Emory Report
March 21, 2005
Volume 57, Number 23


Emory Report homepage   >   Current issue front page

March 21 , 2005
Irish eyes smiling

BY eric rangus

Unlike many Irish (or anyone else, for that matter), Geraldine Higgins did not partake in any alcoholic beverages on St. Patrick’s Day last Thursday.

“Although,” Higgins says, her Irish accent lilting throughout her office, “I hear Guinness is good for the unborn.”

The eight-months-pregnant associate professor of English is, of course, kidding about the alcohol. Many Irish (regardless of sex, background, occupation, social status, whatever) get a kick out of embracing their clichéd persona as hard drinkers, but Higgins’ pride in her homeland is 100 percent serious, and nowhere is that more apparent than in her work to build Emory’s program in Irish studies.

Just over a year ago, at the Emory-hosted Southern regional meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies, Higgins announced the creation of Emory’s program. For years the University has boasted internationally recognized teaching and research strengths in Irish arts and literature, but never had a formal, structured program.

Emory’s academic offerings and literary holdings, which include extensive collections from W.B. Yeats and more than a dozen other Irish writers, were so strong that in 1996, Higgins, who had just earned her doctorate at Trinity College, Oxford, decided to move to the United States to teach here rather than return home to Ireland. “It was a very difficult decision,” Higgins says. “I was full of apprehension, and it was hard to leave my family, friends and life there.”

Formalizing Irish studies was a project years in the making, but the 2003 acquisition of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s correspondence archive catapulted it into the campus mainstream. In the glow of this atmosphere, Higgins and the Irish studies team made a presentation to Emory College lobbying for the addition of the Irish studies to the curriculum. They were successful, and then Higgins was named the program’s first director.

Irish studies, which aims to graduate its first minor in 2006 (five classes total 20 credit hours are required), is small but has a lot of potential. Currently it boasts seven affiliated faculty (including Higgins and former president and current English Professor Bill Chace) in four disciplines: English, history, music and theater studies.

Emory offers four study abroad programs in Ireland—two in Dublin and one each in Galway and Belfast—which any undergraduates can attend. The considerable faculty ties to Ireland are an added bonus. Current students, Higgins says, have been fortunate in that they have met many of the writers whose works they study. Irish authors Mary O’Malley, Eamon Grennan, Karry Hardie and Katharine Worth have visited her classes, while Heaney, Michael Longley, Eavan Boland and Medbh McGuckian have visited the classes of Ron Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English and an associated faculty member in Irish studies.

Those special guests provide perks for the professors, as well. “I think I’m a groupie,” Higgins says of Heaney, whom she first met while a graduate student at Oxford, where the Nobel laureate taught poetry. “I’ll go wherever he goes to read; he is such an inspiring presence.”

Despite all of Irish studies’ built-in advantages, creating a program takes time—even when there is a solid foundation—and Irish studies has not been immune to growing pains. Its website is still under construction, and new courses are being added slowly.

“We are hoping to expand enough to hire a dedicated Irish historian and encourage faculty hires in areas we don’t currently cover—political science, economics, religion, archaeology. Ireland was recently voted the best place in the world to live by The Economist.” Higgins says. “We also want to encourage faculty who may not have Irish studies as a main academic interest to teach an occasional course.”

Higgins doesn’t need an Economist article to tell her that Ireland is the best place in the world to live. Her point of view is apparent right down to the green iMac sitting on the floor in front of her desk. But Higgins’ love for home doesn’t mean it’s easy to talk about.

She grew up in the Northern Ireland town of Ballymena, about 30 miles northwest of Belfast. Her childhood was a relatively safe one, but when a fellow countryman like Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume comes to Emory to discuss the violence in their homeland (as he did last month) Higgins understands.

“I am of the next generation,” Higgins says, noting that Hume had 30 years’ experience in politics prior to sharing the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Belfast Agreement, which promised self-determination for Northern Ireland and created the Northern Ireland Assembly. “But the things he said were true about the Northern Ireland I grew up in.

“It was very much a culture of suspicion, caution and real trepidation about what you said and what was acceptable to say,” Higgins says, her voice halting. “Northern Ireland really does lurch from crisis to crisis; everybody just hangs on and hopes the next one will be resolved.” (Like now; the recent murder of a Belfast man—blamed on members of the Irish Republican Army—has Northern Ireland on edge.)

Higgins earned a bachelor’s degree in English and history at Trinity College, Dublin (unrelated to the school at Oxford). “Dublin was a very liberating place for me to be,” she says.

To call Northern Ireland a complicated place is to dramatically understate the situation. The Northern Irish, identify themselves as eiher “Irish” or “British” and whether they embrace the south (the Republic of Ireland) or the northeast and east (Great Britain) is a decision based on many factors that can date back centuries. Higgins looks to the south.

“Trinity is in the heart of the city,” she continues. “There was access to music and theater. Dublin was the source of much of the literature the country has produced. Any taxi driver can tell you we have four Nobel laureates and exactly who they are.”

So, it could be said with a straight face that Higgins brings a taxi driver’s love for Irish literature to her work at Emory. She recently explored with her students a play by Irish playwright Brian Friel—who also is a subject of her most recent book, 2003’s simply named Brian Friel. Called “Philadelphia, Here I Come,” the play examines Irish/American immigration, which until very recently has been one way: Ireland to America.

“People got on a plane or a boat, came to America and never returned,” Higgins says. “ There was always this sense that moving was irrevocable. But now the immigrants who live here are more like commuters than the immigrants of old. It doesn’t have the permanence or sense of desperation anymore.”

For her part, Higgins travels home to Ireland at least once a year—mostly for work. She has served as associate director of the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo,the northwest coastal town named in many of the poet’s works. But the upcoming birth of Higgins’ child, due at the end of April (she also has a 3-year-old daughter), will keep her home this year. All of her immediate family members still live there, although like most everyone from Ireland, Higgins has relatives in the United States (her mother’s cousins live in California).

While Higgins worked for a summer in New Jersey as an undergraduate and has been in Atlanta nearly 10 years, she has not seen much of this country. “I think one of the problems of being Irish,” she says, “is that every time a plane leaves, you feel like you have to be going to Ireland.”