The Last Word: The Father of Irish Studies
By Tim Pat Coogan
June / July 2014
Tim Pat Coogan recalls Eoin McKiernan, who for many years wrote the “Last Word” column for this magazine and was a pioneer in the field of Irish Studies. The founder of the Irish American Cultural Institute and the Irish Way Program, McKiernan is now the subject of a new biography, Irish America Reawakening: The Eoin McKiernan Story, written by his daughter Deirdre.
Eoin McKiernan was one of the best men I ever knew. On his death bed, amongst his last messages to his children was, “Give ten per cent of your incomes to the poor.” During his life he gave far more than that to Ireland. To me, he often appeared to be the embodiment of the Irish poem that every Irish school child once learned, “Mo dhá Róisín,” in which Róisín is the woman the poet loved, the other – Ireland.
No writer could do justice to Eoin’s achievements. The Irish Cultural Institute, which he founded, was responsible for the largest and most sophisticated cultural program ever undertaken abroad.
Caravans of Irish academics, writers, Gaelgóirí, which he took infinite pains to organize, criss-crossed America bringing to the Irish diaspora news that Irish culture and the Irish language had great contemporary relevance. That was one side of the McKiernan medal, as it were. The other was the marvelous Éire-Ireland journal as scholarly as it was interesting, that the institute produced.
Eoin was a man of wide-ranging interests. His greatest passion was probably the Irish language, it’s true, but he was also passionate about human rights and education. The gospel he lived by was that the educated man is distinguished by his enquiring mind and his concern with “Why?”
The word education comes from the Latin, to draw out, and that was what Eoin did. He drew out the best in people and encouraged them in turn to bring out the best of Irish culture to others.
For several decades, Eoin McKiernan was Irish studies in the U.S. Today’s burgeoning landscape of Irish courses from coast to coast didn’t exist when Adele Dasimer founded Boston College’s Irish studies program with advice from Eoin and money from her family. Initially, the Jesuit authorities told her that the teaching of Irish studies could be “divisive.”
Eoin, who was born in New York City on May 10, 1915, had a distinguished teaching career most notably at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, from 1959-1972. He also served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Education in the early 1960s.
He married Jeannette O’Callaghan in 1938. They met in an Irish class at the Gaelic Society in New York City and went on to have nine children. Eoin was so punctilious about paying for the children’s education, and making sure that any money raised went to projects such as the Irish American Cultural Institute, that I knew him to sleep on benches at airports rather than take a more timely, but more expensive flight.
As his great labors neared their end, Eoin’s lodestar was his dream of retiring with Jeannette to a cottage in the West of Ireland. Fate decided otherwise.
I was a guest in Eoin’s home in St. Paul, sometime in 1995. I was on a book tour that he helped arrange. Eoin began his day by making me porridge at his insistence, with a fistful of raisins through it. And then after breakfast he took off to spend the morning at Jeannette’s bedside.
A cruel illness had brought premature senility to his lovely wife. He cared for her at home as long as he could. Now he visited her at the home every day. I learned not to be around at lunchtime, because that was when this tall erect man came home bowed and inevitably in tears.
Jeannette died in 1996, and Eoin in 2004, but their memory will live on in the hearts of Irish Americans, and all who were privileged to know them on this side of the Atlantic. And those who didn’t have that privilege will come to know him through the pages of this marvelous biography written by his daughter Deirdre.
Irish America Reawakening: The Eoin McKiernan Story. By Deirdre McKiernan Hetzler (Borealis Books / $19.95).
Tim Pat Coogan is one of Ireland’s best historical writers. His books include Ireland Since The Rising, and the best-selling biographies of Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera. For many years Tim Pat was the editor of the Irish Press newspaper. His latest book is the acclaimed, The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy (2012).