1. From Academy Street to Academia
On the thirtieth of June, 1993, I took a bus to Cork from Cahir, my hometown in Tipperary, to collect the results of my first year exams at UCC. During that year I had developed a passion for US American literature, and I couldn’t wait for September to come. I planned to study American literature that year with a brilliant new lecturer, Dr Sue Norton, and I was going to continue my study of poetry in courses with Dr Alex Davis and Dr John Goodby. The bus trundled into Parnell Place Bus Station a few hours before the results were due to be posted in UCC’s Quad. After the obligatory pint and sandwich in the Long Valley, I went to the Mercier Bookshop on Academy Street, intending to buy a few books before meeting up with friends for post-results drinks later in the afternoon. One of the books I bought there that afternoon was Denis Donoghue’s The Sovereign Ghost, first published in 1976 but reissued in a paperback edition in 1990. I couldn’t resist the title. The other was a book by a scholar called Ron Callan with the equally wonderful title, William Carlos Williams and Transcendentalism: Fitting the Crab in the Box, which had just been published the year before.
I wasn’t ready, that Summer, to begin to engage with the ideas explored and developed in these books by Donoghue and Callan, and it wasn’t until the following year, when I studied US American poetry with Dr Lee Jenkins, that I really began to see what they were about. One of my own former students, Dr Lola Boorman, recently told me about the moment when she went from being a ‘student’ to a ‘scholar’. For me, this happened at some point in the Autumn of 1994, in weekly lectures on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and others delivered by Dr Jenkins in one of the Boole lecture theatres in UCC. Her passion for poetry and the clarity of her delivery made every lecture absolutely unmissable, even though they were often scheduled in the 9 am slot on a Friday morning. I wished those hour-long sessions could have gone on for at least another hour every week, and on more than one occasion I held the lecturer up from getting to her next meeting or class with questions and comments immediately after she finished speaking.
If all of this makes me sound like an insufferably precocious and sycophantic undergraduate student, then so be it. Before I went to UCC in 1992, I had a few false starts, so I knew that I wanted to be there. I studied Applied Maths for a year in the University of Limerick in 1989-90, and after that, I did a National Certificate in Social Studies in what was then called Cork RTC (now Cork IT). By the time I finally landed in UCC, then, I knew what I wanted to do, and I often tell my own students today about this journey when they are unsure about the initial choices they have made in university. In my final year in UCC, however, I met another great teacher who knew a thing or two about this himself: Dr Ron Callan. When I saw his name on the list of lecturers for my final year in Cork, I couldn’t believe my luck, not least because of that great book on Williams I’d picked up the previous summer. More importantly, for me, he was also due to teach a seminar course on a poet I’d been reading more and more since I first learned about him in my studies of American literature over the previous two years: John Berryman.
Twenty-five years later, I have Dr Ron Callan to thank for encouraging me to work on a poet who has been at the centre of my scholarly work throughout my career to date. Dr Callan’s support when I was a student was the reason I ended up going to Trinity in 1995, where I undertook doctoral research with Stephen Matterson and have been based ever since. I well remember the afternoon, sitting in his office at the top of the old English department on the Western Road in UCC, when Ron picked up the telephone and called Stephen to ask if he would be interested in receiving a proposal from me to do a PhD on Berryman and W.B. Yeats. Ron’s gesture demonstrated not only his faith in me as a student but also his remarkable generosity as a supporter of younger scholars and their work, at all stages of their development. Coupled with Lee Jenkins’ incredible mentorship—not to forget the amazing support I received throughout that year from so many wonderful teachers in the English and Philosophy departments at UCC, including Alex Davis, Colbert Kearney, Tony O’Connor, and Brendan O’Mahony—I felt like I was being prepared for the next stage of the journey; from being a student to becoming a scholar, from browsing and day-dreaming in a bookshop on Academy Street to actually entering academia….
2. From American Literature to American Studies
On the twenty-ninth of March, 1996, I met Lee Jenkins and Alex Davis for a pint in the Western Star in Cork to discuss how things had been going since I left UCC the previous Summer. Lee gave me a gift of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, and in the course of our conversation she advised me not to overlook the importance of gender and race in my research—issues that had been entirely absent from my considerations of John Berryman up to that point. I’m still not satisfied with the extent to which I have engaged with these issues in my own scholarly work, but Lee’s advice came at a time when I had started to attend meetings of the Irish Association for American Studies for the first time in Trinity and UCD. This was largely due to the encouragement of Ron Callan, who had by now moved to UCD, and my doctoral supervisor in Trinity, Stephen Matterson, both of whom were committee members of the IAAS at this time. Through Ron and Stephen, I was introduced to scholars like Hilary Bracefield, Tony Emmerson, Steve Ickringill, Bill Riches, and others at IAAS meetings in the late 1990s, and I began to be aware of conversations taking place between the various disciplinary areas that make up the field of American Studies—music, history, and politics, in particular. Listening to papers by Hilary, Tony, Steve, and Bill, my understanding of the contexts of American literature and culture, especially in the twentieth century, was hugely enriched in ways that had a clear impact on the development of my own research. I began to see myself as a literature scholar working within the broader field of American studies and to appreciate the significant ways in which disciplines overlap and influence one another without necessarily compromising their own individual interests and methodologies.
Looking back on it now, I have no doubt that the desire to understand the relationship between a text and the contexts of its composition that underlies my work on Berryman, for example, began with conversations I had at meetings of the IAAS during my years as a postgraduate student. I gave my first scholarly papers at meetings of the IAAS in Dublin, Cork, Derry, and Belfast in the 1990s, and I owe a considerable debt to the organisers of those conferences for giving me a place as a young scholar to present ideas that were often less than half-baked. In the absence of an Irish version of the ALA (the American Literature Association)—“a coalition of societies devoted to the study of American authors […] with some 110 affiliated societies, mostly concerned with the work of a particular author [and] some thematic such as the Society of Early Americanists”—the IAAS served, and still serves, as a space where Irish scholars interested in US American poetry, for example, can meet once or twice a year to share their research and discuss ideas. It was through the IAAS that I first met many scholars who went on to become good friends and colleagues in the study of US American literature over the years since our first encounters at conferences in Ireland: Anthony Caleshu, Michael Hinds, Philip McGowan, Ana Nunes, Julie Sheridan, Stephen Wilson, and others.
It must have been 1998 or 1999 when Ron Callan and Stephen Matterson suggested to me that the IAAS should have what they then called a ‘Postgraduate Caucus’. This was to be a group of younger scholars within the Association that would, in time, have its own annual event and be a place where those of us who had not yet completed our PhDs could meet to compare notes. I served as the first Chair of the IAAS Postgraduate Caucus, and this coincided with a period of rapid growth in the number of students doing research on US American topics in Ireland—and especially in literary studies, history and politics. The Government of Ireland’s decision in 2001 to set up a centre for American Studies in Ireland—what became the UCD Clinton Institute—was partly connected to this, of course, and throughout the early years of the twenty-first century there was a real sense of excitement in the field of US American Studies in Ireland, no matter what one’s initial or specific field of interest might be. I recall with fondness hearing papers by Michael Hinds, who I knew primarily as a poetry scholar, on the Beach Boys at an IAAS conference in Belfast in the early 2000s, as well as a paper by Philip McGowan on representations of Las Vegas, given around the same time. Whether we were aware of it or not, we were all doing US American Studies, reading cultural texts closely with the tools we had first learned to use in our studies of poetry.
One of my proudest moments as a member of the IAAS came on the thirty-first of March, 2007, when I chaired a panel discussion on the early days of American Studies in Ireland as part of that year’s annual conference, which was held in the Clinton Institute in UCD. The panel included contributions from three of the four people who set up the Irish Association for American Studies in 1970: Denis Donoghue, John Montague, and Peggy O’Brien. (The fourth founding member, Alan Graham, after whom an annual IAAS lecture is now named, passed away in 1985.) It was thrilling for me to meet Denis Donoghue for the first time in 2007, having been an admirer of his work since I first read it as an undergraduate in UCC in the 1990s. Denis was responsible for introducing US American literature to the undergraduate curriculum in UCD in the 1960s, while John and Peggy had made similar innovations in the curricula in Cork and TCD in the 1970s and ’80s—interventions I knew about, too, from friends and colleagues who had studied with them during those years. One had the sense, at that 2007 panel discussion, of a kind of reunion taking place and of a coming-of-age for American studies in Ireland. By the time the biennial European Association for American Studies conference rolled into town three years later, in 2010, in a four-day event co-hosted between Trinity and UCD, American studies in Ireland was no longer operating on the fringes of the Irish academy. Forty years after the IAAS was founded, the EAAS Dublin conference represented the culmination of work done by three generations of Irish Americanists, working across the island and between disciplines to create what is today one of the most successful and active inter-institutional scholarly associations in Ireland.
3. Keeping the Furnace Lit
“We couldn’t even keep the furnace lit!” begins Robert Lowell’s poem “To Delmore Schwartz,” collected in Life Studies (1959) (Lowell 157). The poem is on one level a description of the kind of experience that many scholars of literature of a certain age will recognise—late-night arguments about who matters most and why, hero-worshipping, hangovers. Maybe it’s not representative of everyone’s experience, but while the poem is chiefly an exercise in self-mythology, it is also an invitation to remember and to recognise one’s earlier days for what they were, not just for one’s own sake but also for the purpose of creating a sense of community. The poem remembers a friendship—one that diminished over the years for Lowell and Schwartz—and creates a context against which the subsequent efforts of both poets can be read. By the same token, we remember our early scholarly alliances and friendships in part because we want to know where we have come from, even if we’ve long-since lost contact with those we once thought of as close. As Lowell puts it, on those nights we became “Underseas fellows, nobly mad, / we talked away our friends” (157).
In my experience, however, one of the most important things about an association like the IAAS is the way that it keeps people in contact, even if they don’t always agree with each other about things. In the conclusion to their ground-breaking and provocative book, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber quote Swedish physicist Bodil Jönsson on the importance of conversation to the development of new ideas: “Concentrated, inspired conversation is a widely undervalued source of new knowledge, new feelings, new impulses” (Jönsson qtd. in Berg and Seeber 85). In order for “collaboration to work well,” Berg and Seeber suggest, “it emerges locally in conversations between people, rather than being imposed top-down by funding models” (89). Meetings of the IAAS over several decades now have encouraged such local conversations, and this is one of the virtues of the fact that the association is, despite growing numbers in recent years, still relatively small in international terms. It may not be the smallest of associations of Americanists in Europe, but there is a lot to be said for the fact that a committee meeting can still be convened in a small classroom and plenary lectures at annual conferences can be spaces where all delegates can hope to be involved in the proceedings. I used to think that it was a pity that more people didn’t attend certain IAAS events I was involved in organising, but looking back on it I think it was good for the association in the longer run that time was taken at different points so that local conversations of the kind prized by Jönsson and others could take place. They may not all have involved “a quart of gin”—to take another image from Lowell’s poem—but what Berg and Seeber call “the conviviality of thinking together” sums up my sense of engaging with colleagues in the IAAS over the last twenty-five years or so, and it’s something I look forward to for many years to come.
What we do, in other words, as colleagues and friends, teachers and students, is effectively a collaborative act of “keeping the furnace lit,” no matter which area of American studies we are working in. Tim Groenland has written, “One of the strengths of ‘Irish American Studies’ […] perhaps lies in its capacity to encourage [a] widening of perspective.” This is certainly the case, but there is a lot to be said, too, for strengthening and reaffirming a sense of home and hearth. It is important to recognise where we come from and to appreciate the ways in which the work we do has its own origins and influences whose localities and points of departure continue to inform our work no matter how far from them we believe we have travelled. This work of reflecting on one’s scholarly origins informs the pieces Adam Kelly , Philip McGowan, Sue Norton, and Kevin Power have written for the present issue of the IJAS. It represents a significant contribution to the history of American studies in Ireland, certainly, but it also allows us to consider where we might develop into the future, not just as an association but as individual scholars trying to stake out our individual portions of the field. As Kelsie Donnelly has written in her recent, important piece on “Studying America in Ireland in the Time of COVID-19,” “Throughout the past fifty years, in times of dread and wonder, the [IAAS] has provided support and solidarity for Irish American scholars and will undoubtedly do so for future generations to come.”
Berg, Maggie, and Barbara K. Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, U of Toronto P, 2016.
Donnelly, Kelsie. “Lonely, But Not Alone: Studying America in Ireland in the Time of COVID-19.” IAAS 50th Anniversary special issue on Irish American Studies, IJAS Online, vol. 9, 2020, ijas.iaas.ie/issue-9-kelsie-donnelly.
Groenland, Tim. Editorial. IAAS 50th Anniversary special issue on Irish American Studies, IJAS Online, vol. 9, 2020, ijas.iaas.ie/issue-9-tim-groenland.
Lowell, Robert. “To Delmore Schwartz.” Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, pp. 157-58.