Looking back to Ireland and out to the world from London, the Centre for Irish Studies is a prism through which the changing history of Anglo-Irish relations can be viewed. With its ebbs and flows of people and ideas, and as a focus for education for over 150 years, St Mary's is an apt location for a Centre that reflects the diverse interests of Irish Studies.
The Centre was formed in 1990 under its inaugural director, Jim O'Hara, following the validation of the BA (Hons) degree programme in Irish Studies. Based in the 'Old House', 1920s buildings of the Strawberry Hill campus, it quickly developed throughout the 1990s and expanded its staff, running lecture series, inviting speakers that included politicians, poets and playwrights. It also hosted major conferences and became productive in research. During a visit in 1999, Irish President Mary McAleese described the Centre as 'an acknowledged leader in the field of Irish Studies'.
St Mary's has had enduring historical connections with Ireland since its foundation in 1850. Cardinal John Henry Newman asserted in London in a period when what became National University of Ireland was being formed that:
"The past never returns; the course of events, old in its texture, is ever new in its colouring and fashion. England and Ireland are not what they once were, but Rome is where it was, and St Peter is the same.[.]. He of old made the two islands one by giving them joint work of teaching; and now surely he is giving us a like mission." (Newman, 1904: 18)
That Ireland and Britain have long been connected economically and politically, culturally and spiritually is only highlighted in the wake of the visit of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI to St Mary’s in 2010 and the British monarch’s historic visit to Ireland in 2011. It is a fitting time to re-visit connections from the past to reflect on how they inform the present.
One such connection is Sean O'Faolain. Coming from Cork via Harvard University as an academic, dissident thinker and short story writer, O'Faolain lectured at St Mary's between 1929 and 1933. It was in this period that he published Midsummer Night Madness (1932) and completed A Nest of Simple Folk (1934). Returning to Ireland, he went on to become a leading short story writer, essayist, literary critic and editor of The Bell (1940-1946). His memoir Vive Moi was published in 1964.
In 2011 the Centre for Irish Studies held its inaugural O’Faolain Lecture and awarded the O’Faolain Essay Prize for postgraduate students.
London Eye image © Dawn O'Connor