seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Eoin McKiernan, Scholar of Irish Studies

eoin-mckiernanEoin McKiernan, early scholar in the interdisciplinary field of Irish Studies in the United States and the founder of the Irish American Cultural Institute (IACI), dies in Saint Paul, Minnesota on July 18, 2004. He is credited with leading efforts to revive and preserve Irish culture and language in the United States.

Born John Thomas McKiernan in New York City on May 10, 1915, McKiernan adopts the old Irish form of his name, Eoin, early in his life. While in college, he wins a scholarship to study Irish language in the Connemara Gaeltacht in the west of Ireland. In 1938, he marries Jeannette O’Callaghan, whom he met while studying Irish at the Gaelic Society in New York City. They raise nine children.

McKiernan attends seminary at Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph’s College in New York, leaving before ordination. He earns degrees in English and Classical Languages (AB, St. Joseph College, NY, 1948), Education and Psychology (EdM, UNH, 1951), and American Literature and Psychology (PhD, Penn State, 1957). Later in life, he is awarded honorary doctorates from the National University of Ireland, Dublin (1969), the College of Saint Rose, Albany (1984), Marist College, Poughkeepsie (1987) and the University of St. Thomas, Saint Paul (1996).

Passion for Irish culture is the dominant undercurrent of a distinguished teaching career in secondary (Pittsfield, NH, 1947–49) and university levels (State University of New York at Geneseo, 1949–59, and University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, MN, 1959–72). McKiernan serves as an officer of the National Council of College Teachers of English, is appointed by the Governor of New York to a State Advisory Committee to improve teacher certification standards and serves as a Consultant to the U.S. Department of Education in the early 1960s.

McKiernan suggests to the Irish government in 1938 that a cultural presence in the United States would promote a deeper understanding between the two countries, but he eventually realises that if this is to happen, he will have to lead the way. His opportunity comes in 1962, when he is asked to present a series on public television. Entitled “Ireland Rediscovered,” the series is so popular that another, longer series, “Irish Diary,” is commissioned. Both series air nationwide. The enthusiastic response provides the impetus to establish the Irish American Cultural Institute (IACI) in 1962. In 1972 he resigns from teaching to devote his energy entirely to the IACI.

Under McKiernan’s direction, the IACI publishes the scholarly journal Eire-Ireland, with subscribers in 25 countries, and the informational bi-monthly publication Ducas. The IACI still sponsors the Irish Way (an immersion program for U.S. teenagers), several speaker series, a reforestation program in Ireland (Trees for Ireland), theatre events in both countries and educational tours in Ireland. He continues these educational Ireland tours well into his retirement. At his suggestion, the Institute finances the world premiere of A. J. Potter‘s Symphony No. 2 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Troubled by the biased reporting of events in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, McKiernan establishes an Irish News Service, giving Irish media and public figures direct access to American outlets. In the 1990s, he is invited by the Ditchley Foundation to be part of discussions aimed at bringing peace to that troubled area and is a participant in a three-day 1992 conference in London dealing with civil rights in Northern Ireland. Organized by Liberty, a London civil rights group, the conference is also attended by United Nations, European Economic Community, and Helsinki representatives.

McKiernan also founds Irish Books and Media, which is for forty years the largest distributor of Irish printed materials in the United States. In his eighth decade, he establishes Irish Educational Services, which funds children’s TV programs in Irish and provided monies for Irish language schools in Northern Ireland. Irish America magazine twice names him one of the Irish Americans of the year. In 1999, they choose him as one of the greatest Irish Americans of the 20th century.

McKiernan dies on July 18, 2004 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. On his death, The Irish Times refers to him as the “U.S. Champion of Irish culture and history . . . a patriarch of Irish Studies in the U.S. who laid the ground for the explosion of interest in Irish arts in recent years.”


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Death of Samuel Nielson, Society of United Irishmen Founder Member

Samuel Neilson, one of the founder members of the Society of United Irishmen and the founder of its newspaper the Northern Star, dies in Poughkeepsie, New York on August 29, 1803.

Neilson is born in Ballyroney, County Down, the son of Presbyterian minister Alexander, and Agnes Neilson. He is educated locally. He is the second son in a family of eight sons and five daughters. At the age of 16, he is apprenticed to his elder brother, John, in the business of woollen drapery in Belfast. Eight years later he establishes his own business.

Despite his commercial success, Neilson is naturally drawn to politics and is early on a member of the reformist Irish Volunteers movement. In 1791, inspired by the French Revolution, he suggests to Henry Joy McCracken the idea of a political society of Irishmen of every religious persuasion. He establishes the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast. The following year he launches the newspaper of the United Irishmen, the Northern Star, which effectively throws away his fortune. As its editor he is a high-profile target for the authorities and is prosecuted for libel several times, being twice imprisoned between 1796 and 1798.

Along with several other state prisoners, Neilson is released in February 1798 following several petitions by influential friends, on grounds of bad health. Upon release he immediately involves himself in the United Irishmen aligning with the radicals among the leadership who are pressing for immediate rebellion and oppose the moderates who wish to wait for French assistance before acting.

The United Irishmen are however, severely penetrated by informants who keep Dublin Castle abreast of their plans and discussions. In March 1798, information of a meeting of the United Irish executive at the house of Oliver Bond leads to the arrest of most of the leadership, leaving Neilson and Lord Edward FitzGerald as the only figures of national importance still at liberty. They decide to press ahead as soon as possible and settled on May 23 as the date for the rebellion to begin.

As the date looms closer, the authorities go into overdrive to sweep up the rump leadership and on May 18 Lord Edward is betrayed in his hiding place and critically wounded while resisting capture. Neilson, now with responsibility for finalising plans for the looming rebellion, decides that Fitzgerald is too valuable to do without, and decides to try and rescue him from Newgate Prison in Dublin. Wary of confiding his plans too early for fear of betrayal, Neilson goes on a reconnaissance of the prison but is spotted by chance by one of his former jailers and after a fierce struggle, he is overpowered and dragged into the prison.

Neilson is indicted for high treason and held in Kilmainham Gaol with other state prisoners for the duration of the doomed rebellion outside. After the execution of Oliver Bond, and the brothers John and Henry Sheares, Neilson and the remaining prisoners agree to provide the authorities with details of the organisation of the United Irishmen, plans for the rebellion, etc. in return for exile.

Following the suppression of the rebellion, Neilson is transferred to Fort George in Inverness-shire, Scotland, and in 1802 he is deported to the Netherlands. From there he makes his way to the United States, arriving in December 1802, and settling in Poughkeepsie, New York.  He has little time to enjoy his liberty  before his  sudden death on August 29, 1803 of yellow fever, or possibly a stroke.

Nielson is not idle during his short life in America as he completes plans to start a new evening newspaper in Poughkeepsie and also has plans in the works to establish a version of the Society of United Irishmen in the United States. Since his death, his remains have been moved to three different cemeteries before coming to rest in the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery in 1880.

(Photograph: (c) National Museums Northern Ireland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)