Rather than inflict another piece of my torturous critical prose on anyone, I have opted for a more personal reflection on some of the Association’s history as it has intersected with my own academic career to date. So if that’s not your thing, please feel free to click away now.
Although one never really wishes to consider the fact that they themselves are growing old, as I sit down to think about what to say about the IAAS it strikes me that I’ve been a member for just over half of the Association’s fifty years. My first involvement came at the annual conference held at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra (now absorbed into DCU) in 1994. Prompted by my PhD supervisor, Stephen Matterson, I presented my first ever conference paper at that IAAS meeting to an audience, it must be acknowledged, that was fairly sparse in number. Stephen, as is his wont, absented himself from the moment. Probably best. Of the almost double-figure crowd that was there to witness a pretty shy and self-conscious debut, I recall Tony Emmerson, Ron Callan, Michael Hinds, Bill Riches, Sue Norton, and Steve Ickringill being there. Initiation over, I had joined the club, and given that more wine than was necessarily advisable had been supplied for the reception later that evening, it was the beginning of over two decades of support, friendship and, most of all, belonging. No matter your discipline or your interests, there is no other American Studies association like our one, and I’ve always been very proud to be a member of the IAAS just as I have always been very proud of the achievements of our members.
I’ve had the opportunity to serve on the Committee in a number of roles: Secretary, Vice-Chair, Chair and, currently, as the representative to the European Association. My Minute-taking efforts could always have been improved upon: I freely admit that now, and thank Tony once again, sadly in his absence, for keeping me right. How he would have loved to have been with us to celebrate this 50th anniversary. It was Tony who always reinforced for me the importance of the all-island nature of the IAAS and, moreover, that it was vital that the IAAS resist any efforts, putative or otherwise, to merge the IAAS with a larger, neighbouring association. This in part fuelled my efforts to push membership numbers up as much as possible during my time as Chair. These efforts included introducing free membership for all Masters-level students taking any American Studies or related modules in Ireland: as a result, we broke the 100-member mark, if only briefly, and the delight on Tony’s face (he was Membership Secretary and Treasurer at the time) was proof enough that the plan had been worthwhile.
The Committee that I had working with me during those years was simply superb. We came up with all sorts of schemes (the Peggy O’Brien Book Prize, Postgraduate Conference and travel bursaries, the IAAS Lecture) all in an effort to boost our profile, attract members, and grow the Association. Tony was delighted to spend the monies (fairly modest) that we had accrued over the years; as things turned out, we generated more than we were spending, and the IAAS discovered a momentum that it was a real pleasure—still is—to be a part of. It made being Chair probably the most enjoyable role I have ever—and may ever—hold. Though, with Tony’s sudden death in December 2014, some of the shine of those times was, for a while at least, overcast by a core sense of loss in the Association. On hearing of his illness, the Committee moved quickly to rename the IAAS Lecture—officially, Ron delivered the only ever IAAS Lecture under that title, in UCC, on 14 March 2014—as the Emmerson Lecture in Tony’s honour, and I had contacted Tony’s wife Mary with this news before his passing. It felt like the very least we could do.
Stories of Tony Emmerson will remain legion in the IAAS, as will those of the incomparable Ron Callan. The two of them kept the flame alive when things looked bleak in the 1980s and 1990s, either due to falling membership numbers or because the deteriorating situation north of the border made the business of the Association more difficult to enact. If truth be told, I had considerably easier IAAS experiences: the receptions hosted by then US Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith in her residence in the Phoenix Park (I think in 1995 and 1996, but the memories are blurry to say the least) were certainly no hardship, it has to be said. Dublin in the mid-1990s was a great city to live in, and with the Clinton administration in office, it was also a halcyon time for IAAS-US Embassy relations as well. American Studies as a subject had planted roots that, at that time, it seemed unimaginable could in any way be lost. With Ron and his colleagues at UCD, a dedicated Masters in American Literature was later joined by a similar offering at Trinity, and a steady production line of postgraduate talent was set in motion. At that point, I had zero involvement in the field as it was taught or researched in Belfast and, by 1998, had relocated to Goldsmiths’ for the steep learning curve of my first academic position. I remained an IAAS member, both out of loyalty and because our Association remained my academic home, even though geography and peer pressure ensured that I had also joined that larger, neighbouring Association as well. It was interesting to be a complete outlier in the BAAS network and to see how this much larger association did things, though not necessarily always for the better. When Queen’s appointed me in 2005, it was a bonus to know that I would also be returning to the IAAS fold permanently.
The commitment of colleagues to do whatever they could to support new scholars and researchers has marked the work of the IAAS from that first conference experience to the present day. American Studies in Ireland has a very particular heritage and also its own individual mission. Admittedly literary-heavy for a lot of its five decades, primarily due to the Committee of willing volunteers being predominantly literature scholars, there has been a persistent sense of there existing a different relationship between Irish academia and the study of the United States than in our sister associations across Europe. Perhaps that results from geography—Ireland as the last stop west before the ‘New World’—or perhaps it results from history, in particular the wave of emigrants from these shores to America during the Famine years and after. The rather hackneyed notion of every Irish home having a picture of John F. Kennedy alongside one of the Pope persisted for as long as it did because it was, in so many ways, true for the period of time leading up to the Association’s formation in 1970. For those scholars (Peggy O’Brien, Denis Donoghue, Alan Graham, Tony Emmerson) to have established an all-island American Studies association just as what would become three decades of conflict in the North had erupted strikes me, now, as a remarkable moment of which they should be rightly proud. They provided generations of new scholars the opportunity to rethink the mythologies, to rewrite how we think about the United States, and to share with colleagues across Ireland the fruits of their research and teaching labours.
After the IAAS had had enough of me as Chair, I decided to inflict myself upon the European Association as its President. This was an important development of its own for the EAAS: finally one of the smaller associations had the opportunity to run the show for a while and to map the broad parameters of pan-European American Studies in the early twenty-first century. Again, I wish Tony had lived to see the first Irish President of the EAAS: both Tony and Stephen had served as EAAS Treasurers in their time, and Steve Ickringill as Vice President (1988-92), but the IAAS had never held the top office until a late April afternoon in Constanta, Romania, in April 2016. What served me well as IAAS Chair has been the formula I’ve tried to follow as EAAS President: learn the regional differences in how American Studies is discussed and taught, and ensure, as far as possible, to make inclusiveness the central pillar of what we do as a community of scholars.
The EAAS Presidency comes with its own challenges as well as the sensitivities of regional and national politics. It is supported by the assiduous work of the other Officers, in particular the Secretary General (for the length of my time in the role, this has been Tatiani Rapatzikou, from Greece). However, there is one major difference from the IAAS Chair role, and one that I’ve frequently, if privately, bemoaned: it does not come with its own Jenny Daly to make sure the right things get done right. It is no coincidence that Jenny’s time as Secretary of the IAAS coincided with the Association’s recent return to buoyant and sustained success. As much as Tony and Ron were fundamental to the Association’s survival during difficult times, Jenny was the key driver of change in the last decade. What we achieved as a Committee, and as an Association, in recent times could never have happened without Jenny. As with Tony and Ron before her, we all remain in her debt.