The Flagship Irish Studies Unit in the University System of Georgia
A Plural Understanding of Irishness
Founded on St. Patrick’s Day of 1995, the Center for Irish Research and Teaching (CIRT) flies the flag for Ireland and advances Irish America in the University System of Georgia, whose 26 member institutions serve around 320,000 students. The unit is committed to researching and teaching the multifarious identities, experiences, and achievements that constitute Irishness, a concept that continues to evolve and that, at its best, enlarges the ancient Gaelic principle of flaithiúlacht (generosity). Always multicultural, Ireland has become increasingly international as regards its people, economy, and system of education. In addition, it has brought to fruition multiple important DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) initiatives. Today, around 17% of Ireland’s population is foreign-born; and, after English, Polish is the country’s most widely spoken language. The year 2020 saw the first appointment to Seanad Éireann (the Irish Senate) of a member of the Traveler community, an indigenous minority; and in 2015 Ireland became the first country on earth to legalize marriage equality through a national referendum. Another global first was the Irish people’s election of back-to-back female presidents: Dr. Mary Robinson (1990-1997); and Dr. Mary McAleese (1997-2011). As for Northern Ireland: since 1998, “parity of esteem” for both native-Irish and Scots-Irish (or Ulster-Scots) cultures has guided its policing and politics.
Words from Ireland’s current president, Dr. Michael D. Higgins, bear repetition: “At a time when democratic discourse is too often undermined or diminished, our choice must be to actively extend and deepen democracy, expressing it in wider forms and new ways. We must encourage and deliver better, more meaningful, and more equal participation in decision-shaping, decision-making, and decision-taking. To adequately respond to our new circumstances, we must be open to pluralism of ideas, and we must advocate for and achieve innovation that promotes inclusivity and new structures.”
Savannah, Georgia: CIRT’s Home City
An academic and outreach unit of Georgia Southern University (GS) — a 27,000-student, high-research-activity (R2) institution — the Center for Irish Research and Teaching (an tIonad Taighde agus Teagaisc na hÉireann) is proud to call Savannah, Georgia, home. In August 2019, CIRT moved into a new headquarters space: Unit #10 or Faighneog #10) of the Armstrong Center, an outreach and technology hub on GS’s Armstrong Campus on the Southside of Savannah. Close by is St. Joseph’s Hospital, which Irish Roman Catholic nuns, the Mercy Sisters, founded in 1875. In such areas as healthcare, education, the docks, the railways, heavy industry, commerce, and religious life, the Irish have contributed hugely to the success of Savannah, the “Hostess City,” whose federally designated Historic District is the most extensive — and whose container port is the fourth largest (and fastest growing) — in the US. According to the US census of 1860, one in every four non-slave residents of Savannah (or 14% of the city’s overall population) was Irish-born. As acknowledged in Aloysius J. Handiboe’s song, “It’s St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah” (1952), the Irish mainly settled in three of the city’s working-class districts: “From old Frogtown to the Old Fort \ And don’t forget old Yamacraw, \ They have always sung the praises \ Of Erin Go Bragh!”
In our time, espousing an ethos of welcome and respect, Savannah’s joyous St. Patrick’s Day parade has grown into the second largest in North America. An estimated 880,000 people attended the 2019 parade. In fact, Savannah experiences a four-week “St. Patrick’s Season”: a packed calendar of events that culminates with the parade on March 17. One annual event, Celtic Heritage Festival Savannah (formerly Tara Feis), held on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day, has become a special focus for CIRT. The unit is proud of the festival’s reputation as a high-quality, family-friendly celebration that showcases both tradition and innovation in Irish and Scots-Irish culture and arts . Around 7,000 people came through the gates during the most recent iteration. On that occasion, one popular and productive feature was “Penpal Plus,” which linked US children of elementary and middle school age with peers from several schools engaged in cross-community peace-and-reconciliation programs in border communities in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
DEI: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion
In 2019, under the stellar leadership of the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, CIRT was a critical partner in incorporating into that year’s parade a marching band from Northern Ireland’s Unionist tradition. Manifesting a “walk-the-walk” approach to DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion), that bridge-building achievement was a first in the world for a parade honoring Ireland’s patron saint, and two of the diplomat partners — the Irish Consul General for the Southeastern United States and the Deputy Director of the Washington, DC-based Northern Ireland Bureau (Northern Ireland’s official mission in the US) — deemed it the highlight of their service in the US. The Irish government’s Minister of State for Equality, Immigration, and Integration visited Savannah for the occasion. The goodwill generated by the initiative was particularly potent because the marching band hailed from the town of Omagh in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. That community experienced the single deadliest incident in the 30-year sectarian conflict known as the Northern Irish Troubles: a Real IRA downtown car bombing on August 15, 1998, that killed 18 Catholics and 11 Protestants.
Further evidence of CIRT’s espousal of Inclusive Excellence — Pillar #3 of Georgia Southern’s five-pillar Strategic Plan — was its co-production, in March 2018, of the month-long exhibition, Representations of Jews in Irish Literature. The Center’s partner was Temple Mickve Israel, Savannah, the third oldest Jewish congregation in the US. Four major public events accompanied the exhibition, which had previously shown at the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin; Columbia University, New York City; and Georgetown University, Washington, DC. Around 415 people attended the events, each of which focused on an aspect of the historically deep Irish-Jewish relationship in Savannah. For this public programming, CIRT and Temple Mickve Israel received (in October 2019) the Excellence in Archival Program Development Award from the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Council (GHRAC). One of the events celebrated the New York City-born George Solomon, who served as Temple Mickve Israel’s rabbi between 1902 and 1944. Known as the “Irish rabbi,” Solomon was always unambiguously proud of his mother’s being a native of Ireland. In connection with the April 13, 1920, friend- and fund-raising trip to Savannah by future Irish prime minister Éamon de Valera, Solomon was identified as supportive of independence for Ireland. Upon his death, one obituary characterized Solomon as “foremost among Savannahians in the promotion of better relations among religions and races.” Beyond the award-winning series of four events, over 1,000 visitors saw the core exhibition during its time in Savannah.
CIRT’s director comments that in its research, teaching, programming, and outreach “the unit has always emphasized diverse Irish experiences and the complicated intersections of Irish and Irish-American people with multiple other communities.” In 2016, Georgia Southern University’s Multicultural Student Center recognized his efforts by presenting him with the Dr. Randolph S. Gunter Distinguished Faculty Award for “outstanding commitment to diversity and social justice.“ He reflects, “Among the responsibilities and privileges of our work at the university is revealing narratives that don’t sugar-coat past and present wrongs but that do add breath and nuance to our understanding. A good example is our research into the cooperation, especially in the 1880s, between the two labor organizations on the Savannah docks: the black Workingmen’s Union Association and the Irish-dominated Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. Uniquely for a Southern port, theyjoined forces in contract negotiations to achieve a regime whereby work gangs consisted of equal numbers of black and white stevedores, with each man receiving equal pay.”
The Interdisciplinary Minor in Irish Studies
As well as fostering worthwhile student and community outcomes in Savannah, CIRT also maintains a full-service presence on GS’s original and largest campus, located in the town of Statesboro, Georgia, 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) inland from Savannah on the Interstate-16 corridor. Opened in 1906, that 920-acre (372-hectare) campus is deemed one of America’s most beautifully landscaped sites of higher learning. Signature buildings include the $33.6-million Interdisciplinary Academic Building (in which CIRT’s office suite is located) and the $54.8-million Center for Engineering and Research.
On both the Statesboro and Savannah campuses — and, since 2020, also on the university’s Wexford campus in southeast Ireland — CIRT facilitates Irish-focused courses across the disciplines: from international business to sustainability; from secondary education to healthcare administration; from theater to history; and much more. CIRT has gained distinction for incorporating experiential learning into its courses, many of which provide comparative study of Irish and US approaches to key challenges. While around 33 million Americans self-identify as Irish-American, students of all backgrounds find study of Ireland enriching and relevant.
As our society reassesses systemic racism, some students are surprised to learn that Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s foremost nationalist politician of the first half of the nineteenth century, became one of earth’s highest profile anti-slavery advocates and, as such, a hero to Frederick Douglass, who delivered almost 50 speeches while living temporarily in Ireland. Upon his arrival in Ireland, Douglass wrote, “I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and — lo! — the chattel becomes a man.” O’Connell vociferously opposed gradualism as an approach to dismantling slavery; instead, he pushed for immediate and absolute emancipation, characterizing (in an 1843 speech) “the slavery of men of color in the United States of America” as “the most hideous crime that has ever stained humanity.”
Many students add an international dimension to — and, thus, increase the value and impact of — their degrees by pursuing the five-course (15-credit-hour) Interdisciplinary Minor in Irish Studies. It can be acquired by means of courses offered Stateside and/or in Ireland, and some online courses are also available. Now more than ever, graduate and professional programs, as well as many employers, are seeking the global competencies that completion of the Minor demonstrates. As the only English-speaking and only common-law nation in the European Union, Ireland is the ideal bridge for Americans into that 446-million-person bloc. Boasting a highly productive, technologically advanced, and distinctly global economy, Ireland is first in the world for inward economic investment by quality and value, and it maintains one of earth’s most educated workforces. Notable strengths include biopharmaceuticals; information and communications technology; and financial technology and services. Ireland has been chosen as EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) headquarters by all of the top five software companies in existence; all of the top 10 pharma companies; 14 out 15 of the top medical device companies; and 18 out of 25 of the top financial services companies.
Spanning and Serving Communities, from Coastal Georgia to Southeast Ireland
GS’s Wexford Campus: A Major Commitment to International Education
In addition to its work in the Coastal Georgia region, CIRT was the lead entity in developing and delivering Georgia Southern University’s first overseas campus, located in a landmark historic building in Wexford Town, a coastal town of Viking origin in beautiful, safe southeast Ireland. CIRT’s director secured approximately $800,000 in outside funding for the Wexford Campus project. Among other compelling factors, the choice of location reflects the fact that during “prime time” for Irish emigration to Savannah — the half-decade beginning in 1848 — over 56% of newcomers arrived from County Wexford. Savannah became and remains the “most Wexford” city in North America. While growing its Wexford Campus, GS is deepening its strategic collaborative initiatives with three Irish institutions of higher learning: Waterford Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology Carlow (both based in southeast Ireland); and the University of Dublin (better known as Trinity College Dublin).
In the presence of the Chair of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, GS’s President, and Georgia and Wexford dignitaries, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (i.e. its Secretary of State) opened the Wexford Campus, a state-of-the-art learning facility, on November 20, 2019. GS’s footprint in Wexford Town, just 100 minutes south of Dublin, complements European investments by our sibling USG institutions, such as: Georgia Tech Lorraine (France); UGA at Oxford (England); and Kennesaw State University in Tuscany (Italy).
Wexford Town counts among its cultural assets the Irish National Opera House, an iconic twenty-first-century edifice. As regards industry, the town’s portfolio features a substantial research and production center operated by the Georgia-based Coca-Cola corporation. At the 2011 launch of a $220-million extension to the plant, the corporation’s Chair and CEO, Muhtar Kent, visiting from Atlanta, reflected, “Our continued investments in Wexford … will ensure we sustain and enhance our growth globally in the coming years. … The Coca-Cola brand has been in Ireland for more than half a century, and our long history here gives us continued confidence in the strength of the Irish workforce, the commitment of the Irish Government, and the know-how of Irish people to support our business.”
CIRT’s Dedication to Our Communities
Committed to the tenet of the “University without Walls,” CIRT boasts a stellar record of service to stakeholder communities in Savannah, across Georgia, and into the South Carolina Low Country. Undoubtedly, it has been — and very much continues to be — one of the most productive university units as regards Community Engagement, Pillar #5 of Georgia Southern’s five-pillar Strategic Plan. On average, some 6,000 community members per year avail of Stateside programs exclusively generated by CIRT, such as lectures, performances, and symposia. Additional thousands of people enjoy events (such as Celtic Heritage Festival Savannah) that the unit co-produces with partner entities. The development of the Wexford Campus expands CIRT’s outreach opportunities; for example, a major transatlantic Green Technology conference — deploying experts and physical and technological assets in Wexford and Savannah — is in the works.
A notable feature of CIRT’s town-and-gown programming is the annual Sanders Distinguished Lecture in Irish Studies, established in 2011. Among other lecturers, the unit has welcomed: Dr. Mick Moloney, Global Distinguished Professor of Music at New York University (speaking on the interface in America between Irish, Jewish, and African musical traditions); Patricia Harty, editor and co-founder of Irish America magazine (speaking on the changing nature of Irish-American culture and identity); Dr. Clair Wills, Milberg Chair of Irish Letters at Princeton University (speaking on the Irish diaspora in the UK); and Dr. Christine Kinealy of Quinnipiac University (speaking on Frederick Douglass’s four-month exile in Ireland).
In Savannah and its hinterland, CIRT’s regular community partners include: the Savannah Economic Development Authority; the Hibernian Society of Savannah (founded in 1812); the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee; Visit Savannah; the Yeats Society of Savannah; and the Irish Heritage Society of Sun City-Hilton Head, to name but a few. The unit also maintains a strong relationship with the Atlanta-based Irish Consulate General for the Southeastern United States. In Ireland, CIRT’s partnership activity has yielded such outcomes as the co-production, with Kilkenny College (founded in 1538), of the July 2014 international scholarly symposium, Educating the Irish Genius: Enlightenment Pedagogy; and the provision at the September 2019 Write by the Sea literary festival — in Kilmore Quay, County Wexford — of a multi-event program about the Savannah-born Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor, whose O’Connor forebears arrived in Savannah from Wexford.
An Entrepreneurial Embrace of Financial Viability
Just as CIRT has provided exceptional service to its neighbors, it has benefitted from their generous support. Facilitating everything from general expenditures (such as paper and printer-ink) to student scholarships, tax-deductible financial donations continue to be vital to the unit’s viability and success. Over its quarter-century of existence, CIRT has received just 1% of its funding from the College of Arts and Humanities, the university entity under whose budget it falls. In fact, in most years that College has provided a budget allocation of zero dollars. From students who receive scholarship support for study in Ireland to faculty members who organize and deliver public programming, everyone engaged in Irish Studies at Georgia Southern deeply values — and, thus, applies careful stewardship to — donations to CIRT’s fund accounts at the Georgia Southern University Foundation.
• Fund # 0496 — the Irish Studies General Fund, which equips CIRT with most of its day-to-day operating budget.
• Fund # 0777 — the Fred and Donna Sanders Fund for Irish Studies Lectures and Performances, which facilitates much of CIRT’s public programming, both on campus and in the community.
• Fund #0968 — the Wexford-Savannah Axis Research Fund, which not only furthers scholarly inquiry into the unique historical connection between County Wexford, Ireland, and Savannah, Georgia, but also provides scholarship support to students who study at Georgia Southern University’s Wexford Campus.
• Fund #3760 — the Helen Ryan Collins Memorial Scholarship in Irish Studies, which empowers one recipient per academic year with $1,500 in aid; special consideration is given to students from financially less advantaged backgrounds.
• Fund #3604 — the Eddie Ivie Scholarship for Study in Ireland, which annually awards $1,200 to a student who has committed to studying in Ireland under the auspices of Georgia Southern University.
• Fund #0650 — the Dr. Gary B. Sullivan Irish Studies Scholarship, which is being built to the endowment threshold of $30,000 so that, in each academic year, it will be able to support one student formally pursing the interdisciplinary minor in Irish Studies.
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Both on its own and via partnerships, CIRT has been active and successful in procuring external grants. Consider just two examples. First: As a single entity, the unit has received $70,000 to support primary-source research by faculty members and both graduate and undergraduate students in connection with its Wexford-Savannah Axis research project. Second: In early 2020, Wexford-Savannah TradeBridge® — CIRT’s trade-and-investment development initiative with the Savannah Economic Development Authority, Wexford County Council, and Wexford Enterprise Center — was awarded grant-funding in the amount of $334,670 to advance its Phase 2 goals. That project aligns with GS’s core commitment to facilitating economic growth (“more and better jobs”) in Georgia and the other communities it serves.