|Irish President Thanks Milwaukee Scholars,
By Kathy Quirk
Special to The Irish American Post
arrive in the west of Donegal — which is so hauntingly beautiful — and
going down the tiny little road in front of you are a bunch of students
from Milwaukee. It seems incongruous," but their enthusiasm is energizing,
said Irish President Mary McAleese at a reception at the University of
Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Aug. 20.
In a poetic speech, McAleese thanked the university and the local Irish
community for their efforts to preserve and encourage Irish culture and
The students "have this energy and this love of things Irish and the
language," said McAleese. "It gives tremendous energy and reinvigoration
to all of us in Ireland. The very fact that from far-off Milwaukee they
come lifts our hearts and gives us a great sense of our own self-respect
McAleese was in Milwaukee to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Irish
Fest, and she had extensive praise for the many contributions UWM has made
to Irish culture and studies through the Celtic Studies program, archaeological
research, its collaboration with Irish Fest on the Irish Fest Summer School
and other scholarly projects.
The Irish president spoke of the gifts the early Irish immigrants brought
to Milwaukee and the United States, and the "synchronicities" that abound
between Milwaukee and Ireland.
The early Irish settlers, said McAleese, were "the poorest of the poor.
They came in rags. What did they have to offer apart from their hands to
work? They had music in their heads, they had lovely seán nos
songs, they had poetry, they were rich storytellers, they had an absolutely
insatiable curiosity about the world. They had a passion for people, for
sharing fun with people. They always could find joy in life. I think that’s
the great gift they brought and planted here."
She thanked the university and the local Irish community for "the way
in which you respect that which they brought, and the way in which you’ve
turned it into a subject of scholarship and also into a subject of continuing
joy and passion in people’s lives. I think that’s one of the greatest gifts
you could return to those early immigrants…the gift of real respect for
what they brought, those things that were carried in their hearts and their
tongues and their voices and their heads."
In her speech, McAleese also announced that the Irish government would
be increasing its funding for Irish language studies in UWM’s Celtic Studies
program. (It was nice to hear the words "funding" and "increase" together,
UWM Chancellor Carlos Santiago quipped.)
Santiago noted that Ireland’s focus on higher education and university
research as part of its strategy for economic growth is an excellent model
for the Midwest. UWM is exploring options for learning more about Ireland’s
model and developing collaborations, Santiago noted in his speech at the
reception, and also in an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In another connection between Milwaukee and Ireland, McAleese, who is
the first woman to succeed another woman as a world leader, noted that
when she was growing up, Milwaukeean Golda Meir who became Israeli prime
minister, was one of her role models for leadership, "the only female president
of my era."
In her visit to UWM, McAleese viewed a number of historic literary and
cultural items that are part of the university’s special collections, including
a galley proof of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, with the author’s
handwritten comments throughout the copy. John Gleeson, co-director of
UWM’s Celtic Studies Center (nattily shod in emerald green tennis shoes)
spoke movingly of the Irish immigrant experience.
UWM presented the president with Celtic-Milwaukee gifts, including a
biography of Jeremiah Curtin, a 19th century Milwaukee Irishman who was
a pioneer in Irish linguistics, folklore and music studies, and a biography
of Douglas Hyde, first president of the Republic of Ireland, written by
UWM professors Gareth and Janet Dunleavy.
Appropriately, UWM also celebrated the president’s visit with word and
song. Poet and professor James Liddy recited an elegy he had written in
honor of the Dunleavys. And UWM student Brian Hart, who will be continuing
his Celtic studies in a doctoral program in Galway, sang a seán
nos for McAleese.
McAleese, who came from an academic background before becoming president
of Ireland, offered UWM a lilting tribute: "I came to say thank you to
this university for the fidelity you have shown over such a long, long
time to Ireland, to our language, to our culture, to our stories, to our
literature…the love you have for it and the academic scholarship you bring
to bear on it, which is very important …the way in which you share that
with new generations, refreshing and reinvigorating all the time so that
you created your own well here that feeds into those great wells of Irish