Eoin McKiernan

Eoin McKiernan

Eoin McKiernan, M.A.,Ph.D., D. Litt., (May 10 1915July 18 2004) was one of the major early scholars in the interdisciplinary field of Irish Studies in the United States and the founder of the Irish American Cultural Institute.

Born John Thomas McKiernan in New York City, Dr. McKiernan adopted the old Irish form of his name, Eoin, early in his life. While in college, he won a scholarship to study Irish language in the Connemara Gaeltacht in the west of Ireland, galvanizing his commitment to the language, a cause he championed throughout life. In 1938, he married Jeannette O’Callaghan, whom he met while studying Irish at the Gaelic Society in New York City. They raised nine children. In Jeannette’s death (December 22 1996) he lost his greatest patron.

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

Passion for Irish culture was the dominant undercurrent of a distinguished teaching career in secondary (Pittsfield, NH, 1947-49) and university levels (State University of New York at Geneseo, 1949-1959, and University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, 1959-72). McKiernan served as an officer of the National Council of College Teachers of English, was appointed by the Governor of NY to a State Advisory Committee to improve teacher certification standards, and served as a Consultant to the US Department of Education in the late 1950s.

Dr. McKiernan suggested to the Irish government in 1938 that a cultural presence in the United States, would promote a deeper understanding between the two countries but eventually realized that, if this were to happen he would have to lead the way. His opportunity came in 1962, when he was asked to present a series on public television. Entitled "Ireland Rediscovered," the series was so popular that another, longer one, "Irish Diary," was commissioned. Both series aired nationwide. The enthusiastic response provided the impetus to establish the Irish American Cultural Institute (IACI, 1962). In 1972 he resigned from teaching to devote his energy entirely to the IACI.

Under Dr. McKiernan’s direction the IACI published the scholarly journal Eire-Ireland, with subscribers in 25 countries, and an informational bi-monthly publication Ducas. The IACI sponsors the Irish Way (an immersion program for US teenagers), several speaker series (Irish Fortnight, the Luncheon Circle, Perceptions), a reforestation program in Ireland (Trees for Ireland), theatre events in both countries, and educational tours in Ireland.

Perhaps his most outstanding contribution was the awards given to the arts in Ireland, beginning with original prose and poetry in Irish, then expanding to include works in English, and ultimately, art and music. At his suggestion, the Institute financed the world premier, in Springfield, MA, of A. J. Potter’s Symphony #2. Coming at a time when the Irish government had little funding available, these awards were, according to many recipients, life-saving.

Troubled by the biased reporting of events in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, Dr. McKiernan established an Irish News Service, giving Irish media and public figures direct access to American outlets. In the 1990s, he was invited by the Ditchley Foundation to be part of discussions aimed at bringing peace to that troubled area, and was a participant [1992] in a 3 day conference in London, dealing with civil rights in NI. Organized by Liberty, a London Civil rights group, the latter was also attended by UN, European Community and Helsinki representatives.

Dr. McKiernan also founded Irish Books and Media, which was, for forty years, the largest distributor of Irish printed materials in the United States. In his eighth decade, he established Irish Educational Services, which funded children’s TV programs in Irish, and provided monies for Irish language schools in Northern Ireland.Irish America magazine twice named him one of the Irish Americans of the year; in 1999, they chose him as one of the greatest Irish-Americans of the 20th Century.

Actively involved in matters of Irish interest well into his ninth decade, Dr. Eoin McKiernan died on 18 July 2004, in St. Paul, Minnesota, surrounded by his family. On his death, the Irish Times (20 July 2004), referred to him as the "US Champion of Irish culture and history …a patriarch of Irish Studies in the US who laid the ground for the explosion of interest in Irish arts in recent years.”

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