In October 1970, Richard Nixon—then approaching the end of his second year as US President—landed in Shannon Airport to commence a three-day visit to Ireland, announcing upon his arrival that he could “proudly claim, as do almost all successful American politicians, an Irish background” (Butler n.p.). Nixon’s visit was intended to celebrate this background and incorporated a visit to the burial site of his mother’s ancestors in Timahoe, Co. Kildare, where he declared to scattered applause that his overriding aim as President was “to bring peace not only to America, but to all the world.”

Nixon’s presence in Europe also enabled him to be briefed by officials who had flown in from the ongoing negotiations, then taking place in Paris, to mediate the conflict in Vietnam. His welcome in Dublin was large but not unanimous, as several groups had coalesced to protest against the ongoing US actions in Vietnam. Protestors handed out copies of Life magazine containing photographs of the notorious My Lai massacre of 1968 (“Man Fined”); more dramatically, a man approached the motorcade on Lord Edward Street and hurled an egg at the President’s car. Nixon’s reflexes, as the archival footage published online by RTÉ shows, proved to be quick enough to avoid the projectile (“President Nixon”).

Nixon’s visit that year was, even at the time, considered to be of relatively little consequence: commentators in the Irish Times that week tended to focus on the traffic disruption caused by the President’s presence, and RTÉ would later produce a radio documentary on the event entitled “The Forgotten Visit.” However, it might, I suggest, be as good a point as any to begin to consider the continuities and changes in America and Ireland and the various forms of relations between these shifting entities in the 50 years since. The Presidential visit of 1970 throws up visible parallels and contrasts that invite reflection on the historical developments in the half century that has passed since. A glance at that year’s history reminds us that Nixon’s announcement of the US invasion of Cambodia in late April immediately reignited the anti-war movement and prompted mass student protests, which led to the infamous Kent State shootings of May 4th. In September, Congress authorised the Nixon administration to sell arms to Israel; in December, the North tower of the World Trade Centre was completed, making it the tallest building in the world. Debates about American foreign policy, the US’s role in the world, and the value of internal dissent were being conducted at a pitch of rare intensity across a range of public spaces, most notably on the country’s increasingly radicalised college campuses.

The pattern of Irish political representation at the highest level of US politics has continued since 1970, with every US President since Nixon (with the exception of Jimmy Carter) following his (and, previously, John F. Kennedy’s) footsteps to Ireland; indeed, one of the notable features of the current administration has been what has sometimes appeared to be its rotating cast of Conways, Flynns, Mulvaneys, and Walshes. The contrasting responses to Nixon’s visit reflect the ambiguous attitudes within Ireland towards American power that can, with a little pressure, be extended to questions around studying America from abroad. In what ways might the deep imbrication of Irish emigrants in American life—one that incorporates contributions to political and cultural structures as well as to the very built environment of the continent [1]—cause the Irish citizen to identify with a geographically distant power? Does a fascination with American politics, culture, and art imply approval or a more critically distant stance? To what extent does Ireland’s perennially important economic relationship with the US—Nixon had, indeed, previously visited the country in 1966 to explore the potential for his contacts in the oil industry to work with Irish fertilizer factories to develop plastics for export (“Dublin Stop”)—necessitate complicity with that country’s global interests? Which experiences, historical connections, and heritages are celebrated, and which are forgotten, and why?

1970 also saw the formation of the Irish Association of American Studies, dedicated to the aim of promoting (and questioning) the study of America in Ireland. The IAAS was an all-Ireland organisation from its inception, with its founding members (which included Tony Emmerson, Denis Donoghue, Alan Graham, and Peggy O’Brien) distributed across several leading universities in both the Republic and the North. But in Ireland, the political and cultural situation was no less turbulent than in the US. In Issue 1 of IJAS Online (2009), Peggy O’Brien discussed her early years as an American scholar in a country whose notable political developments—the Civil Rights Movement and the struggles in Belfast and Derry—seemed to be running on closely related tracks (at the US embassy in Dublin in 1970, protestors against Nixon sang the US Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome”). The deployment of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland in 1969 would later be taken as the beginning of the Troubles; in 1970, the Arms Crisis, in which cabinet ministers in the Republic were among those charged with conspiracy to smuggle arms to the Provisional IRA, divided the Irish political establishment.

These developments informed a cultural environment that was in many ways insular and inhospitable to outsiders; O’Brien flatly states that this period was “a xenophobic as well as highly misogynist time in Ireland” (n.p.). The movement for women’s rights, which constitutes one particularly dramatic social development in the 50-year period of the Association’s existence, was at that point a relatively marginal one that drew sustenance from developments across the Atlantic. 1970, for example, marks the year in which the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement met for the first time; inspired by the autonomous direct action of radicals in the women’s movement in the US, they published a manifesto whose demands included equality before the law, equal pay, equal education, the right to contraception, and justice for widows, deserted wives, and unmarried mothers.

The changes in Irish life during these years often bore directly upon the educational landscape inhabited by the IAAS’s founders. The introduction of free secondary education in 1967 was rapidly expanding participation rates in schools across the country, with universities growing as a consequence; 1970 also saw the ban on Catholic attendance at Trinity College Dublin (where O’Brien was teaching) lifted. There were fewer than 25,000 students registered in third-level education in 1970, as compared to the almost quarter of a million at the present time of writing. These developments increased the number (and diversity) of students who might conceivably enrol in a course in American Studies, but it was by no means guaranteed that such a course would be available. O’Brien recalls a meeting in which an older colleague at Trinity snidely doubted whether there was, in fact, such a thing as American Literature: on these shores, the notion that an undergraduate course in literature might include names like Dickinson, Hawthorne, and Stevens was still a new one.

As this context suggests, the early years of the Association were relatively informal, with gradual growth achieved partly through its members’ links to the already existing British and European associations (Riches n.p.). The IAAS primarily comprised a small gathering of interested lecturers and steadily grew in size over the subsequent decades, with practical and financial assistance from the US Embassy a vital part in its development from the 1990s onwards. The organisation encouraged interdisciplinarity, with American studies and Cultural Studies included alongside literary and historical research. Postgraduate studies, partly as a result of this focus on interdisciplinarity, gradually emerged to great effect; from the tentative beginning of including a postgraduate speaker on the programme, the IAAS introduced a  postgraduate panel, which in turn led to the Postgraduate Symposium that is now a fixture of the Association’s calendar as well as its entry point for many young scholars. [2]

The existence of something broadly referred to as American Literature (contra O’Brien’s colleague) and the value of studying American history and cultural production more generally may no longer be in doubt, but the disciplinary boundaries of this cluster of fields is as open to debate as ever—particularly when the research is being conducted at a geographical distance. This special issue, essays from which will be published throughout the year to mark the IAAS’s 50th anniversary, is devoted to exploring the work being done in American Studies in Ireland as well as to investigating the questions that arise in the context of that distance. The theme of the short pieces (or “mini-essays”) that will be published in this series is “Irish American Studies,” a phrase that is, we hope, brief enough—and composed of individual terms that are contestable enough—to provoke a diverse range of responses. Our aim is to invite reflections, based on the research and experience of the Association’s members, upon the history, contexts, opportunities, and challenges characterising the discipline of American Studies on this island. As well as providing a snapshot of current research by Irish scholars working in American studies, the issue aims to engage with the specific question of Irish American Studies.

The grammatical ambiguity of the phrase deliberately avoids specifying its object as the study of Irish America or, on a different reading, American Studies as conducted from Ireland. We have kept “Irish American” hyphen-free in order to let contributors decide on whether to explore, for example, the compound experiences encompassed in Irish-American identity or, instead, to hone in on the geographical and conceptual challenges of a field whose object is apprehended across the Atlantic’s distance. What does it mean to teach American Studies in an Irish classroom or to be an Irish scholar of America? What has shaped the history of American Studies in Ireland? What, if any, are the current trends in American Studies in Ireland? What is the future direction of American Studies in Ireland? What is the Irish contribution to the European perspective on America? In 1995, reflecting on that year’s annual conference, Stephen Matterson asked whether we should “aspire to a kind of transcendence of national origin in our research, leaving Ireland aside, or . . . acknowledge that where we write from might (some would say, inevitably must), determine what we see and how we see it?” (i). Or, to put it another way: are Irish American Studies always Irish-American Studies?

The contributions may, indeed, engage with yet more fundamental questions of definition. For many of the IAAS’s members over the years—and, thus far in this introduction, for the present author—“American Studies” has been largely synonymous with the study of the US. Given the aforementioned historical and cultural ties and considering the considerable factors of a shared language and the global reach of US cultural production, this state of affairs is unsurprising and seems likely (at least in the short term) to continue. [3] This assumption can and should be challenged, however. American Studies as a field has itself, in an increasingly globalised world, increasingly shown an impulse towards “remapping” that aims not just for a hemispheric but a global perspective (Giles). The Vietnam protestors, we might note, saw little difficulty in framing Ireland’s relationship with the US in relation to a conflict taking place in South-East Asia. Indeed, the changing demographics of Ireland, which has become a vastly more ethnically and culturally diverse society in recent decades, will surely inform the future research interests of IAAS members as well as the developing conception of American Studies as a field.

One of the strengths of “Irish American Studies,” indeed—as several of the pieces here will make clear—perhaps lies in its capacity to encourage this widening of perspective. The relationship between America and Ireland is one that necessarily opens onto what Fionnghuala Sweeney, in her analysis of Frederick Douglass’s 1845 visit to Irish shores, describes as “Atlantic culture”—the complex patterns of emigration, slavery, cooperation and resistance in operation throughout centuries of shifting power relations across America, Ireland, Britain, Europe, and Africa (23). Viewed from this angle, the fluidity in the terms “America” and “Ireland” becomes more visible, and the generative possibility of their relation becomes ever more apparent. The contributors to this series demonstrate a diverse range of interests, approaching their subjects from different backgrounds, locations, and career stages, and their responses suggest just how expansive “Irish American Studies” might be.



[1] See, for example, Ellen Rowley’s interview with architect Kevin Roche in Issue 2 of IJAS Online.

[2] My thanks to Ron Callan for his recollections on the Association’s history, upon which I have drawn in this paragraph.

[3] There are of course, several exceptions to this statement: IJAS contributors have in recent years written, for example, about Canadian literature (Smyth) and US emigration to Liberia (Lambert). It is also worth noting that the IAAS’s 50th anniversary conference (which, at the time of writing, has been rescheduled to 2021 due to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic) will be presented in cooperation with the Mexican Embassy in Ireland.


Works Cited

Butler, Jonathan de Burca. “The Forgotten Irish Visit of Tricky Dicky.”, 26 Apr. 2014. Accessed 3 Mar. 2020.

“Dublin Stop for Nixon on Round World Trip.” RTÉ Archives, 21 July 2016.

Giles, Paul. The Global Remapping of American Literature. Princeton UP, 2011.

Lambert, Carmel. “‘The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here’: Writing American Identity in Liberia, 1830–1850.” Irish Journal of American Studies Online, issue 7, 2018.

“Man Fined on Nixon Protest Charge.” Irish Times, 7 Oct. 1970.

Matterson, Stephen. Editorial. Irish Journal of American Studies, vol. 4, 1995, pp. i-ii.

O’Brien, Peggy. “‘If there is such a literature’: Thoughts on Teaching American Literature in Ireland/Irish Literature in America.” Irish Journal of American Studies Online, issue 1, 2009.

O’Mahony, Pat, and Liam O’Brien. “The Forgotten Visit.” RTÉ Radio 1, 2 Oct. 2010. Radio Documentary.

“President Nixon Concludes Visit to Ireland.” RTÉ Archives, 23 Sept. 2015.

Riches, W.T.M. “Alan Graham: A Tribute.” Editorial. Irish Journal of American Studies, vol. 1, 1992.

Rowley, Ellen. “From Mitchelstown to Michigan: Kevin Roche’s Formative Years.” Irish Journal of American Studies Online, issue 2, 2010.

Smyth, Kate. “‘No such thing as a “Canadian”’: Memory, Place, and Identity in Mavis Gallant’s Linnet Muir Stories.” Irish Journal of American Studies Online, issue 4, 2015.

Sweeney, Fionnghuala. Frederick Douglass and the Atlantic World. Liverpool UP, 2007.