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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Exploring Irish Studies

Updated: Jun 3, 2023


What exactly is Irish Studies?
What exactly is Irish Studies?

Irish Studies is a term that seems self-explanatory. If I told you I was getting a degree in Irish Studies, you might feel you knew what I meant. Just like some people go to school to study law or medicine or political science, I was studying Irish stuff. But that’s where things start to get hazy. What Irish stuff? Am I learning about the history and culture of Ireland? About notable Irish writers, politicians, celebrities? By the time I finish my degree, will I be able to speak Irish? Will I know anything about Irish politics, past and/or present? How comprehensive are Irish Studies? And, by the way, just what on earth am I going to do with a degree in Irish Studies anyway? Finally (not really, but let’s pretend), do I have to go to a university to study Irish Studies? Let’s explore.


What Exactly Does “Irish Studies” Mean Anyway?

The question seems straightforward enough, but the answer isn’t. The content of Irish Studies courses varies from university to university. In some cases, the curriculum will include courses in Irish history and literature plus a language requirement. Often students need to complete six credit hours of Irish language courses. But “Irish Studies” can simply mean taking Irish literature classes. Other programs may include politics, religion, sociology, art, and archaeology. Some also add mythology and folklore. In addition, Irish Studies programs sometimes offer students classes in Irish dance and how to fiddle or play the whistle or bodhran.

In my opinion, the best programs have a focus. When I was preparing to get a Masters degree, I seriously considered Irish Studies. In the end, I got an MFA in Creative Writing, but I very nearly pursued a Masters of Irish Studies at the National University of Ireland in Galway. The thing that most attracted me to the program was its core focus (at the time): what makes a person Irish—place of birth or ancestry? An exploration of the impact of the diaspora on the world was a part of the question. I found that intriguing and, as a near-relative of the diaspora (my great-grandparents are from Ireland), the topic resonated with me. A few other Irish Studies programs also have, at their core, a specific overarching topic, such as What is Ireland’s place in today’s world?

Stand with Ukraine.
Stand with Ukraine.

The reasons for enrolling in an Irish Studies program (whether for a degree, a minor, or as part of an interdisciplinary program) will vary from person to person. Most will do it, at least in part, because of a personal connection to Ireland. But there may be a good reason for people not of Irish descent to consider Irish Studies. The website https://www.irishstudies.ca/traditions-and-customs/ states, “Despite the country’s relatively small population, Irish culture is of great importance to the world’s heritage.” I agree, and that’s the reason Irish Studies, when done well, are of value.


What Are the Real-World Benefits of a Degree in Irish Studies?


In terms of a career, not many. Unlike a degree in medicine or law, majoring in Irish Studies will not give students a path to lucrative job openings. In fact, it won’t provide credentials for any particular career except, perhaps, in tourism. It could be an area of specialization as a college professor or a writer, and it might help careers in politics or diplomacy.


As a long-time educator, I feel passionately that getting a college education (or any non-vocational education) should not be primarily about getting a job. The value of higher education lies in a) being exposed to new ideas which broaden your perspective and worldview and b) gaining proficiency in critical thinking. Both will serve you well in life and both will make you an asset in any field of employment.


However, unless you’re independently wealthy, finding employment after graduating is a necessity of life. Thus, before embarking on the Irish Studies route at a college or university, you need to think about why you’re doing it, how you’ll be able to use it, and then look for the school and program that best fits your needs. Not all Irish Study programs lead to degrees. The courses can be a part of an interdisciplinary program or a minor. So, Irish Studies can augment your more practical, career-focused major, and, for some people, that may be the best path.


A Completely Non-Comprehensive List of Irish Studies Programs

Where to go? What should I do?
Where to go? What should I do?

You may be surprised to learn that there are a ton of Irish Studies programs out there. Or maybe you won’t be. After all, studying Irish stuff is pretty cool. (You know it is or you wouldn’t be reading this post). As I thought about what to cover in today’s post, I got a headache. There are so many different kinds of Irish Studies programs in the U.S. that a list and brief description of each would be massive. Besides, I wanted to address Canada for my Canadian readers. And I have readers in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, not to mention other places. Too much to cover in my one little post!


I decided just to give a sample of schools / programs that are representative of typical Irish Studies programs and others that offer some really unique, special, or just plain interesting aspects of the curriculum. If you’d like to have a more comprehensive list, check out Irish Central’s “The Definitive List of Irish Studies Programs in the U.S. and Canada” by clicking here. Spoiler Alert: I mention some schools / programs they don’t, especially since I’ve included (below this section) programs in Ireland and England (Yes, you read that right, England. There’s a reason).


Boston College (Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.) is “one of the leading international centers for Irish Studies.” Admittedly, the quote is from BC’s own website, but both the school and the program are well-respected. It offers an undergraduate interdisciplinary minor in Irish Studies. The graduate degree is the one that excites me (I came that close to pursuing it when I was choosing my graduate degree program). Through the English Department, grad students can obtain an M.A. in Irish Literature and Culture. This degree, like the minor, is interdisciplinary, so it’s about much more than just reading Yeats and Joyce. According to the program’s description, students can “design an integrated, individualized, interdisciplinary course of study drawing from a range of fields.” One year of study of the Irish language is required and students are encouraged to spend time in an emersion program in Ireland.


John Carroll University (University Heights, Ohio, U.S.) offers an Irish Studies graduate program that includes courses from various disciplines including history, peace, justice and human rights, and religious studies, in addition to Irish literature and Irish language courses.


The Irish have given the world a lot more than Guinness and fiddle music.
The Irish have given the world a lot more than Guinness and fiddle music.

The first place most Americans would think of when you mention Irish Studies is Notre Dame University (aka the Fighting Irish) in Notre Dame, Indiana. The school offers a minor in Irish Language and Literature. At the graduate level, the university still only offers a minor, but it claims to be “dedicated to the study and understanding of Irish culture in Ireland and around the world in all of its manifestations,” and provides opportunities for students to visit Ireland to bring “Notre Dame to Ireland” and, ultimately, “Ireland to the world.”


Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles, CA, U.S.) offers a 20-semester hour minor in Irish Studies. The program’s website says the program’s purpose is to provide students with an understanding of the historical and cultural development of the Irish people and the significance of their intellectual, artistic, spiritual, and economic contribution to world civilization, including their experiences as both a postcolonial nation and an emigrant diaspora.” A summer in Ireland is one opportunity this minor offers.


The School of Canadian Irish Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) offers Irish Studies courses in a variety of disciplines. In addition to the typical (literature, language, history), it offers courses in film, economics, music, political science, and geography (among others). Students can pursue a major, a minor, or a certificate in Canadian Irish Studies.


Saint Mary’s University (Halifax, NS, Canada) offers a four-year interdisciplinary arts degree in Irish Studies. In addition to history, culture, and language, the program explores topics relating to politics, colonialism, transnationalism and the diaspora. Available also are classes in the Irish music tradition and in Irish Drama. There’s even a course called “Irish Shame.” The program seems to really examine the Irish experience as much as an academic program can.


A Quick Mention of Irish Studies in the UK and, Oh Yes, Ireland

The University of Aberdeen has a research program which focuses on a “comparative study of Irish and Scottish cultures.”
The University of Aberdeen has a research program which focuses on a “comparative study of Irish and Scottish cultures.”

If you’re in England (or would like to go there) consider the Institute of Irish Studies, the University of Liverpool. It offers undergraduate courses, masters degrees, and even PhD programs in Irish Studies. Why, you may ask, would anyone want to go to England to study anything about the Irish? And why Liverpool? The city has been a place of Irish immigrant settlement going all the way back to when the Romans left. That’s why. All right. I admit I got that piece of info from Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_people_in_Great_Britain) which is not the most reliable source, but more reliable sources agree that Liverpool saw a large influx of Irish immigrants fleeing the Famine and the city has remained a basin of Irishness ever since. According to the Irish Echo, the population of Liverpool is now 75% people of Irish ancestry (https://www.irishecho.com/2022/4/liverpool-has-deep-irish-roots). So, it’s worth investigating.


Scotland’s University of Aberdeen has an Irish and / or Scottish Studies program through its history department and the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies. The focus is on a “comparative study of Irish and Scottish cultures.” It also looks at Irish and Scottish communities throughout the world.


But let’s get real. If you want to do Irish Studies, shouldn’t you go to Ireland? Of course, not everyone can but, if you have the resources to spend a couple of years studying in Ireland, I highly recommend you consider doing it at the National University of Ireland in Galway. It has an excellent Masters of Irish Studies program and the school is located in the Gaeltacht. A summer program in Ireland is all well and good, but by living in the Gaeltacht, you can put your Irish language learning into practice daily. If spending two years in Ireland’s not possible for you, good news: NUI also has an online Irish Studies program through which you can earn a diploma.


If you’d prefer to go to Wales, the University of Wales Trinity, St. David has a Celtic Studies program.


Can’t I Do Irish Studies Without Going to a University?

What if you’re interested in Irish Studies but either can’t afford to or simply don’t want to do it through a university? I’m glad you asked. My next post will address that very question. Hope to see you then!


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Slán go fóill


All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) was done by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.



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