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CURRENT THEMES THE SHAPE OF IRISH STUDIES IN THE UNITED STATES DESMOND FENNELL i want to oVer some thoughts about the condition of Irish Studies in the United States based on my attendance at the last American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS) national meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, and an examination of the programs for the three previous national conferences. My perspective is that of an Irishman living in Ireland who, prior to the Omaha conference, had no direct experience of Irish Studies in the United States. Well aware of the limited basis for my comments, I oVer them in the hope that they may nevertheless be of some interest to the Irish Studies community in North America. As far as I know, Ireland is the only European country to enjoy the favor in American academe of having a widespread, interdisciplinary course of studies devoted to its life and culture. This surprises me, and makes me, as an Irishman, feel privileged. Its uniqueness apart, however, the existence of Irish Studies in the United States aVords an Irishman who attends one of its conferences the pleasure of meeting people who value his homeland , and who have applied their minds to aspects of its life and culture. That pleasure, mingled with the sense of privilege I have alluded to, was my Wrst reaction to the Omaha conference. My second was surprise that the three-day conference was so heavily weighted toward literature. By my count, leaving Irish-American topics aside, sixty-three of the ninety-one papers on Irish topics concerned Irish literature—more speciWcally, apart from three papers, Irish literature in English . I had understood that, Irish-American studies apart, the nominal and intended theme of Irish Studies was Irish life and culture. I had been told that the founders of ACIS managed to carry this through at national conferences by having plenary sessions, at which everyone, whatever their subject, heard lectures on various aspects of Ireland past and present. At the same time, I was aware that in practice, in American colleges, an Irish Studies course generally entailed literature, history, and perhaps some THE SHAPE OF IRISH STUDIES IN THE UNITED STATES 159 “other matters,” and I had gathered that the sheer number of papers submitted and accepted had made the original interdisciplinary sharing at conferences largely impractical. But I was not prepared for the heavy preponderance of literary studies which I found in Omaha. Later I was to discover that the number of literary studies was unusually great by the standards of ACIS national conferences. Even so, this preponderance did raise the question, which nothing I subsequently discovered silenced, whether, things being as they are, Irish Studies might acquire a more coherent structure and purpose from a diVerently deWning title, or from a frankly accepted understanding of the present title as “Irish (or English Irish) Literature in Context.” In the latter case, the other matters studied, including history and contemporary events, might then be speciWcally organized to supply social context to the literary studies. That the literature needs such context, and interpretation relating to it, goes without saying, and American literary specialists try to supply both. But to acquire the requisite knowledge they must study Irish life and culture— engage in the relevant “Irish studies.” And as things stand, the question arises: does Irish Studies at college or at conference level provide for this? At Omaha, this question was acutely raised for me with regard to the contemporary period 1960–1994. Or rather, it was raised in the form of my asking myself whether this Irish Studies conference, in which literature predominated, was displaying real knowledge of Irish life and culture during that period—which, willy-nilly, I knew at Wrst hand. Through the medium of a few American individuals and papers it was, but my impression was that generally it was not. Please note, I am not saying that, in practical terms, the conference could have, let alone that it should have, but simply telling what I found to be the case. I leave aside two broadly informative, plenary lectures by Irish visitors. The conference delivered statements about Ireland in the period since 1960 in four forms: through ten...


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