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  • Reflecting on the Irishness of Eugene O'Neill:Speech at the Eugene O'Neill Society Gala Dinner National University of Ireland, Galway, Friday, July 21, 2017
  • Michael D. Higgins

A dhaoine córa,

Tá an-áthas orm a bheith i bhur láthair ag an ócáid seo. Tá mé buíoch daoibh as an gcuireadh agus as an fíorchaoin fáilte a d'fhear sibh romham.

I am delighted to be your guest of honour at this gathering of scholars to celebrate a true giant of literature. I am not so sure as to what the response of the ghost of Eugene O'Neill might be to the idea that a gathering of eminent scholars had spent four days in the west of Ireland discussing the content, production, and legacy of his work. Perhaps he would see it, I would like to think, as a belated recognition in the setting of the descendants of the common ancestors. So mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, as President of Ireland, I want to thank all of you for coming here, for your scholarship, and for the significance that you accord to a writer that, I believe, should always be regarded as part of the Irish canon.

I have spoken of this connection of Eugene O'Neill with Irish history and literature before—on one occasion when I was giving the Third Thomas Flanagan Lecture in New York in May 2012, and more recently when I had the privilege of speaking at the launch of Robert Dowling's magnificent biography of Eugene O'Neill in April 2016 at UCD.

Eugene O'Neill has been so well served by that biography by Robert Dowling. All of us can be grateful for it. I have been rereading it and what I have to say this evening is by way of a further reflection on it suggested to me by the life of O'Neill as accounted in Robert Dowling's work. [End Page 163]

I have, of course, as I was preparing to come here, also been scanning the titles of the papers that have been given over the last three days and those that will be delivered tomorrow, at what is a magnificent gathering of good scholarship drawn from experience and of course eclectic themes and new insights.

I thus concluded that for my pre-prandial remarks this evening that something by way of personal reflection, rather than any engagement with what is such a wide scholarship, might be most appropriate. You will also have had the benefit of context, by hearing from Declan Kiberd, my friend of so many years and the author of such good research on Irish writing in English and the Irish language.

A quotation that occurs again and again in the work of those who have engaged in research on Eugene O'Neill is a heartfelt tribute he offered to Irish playwrights whose work he had read, and production of some of whose work he had seen on stage, during the tumultuous but very relevatory visit of the Irish Players to the United States in 1911. The effect on him of what he saw on stage was profound. In contradiction of his declared antipathy to memberships and accolades he wrote:

I was asked to be a member of the Irish Academy being organized by Shaw & Yeats & Robinson, etc.—and accepted. Of course, I'm "associate" because not Irish born. But this I regard as an honour, whereas other Academies don't mean much to me. Anything with Yeats, Shaw, A.E., O'Casey, O'Flaherty, Robinson in it is good enough for me. … At any rate, I'm pleased about all this.

O'Neill would go on to say much later, in just a few short years before his death in a conversation with Eugene Jr.: "The one thing that explains more than anything about me is the fact that I'm Irish." That O'Neill was proud of, and attached importance to, his Irishness is not in question.

It is interesting, I suggest, to speculate on which side Eugene O'Neill fell on the choice that Paula M. Kane summarised as deciding whether in their production...


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