Maureen O’Connor
University College Cork, Ireland | Published: 17 March, 2024
ISSUE 19 | Pages: 217-271 | PDF | DOAJ |

Creative Commons 4.0 2024 by Maureen O’Connor | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Last year I wound up my summary of the year’s Irish Studies events by noting the high state of anticipation in Ireland for the 2023 Academy Awards, for which there were an unprecedented fourteen Irish nominees. Alas, only one category had an Irish winner, and that was for Best Live Action Short, awarded to An Irish Goodbye, a Northern Irish film, directed and written by Ross White and Tom Berkeley. While there was disappointment all around, nominees Brendan Gleeson and Paul Mescal charmed Irish audiences by speaking Irish on the red carpet, something Mescal had done earlier at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards ceremony. Gleeson, a former primary school teacher, demonstrated especially impressive fluency. This year, there is only one Irish nominee for the 2024 Oscars, Cillian Murphy, in the Best Actor category for his starring role in Oppenheimer, for which he has already won a Golden Globe. The unimpressed reaction of Murphy’s down-to-earth Cork parents to this news has amused fans everywhere. The Irish actors Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, and Barry Keoghan seemed also to be likely contenders but were, to use film industry parlance, “snubbed”. Despite all of this, summer 2023 was declared “Hot Irish Guy Summer” in Elle’s August edition, while December’s Slate magazine declared that “these days, some of the buzziest stars hail from the Emerald Isle”. Sadder Irish entertainment news that affected fans around the world in 2023 were the deaths of singers Sinéad O’Connor, in July, and Shane MacGowan, in December.

Happier popular Irish music news from 2023-2024, which has recently become movie news, is the rise of the Belfast Irish-language punk-rap trio Kneecap, who have begun to achieve international recognition and have been profiled in music publications around the world, including Rolling Stone and The New York Times. The recent Irish-language biopic about them, Kneecap, starring Michael Fassbender and chosen to be distributed by Sony Pictures, has just won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, the first Irish-language production to do so. But let us return to the beginning of 2023. This is not the space for sports news, as a rule, though Irish sport is a major component in the country’s cultural life, but a standout performer from 2023 deserves mention, that of sprinter Rashidat Adeleke, who broke several Irish and world records, beginning in January of 2023 by lowering her own indoor record, following that up in February by setting a new Irish indoor record. The year continued this way for her. Another Irish track and field star, Elizabeth Ndudi, became Ireland’s first field gold medallist at the European Under-20 Championships later in the year, breaking the long jump record. In many fields, 2023 was an excellent year for Irish women, as we will see.

The decade of commemorations has largely wrapped up, but there were still some noteworthy events connected to it. A Kerry Civil War conference was held in February as part of the national programme, and RTÉ Radio One ran a documentary special on the Civil War in September. In March, Queen’s University Belfast held a hybrid symposium on “Multilingual Legacies of Ireland’s Revolution and Civil War”. The Royal Irish Academy offered a critical perspective on the decade’s activities at the end of the year with a free webinar on the subject of “The Decade of Commemoration: Sources and Legacies”. “Machnamh 100, Centenary Reflections”, the Presidential seminars conducted by President Michael D. Higgins that reflected on some of the events comprising the decade of commemoration are still available on YouTube and worth watching. As I have noted in previous reports, the acknowledgement of women’s contributions to the events being commemorated over the course of this decade has been welcome. University College Dublin historians Mary McAuliffe and Caitriona Walsh have been prominent figures in this re-evaluation and retrieval effort, and in June they recorded a podcast, “AFTERLIVES: Grannies, Guns, and Archives – Tracing Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary Women’s Lives”, ensuring that the work done to commemorate Irish women is not forgotten with the end of the official Decade of Commemoration. Further afield, a monument was raised in Troy, New York, to James Connolly 100 years after his execution by British forces for his part in the Easter Rising. Connolly lived for several years in Troy, working with both Irish and Italian immigrants, helping them to effectively organise as labourers.

Another significant commemoration that was observed internationally in 2023 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. There were events held around the world, including in the European Parliament and in Washinton D.C., where St Patrick Day celebrations included a gala concert and a special summit, which was livestreamed on 21 March. The D.C. commemoration launched international events celebrating that important achievement that changed the lives of so many in Northern Ireland, an achievement shared by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland. Commemorative activities were held in Ireland, the UK, several US cities, in Canada, Helsinki, and Vienna. An anthology of poetry that links the momentous peace agreement and natural imagery and commissioned by the British-Irish Council, And Now the Sun Breaks Through, is available online.

Irish drama, as usual, was performed around the world in 2023. The Irish theatre event of the year was the Druid Theatre’s one-day production of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy – The Plough and the Stars, Shadow of a Gunman, and Juno and the Paycock – or “DruidO’Casey”, which premiered in the company’s hometown of Galway at the July International Arts Festival, and went on to play in Belfast, New York, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. In March the Irish Postal Service, An Post, celebrated the latest tour-de-force from the theatre and its long-time director, Garry Hynes, by issuing a series of commemorative postage stamps. A production of Enda Walsh’s Bedbound, starring Colm Meaney and his daughter, actor Brenda Meaney, which also premiered at the Galway International Arts Festival, was livestreamed for two weeks in November. November was also when Brian Friel’s Translations was staged at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York, the inaugural event of their “Friel Project”, which will continue through 2024 – in other Brian Friel news, the Abbey Theatre staged a Ukrainian-language version of Translations in June of 2023. A new Irish play, The Honey Trap, also had its premiere in New York in November, autumn having been a time for new Irish playwrights to stage their work. Traveller comedian and writer, Martin Beanz Warde’s first play, The Dead House, premiered in September as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. It was also a season for theatrical innovation, as the Gaiety Theatre mounted a new stage version, by Michael Scott, of the Brinsley McNamara 1918 novel, The Valley of the Squinting Windows, a production that inaugurated new digital and audio technologies. It is set to run through 2024.

Spring and summer are conference season, and Irish Studies conferences internationally continue to produce and celebrate scholars at all stages of their careers. This scholar is still working actively to reduce her carbon footprint and to avoid contributing to the spread of deadly and life-altering disease, so she has not attended her historically high number of international conferences. A rather unusual venue for Irish Studies gatherings hosted the annual IASIL conference in 2023, the British University in Egypt. And while the programme included music and visual art in addition to academic presentations from the usual range of international scholars, the irony of a conference focusing on “sustainability” in a country that largely consists of desert terrain and to which the vast majority of conferees would have had to take long international flights must be acknowledged. The Society for the Study of Nineteenth-Century Ireland held their annual conference, on the topic of “Colonising and Decolonising the Irish Nineteenth Century”, in Netherlands, at Radboud University. EFACIS, responsible for the thriving “The Irish Itinerary” podcast, which continues to impress, held their annual conference in Belfast in August on the topic of “Unions and Partitions”. The Seventh Annual Flann O’Brien conference was held in Romania in June, at the Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj, on the subject of “Strange Atmospheres”. It was attended by Irish Times columnist Frank McNally (“Irishman’s Diary”), whose entertaining commentary on the proceedings made for unusual mainstream coverage of an academic conference.

Spring of 2023 was a time of the usual flurry of international activities beginning with events inspired by St Patrick’s Day, such as Irish Book Day in Washington D.C., sponsored by Global Irish Studies at Georgetown University, Solas Nua (Centre for New Irish Arts), and the D.C. Public Library. The John McGahern Barracks Museum webinar series celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of McGahern’s The Barracks in March, with contributions from writers Colm Tóibin and Niamh Campbell, as well as archivists Catriona Crowe and Barry Houlihan. Chicago’s Newberry Library series continues, with Mary Trotter giving a talk on “Actresses and Activists” in March, and one of the reviewers in this issue, Sean Farrell, delivering a presentation on “‘The Blackstaff Nuisance’: Civic Culture and the Environment in Victorian Belfast, 1842-1878” in May. In April, the online Book Salon, run by City University of New York’s Center for the Study of Women and Society, featured Irish Women’s Prison Writing 1960s-2010s”, April also saw the annual launch of the Bealtine festival, which featured work focusing on older women.

April was a time for some cultural controversies in Ireland: the university board voted to “de-name” Trinity’s Berkeley Library (it has not yet been renamed), and the promotion on social media by a member of Sinn Féin (housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin) of an image created by Mála Spíosraí, that took a well-known nineteenth-century painting of an eviction and overlaid it with images of modern-day Gardaí removing people from their homes. Less controversial was a New York Times piece that publicised and celebrated the achievements of The Stinging Fly Press, a small but increasingly powerful Irish publishing house that began as a small journal but has gone on to create the careers of some of Ireland’s most exciting writers of the last couple of decades. Also in April, The National Gallery in Dublin appointed its first female director, Caroline Campbell, an art historian from Northern Ireland. In the following month, the gallery featured what the Irish Times described as a “superb exhibition” of the work of Lavinia Fontana, while the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast featured work by Niamh O’Malley. April as the month of Irish women continued when the Limerick Research Seminar offered an online symposium suggesting “A New Agenda for Women’s and Gender History”. Gender issues were at the centre of several Irish events and anniversaries in the spring and summer, in particular relating to the LGBTQ+ community. May marked the twentieth anniversary of the Dublin International Gay Theatre Festival, while in June the Dublin Pride Festival celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its first Gay Pride parade. Also in June, Irish drag queen Davina Devine appeared on the popular Irish podcast My Therapist Ghosted Me, garnering a significant listening audience, while Gay Community News (GCN) magazine made the first decade of its archive publicly available online as part of its thirty-five-year anniversary observation. To add to these milestones is the recent announcement of the Irish entry into Eurovision for 2024: “Doomsday Blue”, a song by Bambi Thug, a nonbinary singer-songwriter.

There were a cluster of events marking trauma and the humane response to those in need across the globe in May, including the creation of a YouTube lecture, sponsored by Canada’s Heritage Trust, about the welcome and care received by Irish famine refugees in New Brunswick. A new “folk musical”, In the Midst of Plenty, which had premiered at the Famine Museum in Strokestown, County Roscommon, in 2022, began a nineteen-show tour of the country. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma unveiled a sculpture, “Eternal Heart”, to commemorate the famine-based relationship between the Choctaw and Ireland, a companion piece to the 2015 sculpture in Cork commemorating this deep bond, “Kindred Spirit”. A possibly related event in May was a hybrid symposium held in Cambridge, “Lament: A One-Day Celebration of the Tradition of Irish Keen”, to mark the 250th anniversary of the poem “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire” (“Lament for Art O’Leary”), by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. In addition to Paul Muldoon and Angela Bourke, the symposium was attended by the work’s most recent translator, poet Vona Groarke. People might recall that the poem was the inspiration for 2020’s award-winning memoir, A Ghost in the Throat, by Doireann Ní Ghríofa. While on the subject of Irish-English translation, I would note one more event from May, the creation of a digital version of An Gaodhal, the world’s first Irish-language newspaper, the product of a partnership between New York University and (the recently renamed) University of Galway.

June is often a month dedicated to James Joyce and Bloomsday for Irish Studies scholars, and the usual summer schools around the world continued to gather, having recovered from the larger than usual centenary celebrations of last year. Other canonical Irish authors received special attention over the summer as well. In Chicago, at the Bailiwick Repertory, composer Joseph Daniel Sobol celebrated W. B. Yeats’s 158th birthday by creating a musical theatre piece, In the Deep Heart’s Core: A Mystic Cabaret. The restored Donerail Court, home of the St Leger family in County Cork, reopened with an exhibition about Elizabeth Bowen, one of the estate’s noteworthy literary neighbours, such as Edmund Spenser. Summer of 2023 saw all of the annual literary and culture festivals, from Dublin, to Sligo, to Cork and around the country. Even I contributed to one of them, the West Cork Literary Festival in July. A festival I had not previously been aware of, Féile an Phobail, which nevertheless bills itself as “Ireland’s biggest community arts festival”, hosted in 2023 by St Mary’s University College in Belfast, entered national consciousness when it was addressed by Jeremy Corbyn, previous leader of UK’s Labour Party, who spoke on “The Choices for Ireland”, which discussed the current debates about reunification of the island.

I will hurry through the autumn and winter of 2023 by focusing on Irish Studies in Germany, a country that provided the final event reported in last year’s essay. In May of 2023, I was appointed Visiting Travelling Professor of Irish Studies in Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg, where I have been teaching and working since 1 October (and where I will continue to be until the end of March 2024). This initiative has been largely funded by the Emigrant Support Programme (ESP) of the Irish Embassy in Berlin, to promote Irish culture in Europe, possibly at least partly in response to Brexit and the weakening European position of the UK that has followed. Four universities are involved, Würzburg, Wuppertal, Saarland (in Saarbrücken), and Tübingen, and in November and December I delivered talks at all four institutions. My talks focused on Irish women writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Eva Gore-Booth, Margaret Cousins, Alice Milligan, Hannah Lynch, Martina Carr, and Edna O’Brien). My presentation at University of Wuppertal in November was part of a series of events there marking the fiftieth anniversary of Ireland joining the EEC (European Economic Community), which would become the European Union. The library there hosted the Royal Irish Academy’s traveling exhibit on Ireland’s EU membership, and its opening was launched by Irish Consul in Berlin, Sarah Dooley. Also in November, the Irish Embassy in Berlin held a conference of Irish Studies scholars, as well as a meeting of German-Irish societies and cultural organizations. Spending this time amongst dedicated and lively Irish Studies scholars, students and professionals, has been encouraging and inspiring, and I look forward to reporting to you all next year on the success of an event I am co-organizing with colleagues here in Würzburg, a two-day conference in February on “The Irish Animal, Real and Imagined”. Before signing off, I must thank the reviewers who did stellar work for this issue. I am so grateful for scholars who are so conscientious, generous, and supportive without expectation of remuneration, when we are all expected to do so much more.