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Irish Inquisition aims to provoke discussion

Claire Heininger | Friday, September 5, 2003

Something medieval is in the air at Notre Dame, and it’s not just the Gothic buildings sprawled across campus. Starting in late September, a new campus program called Irish Inquisition will bring all the suspense, intrigue and strategy of a medieval courtroom into the Oak Room above South Dining Hall.

The Irish Inquisition program has been in the works since last semester, said Ed Cohen, Notre Dame Magazine associate editor and Irish Inquisition advisor.

In December of 2002, Cohen noticed that many of his fellow faculty and staff members had strong opinions on the war in Iraq; however, only those in political science and directly related fields ever got the opportunity to participate in panel discussions on the topic.

“We didn’t want anyone to be stifled,” Cohen said. “The idea was to have a relaxed public place for them to speak their hearts and minds about these issues. Bringing people in one after another drew comparisons to a courtroom setting, which turned into the metaphor of an Inquisition.”

The setting of a mock medieval trial also provides a change from the usual discussion backgrounds of classrooms and lecture halls.

“We wanted to keep it irreverent and lighthearted,” Cohen said. “It’s partly sarcastic, Saturday Night Live and Seinfeld-type humor, stuff that students like. But it was also important to preserve the original idea of giving people a place to speak their minds.”

In a unique twist on most scheduled campus discussions, the Inquisition process is actually initiated by students. A current issue – anything from the war in Iraq to abortion to the latest struggles of the Irish offense – will be announced around campus weeks in advance of the trial date. Then, if a student is particularly eager to hear the opinion of a faculty or staff member on this issue, he or she may issue a summons to that individual. The summons will be sent anonymously via e-mail and will request the employee’s appearance at a public gathering to contribute his or her thoughts on the announced topic.

That’s where the Inquisition part begins, as the summoned are each given 10 minutes in the Chair of Truth – a cozy recliner – to speak their feelings and opinions. Modeled after the Spanish Inquisition, the next step is to put this testimony up against the questions of the Grand Inquisitor, who cuts an imposing figure as emcee, the three-member Tribunal, who wear monks’ robes, and the student crowd.

Although the threats of beheading and ostracizing have been left behind in this version, the questioning phase of the Irish Inquisition is expected to be theatrical and unpredictable, including guest appearances and surprise gags.

“It’s not just another lecture,” Cohen said. “We’re trying to bring in the whole community, so we want to make it entertaining and fun.”

After the questioning is complete, the Tribunal will decide the fate of the summoned faculty member. Depending on the verdict, the victim will receive a free T-shirt reading, “I was condemned as a heretic at the Irish Inquisition” or “I got off on a technicality at the Irish Inquisition.” The next testifier is then invited to step up to the chair.

The Inquisition will make its long-awaited debut with a VIP demonstration Sept. 17. The topic will be “What are the first things you’d do if you were president of the United States?” Notre Dame student body president Pat Hallahan will introduce the concept to about 80-150 assembled student and administrative leaders, and the first Inquisition will follow. Soon after it takes place, a date and topic will be announced for the next session, which will be open to the public.