March 09, 2017
Student Cait Houseman performs an Irish dance.

Students study Irish culture through courses, clubs

On Feb. 21, 1904, Irish poet W.B. Yeats spoke on Catholic University’s campus about “The Intellectual Revival in Ireland.” He had been invited to do so by English Professor Maurice Egan. After his talk, Yeats sent a letter to Egan, thanking him for the opportunity.

“You have surely a great university and I wish we had it’s like in Ireland,” he wrote.

Today Yeats might think he was in Ireland if he returned to the University’s campus. Buildings feature names like O’Connell, Shahan, Leahy, and McMahon. There are students who can speak Irish thanks to courses offered in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. There are course options in Irish literature and theatre. The Celtic Cardinals, the student-run Irish dance team, perform at events sponsored by student organizations like the CUA Gaels.

Senior psychology major Katie Lally is president of the CUA Gaels, which has a roster of approximately 60 students interested in Irish culture. Her interest was sparked partly by her great-grandparents, who moved to America from Ireland during the Great Famine. Last spring she studied at University College Dublin, where she took classes in Irish literature and history.

“I think there is a significant portion of the Catholic University student body that has the same connection to their Irish roots as I do,” she says. “Students may have a family member from Ireland or they may just be drawn to watching the Irish dancers. Irish culture is so unique and the art forms we often display at Catholic University are so fun to watch that I have noticed students becoming more engaged with the CUA Gaels.”

This year, the University and CUA Gaels hosted the first-ever Irish Week at Catholic University (see sidebar). The week was sponsored by Conradh na Gaeilge, an Irish language promotion organization. It was the only event sponsored by Conradh na Gaeilge in the United States. The week featured an opening ceremony, talent competition, bake sale, a music workshop, dance, and a closing ceremony.

One of the performers during Irish Week was the Celtic Cardinals. Formed in 2011, the team is a mainstay at major University events. But they also perform at intercollegiate Irish dance competitions. Last year, the team hosted dancers from other universities for the Cherry Blossom Invitational.

“We accept dancers of all levels,” says Cait Houseman, a senior politics major who is captain of the team. “You have people that are at the highest level of Irish dance. They’ve gone to world championships. Then you have people who have never done Irish dancing before and they join the team because they want to learn. It’s great to have that balance on the team. And we have a lot of fun.”

Jennifer O’Riordan, who is originally from Cork, Ireland, is clinical instructor of Irish and assistant director of the Irish Studies program. She notes that Irish language was first taught at Catholic University in 1896 after the school received an endowment from the Ancient Order of the Hibernians. At the time it was one of only two American universities to receive an endowment specific to the teaching of Irish language. The other was Harvard University.

“Our university offers students a very unique opportunity because they can study Irish politics, literature, history, and drama,” she says. “And they can also study Irish language, which gives them a window into everything about Irish culture.”