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Currents: irish literature

Reading the Land of Saints & Scholars with Professor Wiley

In County Kerry, on the west coast of Ireland, they like to say that Boston is the next parish over – and by over, they mean over the sea, no matter that there are 2,900 miles between the shores. There has long been a connection between the Old and New Worlds; evidence suggests that 900 years before Christopher Columbus bumped into North America, Saint Brendan sailed from Ireland in a leather currach to Newfoundland.

In West Virginia, stone carvings dating to between 500 and 1000 A.D. written in Ogham, an ancient Celtic script, have been discovered, while some Ogham discoveries in New Hampshire and Vermont may go back as far as 800 B.C. In more recent centuries, the Irish have continued making their mark on America, leaving their once-troubled island to survive ostracism in a country that now seems to embrace all things Irish.

For the past eight years, Assistant Professor of Humanities Margaret Wiley has taught Irish Literature (ENG 216), a course that examines Irish literature in its cultural context and touches on Anglo-Irish relations, Catholicism, the Great Irish Famine, the Abbey Theatre, Irish nationalism, and Ireland's hold on the Irish-American imagination. Offered every other year, the course is popular, and this spring Wiley is teaching two sections to meet demand.

Ireland and its history are a part of Professor Wiley's own history, as she grew up listening to her grandmother, born in 1875 in County Kerry, tell tales of Oliver Cromwell's tyranny and recite poetry. This early introduction to the trials that the island suffered at the hands of the English, and the beauty it has produced as the fabled land of saints and scholars, was just the beginning of Professor Wiley's long relationship with the Emerald Isle. In 1978, she and her husband, a medical student, lived in Dublin for a month while he studied at the Rotunda Hospital.

“I just fell in love with the city, it was such an amazing place,” says Wiley. “It was very poor at the time - it's certainly changed now -. but the people seemed so alive, and I loved their conversations. Their use of language is really fresh. We lived at the hospital and there was a farmer's market nearby. There was a Mr. O'Hara who had a megaphone and would call out the fine points of his various meats each week; he would describe his bacon as the finest ever seen in the streets of Dublin … I was very attracted to the place.”

(Seems Like) Everyone's a Little Irish …

It's estimated that 12 percent of America's population has Irish ancestry, and for Wiley's students, Ireland is often already an imbedded part of their musical and literary lives.

“They're really interested in all things Irish, and I think a lot of it comes from the music,” says Wiley. “The kids bring in music for me all the time, groups like Flogging Molly, U2, Van Morrison, The Cranberries, Enya, The Pogues, My Bloody Valentine, Sinead O'Connor ... they're interested, and often they say that their parents are interested. I like to hear that kind of feedback because anytime students are talking with their families about what they're learning, that really pleases me. I like the idea that they're at home talking about what they're reading at school.”

Professor Wiley begins her Irish Literature course with Angela's Ashes, the popular memoir by Frank McCourt that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 and begins, "When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." Wiley says the book provides a vehicle for teaching about nationalism, the Irish hatred and fear of the English, poverty, ambivalent feelings about Catholicism, and a deep love of language.

“A couple of students each semester have already read Angela, but I find that they like it; McCourt is very irreverent, and I think college students like coming-of-age stories,” says Wiley. “They can identify because it resonates with them. He's a good entree into the course.”

In the classroom, Wiley's love of all things Irish pours forth in what Sean Ahern '09, who signed up for the course in an effort to “hold on to a good thing” after returning from a semester studying at the National University of Ireland in Galway, calls a free-flowing, open style. In just 75 minutes, Wiley takes attendance, comments on the results of the most recent presidential primaries, reviews style requirements for a paper due soon, then divides the class into groups to discuss questions that had been posted on Blackboard.

While the groups converse, Wiley plays the music of Celtic singer Cathie Ryan and reminds the class that they will receive extra credit if they attend Ryan's performance at Colby-Sawyer on Feb. 28. Circulating amongst the groups, she checks in with them, asking, “What are you working on?” and offers encouragement.

Perching with perfect posture on a desk at the front of the room, Wiley brings the class back together and calls upon a spokesperson to present his or her group's answers. She asks questions to lead them toward a more complete response before rewarding the effort with an excited “totally” or “exactly.” It's clear that Wiley respects her students' intellectual journey, and the students appreciate that respect.

Lynn Williams, a sophomore History, Society and Culture major from Ludlow, Vt., is enjoying her first course with Wiley, and chose it partly because of her own Irish background (her great-great uncle fought in the Easter Rising of 1916, an attempt to win independence from Britain). “Professor Wiley is a wonderful teacher,” says Williams. “She respects and cares about us, and makes sure we understand what is going on in the class. She is fun, easy-going and free-spirited. I would take another class with her in a heartbeat.”

That sentiment is echoed by fellow Vermonter Jaime Lavallee, a junior Nursing major who needed a literature class and found that this one fit her schedule. “I had a writing class with Professor Wiley as a freshman and loved it, so I was just lucky that she was teaching this class,” says Lavallee. “She is an amazing teacher who has a tremendous amount of respect for her students. The fact that she takes time to have one-on-one meetings with us about our papers shows her concern for student progress in her classes.”

Finishing with the Q&A session, Wiley reviews the events that led up to the Easter Rising of 1916, and emphasizes that the incident is an illustration of how one man's idealistic revolution is another's Marxist uprising. Wiley treasures this variety of perspectives.

“I want my students to know that Ireland, and its history, is relevant to their lives,” she says. “We talk about terrorism, and it's interesting to look at what prompts terrorism, to discuss who gets to define what a terrorist is. We read some of the political writings of the men who took part in the Easter Rising, and they're phenomenally interesting.

"They're very well read, very persuasive - rhetorically they're great - and I think the students are surprised because people tend to think there are very smart revolutionaries like Karl Marx, and then there's everyone else, who aren't as well spoken, but these guys knew exactly what they were doing. I find it intensely interesting, I just love that.”

A Student-centered Approach

Another aspect of Irish literature that captures students is the poetry. “Who could not love Yeats and Seamus Heaney?” asks Wiley. “The students really get into both those writers, and then later we read the female poets who grew up under Heaney, such as Medbh McGuckian and Eavan Boland.

"They're such rebels and they rewrite the church, and Ireland, totally differently from the way the male poets configure it - the students really love the stark contrast, That's one of the things I like about teaching the class, there are just so many avenues you can explore. I also like teaching different genres, and we have the memoir, Jonathan Swift's satire, poetry, the plays - it just excites me.”

Sara Di Pesa '08, an English major from Hingham, Mass., shares that excitement for the material, and like Ahern, can draw on her own memories of Ireland as she delves into the country's literature. “I signed up for the class mostly out of personal interest, and because I had heard good things about Margaret Wiley,” says Di Pesa. “My decision was influenced partially by my Irish heritage (though I ended up with a very Italian last name), but what influenced me even more was a visit to Dublin in October - I love the Irish culture! Margaret is fantastic, she's a lot of fun and her teaching style is very effective.”

The teaching style to which Di Pesa refers is, in Wiley's words, student centered. For each text, she tries to find where their interests lie and teach to that as much as she can, keeping in mind that because of the interdisciplinary nature of the course there are both historical information and literary conventions to consider. One recent development has been an increased interest in feminist poetry.

“When I first started teaching students were less interested in it, and I don't know if it's because they're getting more hip to the feminist movement or feminist issues or what, but they're definitely more into it than they were,” says Wiley. “I try to give them information so they can take off with it; I'd rather have them lead the way. I talk about the use and abuse of history, how people can use history to help move themselves forward or hold others back.”

There's no holding back Irish pride, and for those not discovering the island nation's literary treasures with Professor Wiley, St. Patrick's Day is coming. And, before that, the beautiful and nostalgic music of Ireland will be performed by Cathie Ryan on Thursday, Feb. 28, in the Sawyer Center Theatre, so go ahead and be Irish … even if just for a day.

- Kate Dunlop Seamans