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Irish studies thrives, launches new branch

Maddie Hanna | Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Alive and thriving, the Irish Studies program at Notre Dame offers students the opportunity to embrace their history and discover the language of their ancestors – a language not “dead” by any means.”Irish is a modern spoken European language, not some dead language like Latin or Sanscrit,” said Eamonn O’Ciardha, professor in the Keough Institute for Irish Studies. “This is something hugely important, that these students can hear the language of their ancestors spoken everyday.” Studying Irish, he continued, “gives people insight into the fact that Ireland is a multilingual country.”In fact, the 10-year old program’s remarkable growth has led to the foundation of a separate department of Irish Language and Literature, O’Ciardha said. This department, which will be officially launched on Oct. 1 by the Irish ambassador to the United States, will be the first of its kind in the country.According to O’Ciardha, the history of Irish Studies at Notre Dame began long before the first program’s creation in 1994 – starting with the great Irish immigration to the U.S. after Ireland’s devastating potato famine in 1845.”They came starving, totally impoverished, to a country that was primarily white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant,” O’Ciardha said. “They found themselves in a cold house, recruited by thousands into armies in New York and Boston. This University very much became the University of the fighting Irish. This became the hatchery of the Irish-American mission.”Therefore, he said, “It seemed ridiculous that [until 10 years ago] there wasn’t a program here.”In those 10 years, Notre Dame’s program has ascended to excellence as a template for other programs across the country, O’Ciardha said.Irish studies chair Breandan O’Buachalla – who O’Ciardha lauded as “the foremost Irish scholar in the world” – said the prominence of the scholars that Irish Studies hires contributes to the program’s prestige.”It is generally accepted that the Irish Studies program at Notre Dame is the best program in the United States,” O’Buachalla said.While the University does not offer a major in Irish Studies, the minor is a very popular option. Currently there are 120 students involved in the Irish Studies program, which, according to O’Ciardha, is more than are studying Russian. Considering the relative sizes of the countries, that statistic is important, he said.According to literature provided by the Keough Institute for Irish Studies, students desiring to minor in Irish Studies must demonstrate proficiency in the Irish language, complete four Irish Studies courses across at least three departments and write a Capstone Essay in their senior year that links the minor with their major.”The problem has always been making classes available,” O’Ciardha said.Students have various reasons for following the Irish Studies track. “The relevant thing about Irish Studies is the way it connects to so many different areas of study,” said graduate student Jessica Dougherty-McMichael, who is studying Irish and Native American literatures. Dougherty-McMichael plans to stay involved with Irish Studies past graduate school, possibly teaching at the university level.For junior Meghan Whealan, Irish was an intriguing, if not career-oriented plan of study. “It might be something I’d pursue after college, but right now I just thought it would be really interesting,” she said.The prospect of studying abroad also entices students. “I wanted to go abroad to Ireland very much,” junior Kate Fitzgerald said. “I thought the minor would be a good way to help me get ready to learn more about the country.”