Internationalising Irish Studies at Maynooth: The 21st ISAANZ Conference

A Report by Ann Elder

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Maynooth University

The 21st Australasian Irish Studies conference held at Maynooth University in Co Kildare 18-20 June this year was an undoubted success. Participants hailed their experience at it not least for the concentrated opportunities of animated face-to-face talk and discussion about topics dear to their hearts. An outstanding feature of the get-together seemed the diversity of national backgrounds of the more than 50 people presenting papers.

Far from being mostly from Ireland and the antipodes, an astonishing number of Americans, some studying in Ireland, also offered papers, as well as others from universities in Belgium, Israel, South Korea and Spain, a Jewish Studies centre in Sweden, and a Serbian technical institute. Such internationalism was appropriately in keeping with the conference theme of Ireland’s historical and cultural diversity.

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Carton House

Attending the splendid conference dinner at historic Carton House, seat of the Fitzgeralds for 800 years, I sat by chance next to the cosmopolitan Guy Beiner from Ben-Gurion University whose scintillating plenary paper was on the almost forgotten German Jews who set up a women’s hat factory in Galway in the 1930s. Beside me in the hard-core group of survivors drinking Guinness et al at the student drinking hole at the Roost in the small town outside the campus grounds on the last night was a Hungarian, Livia Szedima, who had presented a paper on the Irish rebel John Devoy. Opposite us were two Spaniards, Marina Alvarez, from the University of the Basque, her interest in Spanish translations of Irish drama, and Melania Terrazas from the University of La Rioja, who spoke of how people deal with the traumatic memories of conflict. Rubbing shoulders with them was John Roberts of Leeds, now Moses Maimonedes Fellow at the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, whose paper presented results of his research into Jewish emigrants of the Irish diaspora. Also deserving mention is Catherine Thewissen of the Catholic University of Louvain, who gave an account of how the home front of the First World War in Ireland was depicted in fiction.

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James Joyce

A magisterial paper given modest presentation was that by veteran Queen’s University Belfast historian Keith Jeffery, his topic Gallipoli, an obvious choice in this centennial year for an authority on Irish participation in the First World War. An unexpected paper was one on James Joyce from Seokmoo Choi, a professor of English at Korea University, which  discussed how James Joyce represented Irish emigrants in British colonies throughout the empire, a field virtually untouched previously.

Most enthusiastically greeted for engaging charm was the plenary paper by Terence Dooley, a Maynooth professor specializing in 19th and 20th century Irish social and political history, who discussed the Irish Big House in the War of Independence. Dooley enjoyed special ambience for his offering, which was presented in the ornate baroque banqueting hall of Carton House overlooking a broad terrace with fountain and Greek-style statuary and vista over an extensive golf course – a popular spot for after-dinner conversation and imbibing on that balmy, moonlit evening.

This conference was organized efficiently and with great heart by Philip Bull of La Trobe in Melbourne while a visiting professor at Maynooth, the stalwart Pauric Travers, president emeritus of St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, and Oona Frawley, a novelist as well as editor of the Memory Ireland series. Organisers of the next conference scheduled for Adelaide in December next year will be hard-put to equal such a stream-lined effort, though the dynamism evident in Sydney at the University of New South Wales-based conference of December 2013 will surely assert itself again under dedicated association president Ronan McDonald, who has the UNSW chair of modern literature.

As is to be expected of an organisation founded in Australia, a core of distinguished, experienced and friendly Australian scholars is the glue holding the together the Irish Studies Association of Australia & New Zealand (ISAANZ). One of its guiding principles continues to be keeping up encouragement for young doctoral and post-doctoral students of various disciplines; their contributions gave a refreshing youthful élan to proceedings. Independent scholars as usual also figured also as participants, as well as amateurs who may have gravitated from genealogy and stitching together family histories. As at earlier conferences, non-participants were welcomed.

To keep up-to-date with plans for the Adelaide conference, those interested can find details online by googling the Irish Studies Association of Australia & New Zealand (ISAANZ). Membership is recommended!

Ann Elder, from New Zealand, has a longstanding interest in Irish Studies.