Today, it sits just outside the most ethnically Irish of American cities, but in the mid-19th century, Boston College was basically a local school in Boston's South End neighborhood providing a Jesuit-Catholic education to the sons of recent Irish-Catholic immigrants.
Though other races, creeds, and religions have always been represented at BC, the university has from its beginnings been proud of its Irish-Catholic heritage. In the early 21st century, however, with the full flow of Irish immigrants to America a chapter in the history books, the question of just what that Irish-American heritage means at Boston College has taken on new dimensions.
For Niamh Lynch, who moved to the United States from Ireland with her family when she was in high school, maintaining a link between Boston College and Ireland is part of her job description. Lynch is a director of the university's Irish Institute, which brings intellectuals, students, public officials, and other Irish citizens to the United States for ten-day tours. "The Irish Institute provides a sort of professional development and educational programming for people from Northern Ireland and from the Republic of Ireland," Lynch said. "The Institute's work is sort of creating this living link between Ireland and Boston College."
Lynch said that programs such as those run by the Irish Institute help to ensure that the connection between Boston College and its Irish roots do not become a matter of pure reminiscence. The Institute's programs create a flow of people and information, she said, "so that there are not just nostalgic times, and so there are links along which information and best practices can be shared and transferred."
Joseph Nugent, who was also born in Ireland, is a professor in the English Department at BC, but his work, which includes teaching courses on James Joyce, Irish language, and Irish modernism, overlaps with that of the Irish Studies department. Created in 1978, the Irish Studies program allows Boston College students to take classes with faculty who specialize in aspects of Irish history and culture.
"The Irish Studies program at Boston College maintains a very high profile within the local Boston community through a series of public events open to all," Nugent said. "The program keeps in close touch with Ireland through student and faculty exchange with Ireland and by regularly inviting the most important intellectuals from Ireland to speak on campus."
Nugent completed his PhD at UC Berkeley, then became an assistant professor at BC five years ago. He said that Boston College was more enthusiastic about Irish heritage than other universities he knew. "My interest in twentieth-century Irish literature, particularly the writings of James Joyce, and my work in teaching the Irish language fitted perfectly with BC's needs," Nugent said. "Teaching BC's exciting and demanding students is a privilege."
Grainne McEvoy is a student in BC's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and a native of Newry, County Down. A student of American and Irish-American history, she said BC appealed to her in part because she knew it had a strong connection to Ireland. "When I was coming here I knew that BC had an office in Dublin, and I've been there before and talked to them," McEvoy said. "If I want to go back to Ireland some day, BC is known there."
McEvoy said that while BC today could probably be more accurately characterized as Catholic than Irish, there is plenty on campus that reflects the school's Irish heritage, from the names of virtually all of its Jesuit presidents to the names on the buildings to performances of Irish music. In other ways, she said, Irish and Irish-American culture have diverged, and that, too, is reflected on campus. "In ways there are certain things that are done at BC that would be similar to, say, some of the lectures, the same sort of discussions that are going on in Dublin," McEvoy said. "I have been to the musical nights and they are very pleasant, but they are a certain type of Irish culture. I liked a certain traditional music as I was growing up, but that wasn't all I listened to."
For some, finding Irish culture at BC means starting it themselves. Kyra Shekitka founded the BC dance team as an undergraduate three years ago, when she noticed that there wasn't any formal group on campus with which she could indulge in the occasional jig or reel. "I competed in Irish dancing since age five, at regional competitions and national competitions," Shekitka said. She did not plan on continuing to dance seriously in college, but at a event on campus she happened to sit behind another undergraduate, Eileen Cobos, whom she recognized from her time spent dancing competitively. The two joined with Matt Mara, another student interested in Irish dance, and founded a team that has since grown to include 32 dancers.
One does not have to be an expert or scholar of Irish history to participate in the Irish culture at BC, Shekitka said. "It's not like you have to be a major or a minor, an experienced Irish fiddle player or tin whistle player," she said.
But for Ellen Regan, Class of 2011, the sound of a tin whistle is a perfect metaphor for Irish culture on campus. "In my sophomore year I lived with someone who played the Irish tin whistle - I grew up listening to Irish music and it was very nice," Regan said. "I don't know how much our neighbors enjoyed it."