Waking Up the Irish Echoes

Donald Keough, President of Ireland Mary McAleese, and Martin Naughton. Keough and Naughton funded Notre Dame's Institute for Irish Studies

Niall O'Dowd, Founding Publisher
February / March 2007

Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies has become renowned for its scholarship and innovation. NIALL O’DOWD reports from South Bend, Indiana.

It is three p.m. on November 16, 2006, the Friday before Notre Dame faces Army in the annual pitched battle between two of the most storied teams in college football. It is a late fall day, some straggler leaves still bedeck the trees on campus, but winter’s grip is not far away.

The Notre Dame campus is alive with weekend visitors. The crowds at the Grotto are already gathering, while in the distance Touchdown Jesus gazes serenely down on the serried files of Fighting Irish fans and students.

Tomorrow over 80,000 Fighting Irish fans will pack the stadium for the last home game for the senior class of 2006. Millions more will tune in across the nation.

While Notre Dame remains the greatest draw in the history of college football, there is a different buzz over at the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, which is tucked away in its own self-contained corner of the vast campus, far from the bustling crowds.

A stranger strolling the halls of the Institute is immediately struck by the fact that Gaelic, not English, appears to be the lingua franca. The renowned Gaelic poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill is conversing with Professor Breandan O Buachalla, perhaps the preeminent scholar in the Irish language today, and it is briefly surprising and then endearing to hear the Gaelic cadences so far from home.

Ni Dhomhnaill and O Buachalla are representative of the pioneering spirit one encounters at the Keough-Naughton Institute. Likewise, Professor Christopher Fox, director, and Professor Brian O Conchubair, who make it clear that they aim to make the Institute the best it can be.

O Conchubair, an enthusiastic young Kerryman, did not know what to expect when he first came to Notre Dame. “It was a very different experience, but I was overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome, and the sense that we were putting Irish studies on the map at the most important Irish university in America. It was a great undertaking,” he says, adding, “I am very proud to be involved with the first Department of Irish Language and Irish Literature in North America. We have over 400 students studying the Irish language, literature and culture for the academic year 2006/2007. Equally rewarding is the recognition we have received from the Irish government for our efforts.”

O Conchubair remembers that he was a little intimidated at first by the sheer intellectual star power at the Keough Institute, as it was then called. “You had Seamus Deane and Breandan O Buachalla and many other leading intellectuals on the faculty, and they were all on campus, in one building, on one floor.”

Like many before him, O Conchubair has come to love the leafy campus he and wife Tara MacLeod, also an Irish lecturer, now call home. The concept of a university as family is an alien one in Ireland, where the issue of alumni loyalty and a lifelong connection to the institution has only lately begun to catch on. At Notre Dame, however, even a casual visitor can sense the close bonds the university forges. Perhaps it is caused by the geographic isolation or maybe it is the storied tradition that ties one generation of families to another, for there is clearly something special at work at the Keough-Naughton Institute.

The Minor in Irish Studies requires proficiency in the Irish language and completing four courses across departments that include anthropology, Irish literature, film, television, theater, government, and history. The Minor in Irish Literature and Language requires proficiency in the Irish language and three courses in Irish language and literature.

Given that every student who takes a minor in Irish Studies or Irish Literature must study it, it is not entirely surprising that Gaelic is the fourth most studied language on the Notre Dame campus. O Conchubair sees a day when Irish Language and Literature will become a supplementary major at the home of the Fighting Irish.

On this Friday about 30 Irish Studies students are gathered for a lecture on Sean O’Casey’s later plays. Many of the students, who come from all over the U.S., have no Irish connections, but they are drawn to the Keough-Naughton Institute by its reputation for excellence.

The debate on the merits of the O’Casey plays is not as heated as that on the outcome of the Notre Dame game, but the fact that it is taking place at all is in itself noteworthy.

Just fifteen years ago, Irish studies were a desultory pursuit at Notre Dame. Then along came Donald Keough, president of Coca-Cola, whose children were educated at South Bend. He soon set about linking the two great loves of his life.

Keough’s ancestral homeland had come to play a huge role in his life. He also had a great love for Notre Dame, and a great respect for the education it had given his children. In 1992, thanks to his generosity, the Donald and Marilyn Keough Center for Irish Studies became a reality.

“Notre Dame didn’t really have any type of academic Irish studies program. It just seemed like a natural fit to me,” Keough says. “Instead of dispensing funds cafeteria style, we [Marilyn, Don’s wife and his life-long inspiration] decided we wanted to concentrate on something that could become an important contribution to Notre Dame and to Ireland.”

In May 2006, the Keough Institute became the Keough-Naughton Institute when Notre Dame trustee and Irish native Martin Naughton and his wife Carmel became major donors. It was just the latest chapter in an Irish success story.

Professor Christopher Fox, the initiator of the original Irish Studies program, is justifiably proud of the role he played in the new center but credits Keough for helping to realize the dream, and now Naughton with helping to advance the program.

As incoming chair of Notre Dame’s Department of English, Fox had felt that Notre Dame needed to be teaching more Irish writers within an Irish context. “Given its long-term links with Ireland and Irish America, it was appropriate for Notre Dame to have a major program in Irish Studies. But none of this would have happened without Don Keough, who learned about my idea from a Notre Dame priest, Father Patrick Sullivan, C.S.C.

“The assistance after that from Notre Dame’s President, Father Monk Malloy, Provost Nathan Hatch (now President of Wake Forest), Father Timothy Scully, our distinguished faculty, and our Ireland Council (made up of prominent Irish and Irish-Americans) has been instrumental in taking the program to a level none of us could have imagined when we started it back in 1992,” he says.

Keough and the college signaled their intent early on by signing Seamus Deane the preeminent Irish academic, critic and writer of his era, as the first Keough Professor. Deane’s assignment stunned the Irish academic world. It was clear that Keough and Notre Dame meant business. “Hiring Seamus Deane sent a signal that this was going to be a first class program, that we would search far and wide for the best academics,” said Keough. “We knew Seamus would never settle for anything but the best for our program and that is how it has turned out.”

Fox also says Seamus Deane was a key foundation block in building the reputation of the institute.

“I had asked colleagues in Ireland, if they were to start an Irish Studies program, who they would consider hiring. The answer was ‘get someone good, a student of Seamus Deane’s.’

“My thought was why hire a student when we could hire the master?” Fox knew Deane who had been a visiting Fulbright scholar at Notre Dame in the 1970s, when he taught a young quarterback named Joe Montana. In 1991, he was keynote speaker at a series of meetings Fox organized at Notre Dame on Irish Studies, in conjunction with the university’s Sesquicentennial.

Fox recalls that Deane’s arrival at Notre Dame in 1993 “sent shock waves through the profession and led to a new model for Irish Studies in North America – one that focused more directly on Irish cultural debate. Deane also attracted a talented interdisciplinary faculty who joined us from major universities in Ireland as well as from Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford.

“One Irish faculty member told Notre Dame’s legendary President Emeritus Father Hesburgh that ‘if Seamus Deane had gone to Gary, it would become a world center for Irish Studies.’ Our colleague was right. Deane’s role cannot be overstated.”

For students, the opportunity to study in Ireland is a particular draw. Over dinner Michael O’Connor (20) from Kingston near Scranton, Pennsylvania, talks excitedly about his upcoming six months in Ireland, starting in January, when he will begin a study program at University College Dublin.

“I was always drawn to Ireland through my roots and also watching movies like The Quiet Man with my father. I hope to study Joyce’s Ulysses and the modern playwrights like Brian Friel. I also want to learn Irish history and take in the Irish experience,” said O’Connor who is thoroughly enjoying his Irish studies.

“I have had a lot of great experiences, including meeting Jean Butler (who starred in Riverdance) and the poet Cathal O Searcaigh at the American Irish Studies Conference here.” He has also loved learning the language of his ancestors and has high praise for the skill and enthusiasm of the professors in teaching it.

Megan Mohrman (18), a sophomore from St. Louis, Missouri, says she was drawn to Irish Studies through taking Irish dancing lessons as child. “I loved everything about Ireland and wanted to learn what Irish identity was all about,” she says, adding, “the professors are really nice and enthusiastic.” Megan hopes to go to Ireland in the fall of 2007.

On the opposite side of the coin are Laoise Ni Thuairisg and Elaine Naughton from Galway who have come to South Bend to both teach and learn at Notre Dame. Naughton is one of the first Government of Ireland teaching fellows, which places promising Irish students as teachers in colleges across the world. Ni Thuairisg is a Fulbright scholar. Both find the atmosphere at Notre Dame exhilarating.

“It has been fantastic,” says Ni Thuairisg. “We are teaching, but we are also learning so much. I think this is the best experience possible for us.”

Fox, however, is not satisfied to just mark time. “When I look at the program today, I see how far we need to go, rather than how far we have come. We have established strong programs in Irish Literature, with a faculty led by Breandan O’Buachalla, who holds the Thomas and Kathleen O’Donnell Chair, the first new chair in Irish Language in America since the one at Catholic University in 1896. We are also in a very strong position in Anglo-Irish Literature. We need to strengthen the history program with two additional hires, one for a junior scholar to come in the next two years, the second for a newly-endowed Chair in Irish America made possible by Ireland Council members John and Lenore Madden.

“We have recently started a new Archeology of Ireland program that needs development and support. Beyond that, we need to develop our program in the social sciences, particularly politics and sociology, as well as in the arts. Our library, for instance, owns the world-renowned Captain O’Neill Collection of Irish Music, but we have no faculty at Notre Dame to teach a subject regularly offered at Boston College and NYU.”

Much done, more to do, but for the Keough-Naughton Institute, the old Gaelic expression “Tosach Maith leath na hOibre,” (a good start is half the battle) certainly rings true. There are even better times ahead. ♦

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