

By the start of her senior year this past August, Myron had spent more than a year on the Emerald Isle in three consecutive study-abroad programs, skipping all the prepackaged experiences of the conventional American tourist and instead immersing herself in the language near Galway, taking classes alongside Irish university students at Trinity College and completing a seven-week professional internship in Dublin.

“I didn’t really know what I was getting into at the beginning,” the English major and proficient Spanish speaker explains. “Like I said, I was just going to see how I liked it.”

Bringing Notre Dame to Ireland

Myron is only one of the most recent examples of the explosive demand among Notre Dame students — undergraduate and graduate — for Irish language courses that Fox, now the director of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, anticipated nearly 20 years ago.

In those early days, Fox, an authority on 18th century Ireland and the Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, and Seamus Deane, the Irish literary light and Fox’s co-conspirator at what was then the Keough Program, hired a young star scholar named Peter McQuillan to evaluate the jumbled Irish language holdings at the Hesburgh Library. McQuillan was also to teach the first Irish language course Notre Dame had offered in decades.

Fox recalls the registrar calling him up one day to chide him. “Fox! That dog won’t hunt! I’ll put this thing up there, but nobody’s going to take it.” A few days later, the registrar called back to report the class filled. Fox suggested he post another. That one filled, too.

Since then, Fox has had more trouble finding instructors than students. As many as 200 sign up for the classes in the department each year, and some 20 have declared an Irish language minor in the Department of Irish Language and Literature — the only such department outside Ireland — that sprang forth from the head of Keough-Naughton eight years ago. Currently, Notre Dame employs two full-time specialists, Mary O’Callaghan and Tara MacLeod, Myron’s instructor for three semesters, for whom Irish is a first language.

“I really loved the language and loved learning it,” Myron says, praising MacLeod, who won a Joyce award for undergraduate teaching in 2011, for her interactive teaching style. “She just made it fun and not stressful.”

By the end of her sophomore year, Myron was taking Modern Irish Poetry from the acclaimed Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and was working to keep up with the Irish texts on one page while the visiting professor, whose own works have been translated into more than a dozen languages, led the class full of students with limited or no language background down the English translations on the opposite page.

In Ní Dhomhnaill’s class, Myron encountered the innovative 20th century poet Seán Ó Ríordáin, whose brilliance, long struggle with tuberculosis and modernist explorations of life’s darker themes might remind the casual reader of Chekhov, Kafka, Stephen Crane, D.H. Lawrence or Dylan Thomas. She wrote an essay on his poetry that she now hopes, with Ní Dhomhnaill’s encouragement, to build into a full thesis for her English honors concentration.

Myron, however, was just getting started. A few weeks after classes ended, she boarded a plane for Ireland and made her way to a little town called Carraroe — not far from where her grandfather grew up — in the Galway Gaeltacht, the term for the island’s many Irish-speaking districts. She placed in the immersion program’s highest level and spent her days poring over grammar and her nights talking to everyone she could find.

At summer’s end she went to stay with a cousin in England before starting her year at Trinity. “I kind of became part of the family,” she says, describing an Irish family tree whose branches, in her generation, spread to Cork and Dublin and over to London, Belgium, Luxembourg and Australia as a kind of bonsai miniature of modern Ireland’s global canopy. “Now I definitely have deeper and lasting connections. There’s no way I’m going to lose that.”

The Dublin year exposed her to Ireland’s most prestigious university and introduced her to the man dubbed by The Irish Times and others as the country’s foremost academic, Professor Declan Kiberd. Now the Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies at Notre Dame, Kiberd spends his autumns in Indiana and his springs back home again in Dublin, teaching at O’Connell House, the crown jewel of Notre Dame’s intensely competitive Dublin program.

Come spring, Myron once again parted company with a set of friends and began a Keough internship at Foras na Gaeilge, the cooperative body established by the Republic of Ireland and the government of Northern Ireland to promote the language throughout the island.

Myron spent her time working and speaking “100 percent in Irish.” She was nervous at first because at Trinity she’d focused on cultural studies and curriculum requirements and hadn’t formally developed her language skills. But one evening, while walking from her office to O’Connell House on the other side of Merrion Square, she caught herself in mental transition, thinking ahead to the conversations she’d have with the other Keough interns who didn’t know Irish, much less use it professionally all day long. “And I realized that I was still thinking in Irish and I had to make sure I didn’t walk in there and, you know, freak people out.”

And that’s when Caitlin Myron knew she had acquired Irish.

And Ireland to Notre Dame

Professor Brian Ó Conchubhair knows something about the kind of effort students like Myron put into learning his language. “Because we’re such an unusual option,” he concedes, “we realize that we have to work very hard at getting students into our classes and keeping them.”

Ó Conchubhair finds students enrolling in Irish for all kinds of reasons. Many come to connect with their Irish heritage, but mere nostalgia doesn’t keep them there long. Others sign up out of simple curiosity, the need to fulfill University language requirements or the satisfying intellectual challenge that the different patterns of thought reflected in Irish syntax can provide.

The teaching reputation of the Irish department and Keough-Naughton — its fellows represent the departments of anthropology; English; film, television and theatre; history; and Irish — doesn’t hurt. “I think the students recognize that there’s an investment on the part of the faculty,” he says.

“If we can capture their imagination . . . on day one and keep them interested, they’ll come back for more,” he continues. “Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what language the literature is written in. If you make it challenging, if you make it exciting, if you make it relevant, if you engage with the big issues, the big questions, it doesn’t matter whether they’re being framed or mediated through French, Spanish or Russian. The basic human questions that great literature addresses are the same, regardless of the language.”

Whether that’s what Brother Simeon had in mind when he was introducing Irish courses the University advertised in the Scholastic in the latter half of the 19th century isn’t known.

You might say Irish Studies at Notre Dame began with the Galway native, whom Ó Conchubhair says taught Irish in the 1860s. It’s known that at least some of the Irish brothers whom Father Sorin recruited in southern Indiana to accompany him to Father Badin’s lakeside cabin and establish Notre Dame in 1842 were bilingual. It’s even possible that as a Union Army chaplain Father Corby spoke Irish at times to the proud immigrant soldiery of the Fighting 69th, though his memoirs have the famous “absolution under fire” at Gettysburg in Latin.

But Simeon and a few confreres were 19th century Notre Dame’s equivalent of an Irish language department, doing what they could to stave off the rapid decline of their first language among the sons of their fellow famine refugees. Irish was offered through the end of the century and seems to have resurfaced briefly again in the 1920s and 1960s.

That was that, until Christopher Fox got it in his head to create an Irish Studies program and found a way lure his friend, Seamus Deane, already a celebrated poet and literary critic, away from University College Dublin in 1992 to become the first Keough chair in Irish Studies at Notre Dame.

Deane’s hire signaled that Fox, Keough and the University meant business in making Notre Dame pre-eminent in Irish Studies. The library began building its collections, and Peter McQuillan arrived to organize them and teach the language classes. Within three years, Deane and Fox had an institute and had created the undergraduate Irish Studies minor and arranged for Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney to give a reading of his poetry to a packed McKenna Hall. Before the millennium was out, Fox had secured what was then the largest National Endowment for the Humanities grant ($2.4 million) to create a permanent fellowship program and an endowed library fund in Medieval Irish and related subjects. By 2010 an external review declared Keough-Naughton the “flagship program for Irish Studies throughout the world.”

The program still makes showstopping hires, like Declan Kiberd and the novelist and literature Professor Barry McCrea, who left a tenured position at Yale to come to Notre Dame. Then there’s this measure of Notre Dame’s international stature in Irish Studies: “Right now arguably there’s no better place to do a dissertation on James Joyce,” Fox asserts.

“Really, the purpose is to bring Ireland to Notre Dame and Notre Dame to Ireland,” says Fox, who is justly proud of the success the program has had on both fronts. He takes as much delight in the people he works with as he does in the superlatives, even when the two intertwine in compelling personal stories.

Like Breandán Ó Buachalla, who learned Irish as a second language growing up in Cork and arrived in 2003 to take the first chair in Irish language and literature established in North America since 1896. When Ó Buachalla died suddenly in 2010, Ireland’s national public broadcasting network featured his life and scholarship in a short, Irish-language television documentary that highlighted his contributions at Notre Dame.

Then there’s history department chair Patrick Griffin ’87, whose immigrant great-aunt had put aside money for him to attend Notre Dame from what she’d earned as a domestic servant. Griffin first studied Ireland under emeritus Professor Jay Dolan and joined the faculty in 2008 as the inaugural Madden Hennebry Family Collegiate Professor of Irish-American Studies.

And Kiberd? Rumors had him leaving Ireland for an American university for a quarter-century before he finally decided on South Bend. Kiberd had directed some 60 doctoral dissertations in Ireland. Notre Dame, among other attractions at a time when the Irish economy is tanking, ensures Kiberd’s ability to keep working with graduate students.

And, as it turns out, with Caitlin Myron, who will develop her ideas about her favorite Irish-language poet this fall under Kiberd’s direction. When Myron pitched her thesis idea, she says Kiberd expressed enthusiasm to re-read Seán Ó Ríordáin and acquaint himself with new scholarship on his poetry. In other words, he’d be learning, too. “For a professor to say that, to be interested in your project and to make it seem valuable, is wonderful,” she says. “You feel validated in what you’re doing.”

“I think these kids are getting something special,” Fox comments. “And that’s our job, to make sure they’re getting something special.”

Down the road

Still, Fox and his colleagues aren’t satisfied. He gives every minors student an exit interview and remembers one telling him, “If you’re dead and Irish, Notre Dame has you covered.” But ND has little yet to offer students of contemporary Ireland apart from Rev. Sean McGraw, CSC, ’92, who teaches Irish politics. Fox envisions more hires in the social sciences who could help the University bring new expertise to bear on some of Ireland’s current problems.

Then there’s music. The library houses the O’Neill Collection of Traditional Irish Music — possibly the best in the world — and this fall Keough-Naughton hosts renowned Irish composer Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin as a visiting professor. Without a full-time musicologist, however, students can’t study it properly. And what, Fox asks, is Irish culture without Irish music?

He wants more undergraduates going to Ireland and has been able to attract enough donor support that students don’t have to pay. Professor Ian Kuijt has taken undergraduate archaeology students to western Ireland for years (see “Off the Coast,” p. 18). Now Tara MacLeod has added a trip to County Galway’s Aran Islands for her course on Ireland’s Edge and a visit to Belfast may be coming for a class on The Troubles.

But whether their focus is on interdisciplinary cultural studies or more purely on Irish language and literature, these students have to get serious about the language. An Irish Studies minor requires three language courses, while Myron’s minor in language and literature requires four. Now, motivated students coming up behind her can pursue a full major.

What isn’t required is being Irish-American or growing up around the culture the way Myron did, spending countless hours at Chicago Gaelic Park practicing Irish dance for international competitions (“The wigs!” she exclaims wistfully. “The fake tan!”) while her grandfather watched games of hurling. Somehow, though she’d heard him speak it with friends, Irish never registered with her as a foreign language until she came to Notre Dame.

And it wasn’t long then before she found herself in Ireland’s presidential palace walking toward Michael D. Higgins with those volumes from the Irish Text Society in her hand, looking the part with her luminous red hair. She did most of the talking, and he smiled while she introduced herself in Irish and presented the book on behalf of Foras na Gaeilge. He thanked her, and that was it. It was a great confidence boost, she says, and she had made sure he knew she was an American and a Notre Dame student.

“Otherwise I thought maybe he would mistake me for being Irish, and then it wouldn’t be quite as unique that I’m able to speak it.”


John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.


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