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New Hibernia Review 7.4 (2003) 123-135

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"Re-Imagining Ireland,"Rethinking Irish Studies

Cheryl Herr
University of Iowa

In 1983, I was coming up for tenure at Virginia Tech. Having written a book on Joyce and Irish popular culture, I assumed that my department would turn to someone who intimately knew the Irish scene, probably someone living in Ireland, to evaluate my work. I helpfully presented my list of potential external evaluators to my chair, only to have him dismiss the Irish academics with the statement, "I don't think we need the word of a drunken Irishman in this case."

This was a shocking, but by no means singular, event in my academic life, and when I talked about the incident with an Irish friend seeking a university post in the United States, he told me that he, too, often encountered anti-Irish racism. The theme persists in odd and not always subtle ways. Even now, I have often found that many colleagues working in transnational, diasporic programs remain resistant to including Irish Studies as a legitimate colonial or postcolonial field of inquiry. Despite the fact—or perhaps because of the fact—that undergraduate students in the Midwest routinely fill to the brim classes on Irish literature, film, and history, it is sometimes hard to make a case, at least in many of the states, that studying Ireland is anything except a soft option.

For these and many more reasons (including strong friendships in the field), I have watched the development of Irish Studie—in Ireland, in the States, and around the world - with avid interest. Needless to say, Ireland itself has often been judged poorly by people who should have known better, and work in Irish Studies has exposed me to a variety of hostilities. These include a more recent colleague who, after Omagh, seemed to hold me personally responsible for the actions of the Real IRA. Like some Irish scholars of my acquaintance, he would not accept the idea that teaching contemporary Irish history does not make one a fellow traveler. So it is perhaps unsurprising that in the history of Irish Studies, agonistic stances have often proliferated, with one variously inflected group finding fault with another on the basis of what has often seemed to me rather flimsy evidence. In this academic warfare, a scholar's place of birth, family history, institutional affiliation, and membership in this or that academic organization has often mattered intensely. Having observed the scene since the mid-1970s, I have watched institutions jockey for position, seen programs [End Page 123] rise and fall, and witnessed the fray when academic systems collide. I have watched all things Irish shift back and forth between grunge and chic. In all of these situations, what has been deemed "hot" and what has not have created creative cross-venue collaborations as well as self-serving exclusions.

Although it seems unlikely, the Commonwealth of Virginia has become a major player in my thinking about the past and future of Irish Studies. Under the direction of Andrew Wyndham, two major conferences about Irish culture have taken place in Charlottesville, the first in 1996 and the second in 2003. This essay reflects on some of the issues that these meetings brought to the fore, especially regarding the organizations that dominate Irish academic life and Irish Studies; the current status of identity politics and authenticity in cultural research; and the relations between the aspects of contemporary Irish life that are imagined and the aspects that are structurally produced.

In 1996, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) held a highly successful conference called "Irish Film: A Mirror Up to Culture." Some background to that conference will be helpful to compare it with the later meeting. Cosponsoring the 1996 event were the Film Institute of Ireland, the Irish American Cultural Institute, and the American Conference for Irish Studies (represented primarily by then-president James MacKillop). The principal Irish consultants were the Irish Film Association codirector Mary Doran, scholars Luke Gibbons, Kevin Rockett, and John Hill; Cork Film Festival director Michael Hannigan, and Film...


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