University of South Florida

College of Arts & Sciences

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young scholars at the library

SMALL ISLAND, GLOBAL IMPACT: THE GROWTH OF IRISH STUDIES AT USF

Ireland is a country that is deceptively small on the map in relation to its substantial global impact. In the medieval period, it was a cradle of European intellectualism, sending premier scholars to courts all over the globe. After weathering the Viking Age comparatively well, it was crushed under the weight of English colonial oppression for centuries. In the 19th century, a famine made worse by government mishandling reduced the population by over one-third, forcing more than a million emigrants into a worldwide diaspora. Through it all, rebellion after rebellion against colonial oppression rose up and then failed, until the Republic of Ireland was finally born in 1949. 

Today, one in ten Americans (roughly 31.5 million) trace their ancestry to this small but influential country, and whether one’s interests lie in this quest for ancestry answers, general history, religious studies, political sciences, or public health, Irish Studies provide a unique perspective on the most significant global issues.   

Since 2013, Dr. Jennifer Knight, Instructor in the Department of History, and Dr. Matthew Knight, Associate Librarian and Affiliate Faculty in Department of History at the University of South Florida (USF), have been committed to developing the Irish Studies program at the university. The focus has been on building collections, developing curriculum, and expanding community outreach and programming. As a result, after only a few short years, USF now offers multiple classes in Irish Studies each semester; is home to research collections unparalleled in the Southeastern United States; boasts a dedicated Foundation fund for Irish Studies supported by the Ancient Order of Hibernians; has an official student group, the Irish Culture and Language Club; maintains ties with the Consulate General of Ireland; offers regular programming for the campus and Tampa Bay communities; and will be hosting the Southern Regional of the American Conference for Irish Studies in 2023.

RESEARCH COLLECTIONS

book case display in the library

In 2013, the USF Libraries’ Irish Studies Collection contained fewer than 100 books. Now, there are more than 1,700 volumes devoted to the language, literature, and history of Ireland. These materials are housed in Special Collections and include rare books, signed volumes, scarce periodicals, and other ephemera. Many items are held by fewer than three universities in the United States, and USF is the only home for several volumes.

In 2020, Brian Connolly, Chair of Department of History, facilitated the creation of an Irish Studies reading library, where students and faculty can now access nearly 5,000 books and other research materials that would otherwise be inaccessible, or available only through interlibrary loan. 

“The quantity, diversity, depth, and rarity of the items in this collection, particularly the significant runs of scarce academic journals, signed first editions, proof copies, rare maps, and travel guides are truly impressive,” explained Connolly. “USF has many generous donors from the community to thank for these prestigious collections, including Francis J. Thompson, James J. Harkins, Patrick Garland, Michael E. Krauss, Dominic Scott, and Robert G. Lowery. Their support and generosity have helped propel Irish Studies in its growth and continues to fuel ongoing research by faculty and students alike.”

Jennifer Knight in the library stacks

Dr. Jennifer Knight in the Gene Haley Memorial Irish Library

Between USF Libraries Special Collections and the History Department, USF is home to research collections unmatched in the Southeastern United States. These are truly destination collections that can enhance USF’s reputation on the national and international stage; and each generous donor remarked that they had initially considered other more likely repositories for materials on this subject, but were won over by the enthusiasm, dedication, and even “scrappiness” of USF’s advocates for Irish Studies.  

Irish in the Curriculum 

The History Department now regularly offers a variety of courses in the field of Irish Studies, including “The History of Ireland”; “The Irish in America”; “Irish Rebels and Revolutionaries”; “Celtic History”; Epic History (Medieval Celtic); and “Celtic and Viking Mythology.” These courses have proven extremely popular with students, and regularly fill to capacity. Students are provided the opportunity to engage in primary-source research with USF’s Irish collections, and often take multiple courses in the field, wishing that there were a Minor in Irish Studies.  Supplementing these course offerings are related classes offered by Dr. Susan Mooney in the English Department, and by Dr. Elizabeth Ricketts, a Visiting Instructor in English, who have been invaluable advocates in the process to advance Irish Studies.  

Dr. Jennifer Knight is currently developing a new course dedicated to an in-depth study of the Great Famine, and Matthew is working on a Modern Ireland class and an interdisciplinary course on the Gaelic Revival with Dr. Ricketts. Both Jennifer and Matthew have been working with USF World and the World Languages Department to develop a formal study abroad program in partnership with Oideas Gael in Gleann Cholm Cille, Co. Donegal. Soon, student participants will be able to complete summer travel to Ireland, and a language and culture program which will meet USF’s undergraduate language requirement. Scholarships from the AOH and LAOH Irish Studies Fund will be available for this study abroad opportunity.

students in Irish Studies class

Dr. Matthew Knight’s “Irish in America class” working with Irish materials—many of them Francis J. Thompson, Spring 2019

Community Outreach and Programming

The first program related to Irish Studies was held in April 2016 to commemorate the centennial of the 1916 Easter Rising. This event, held in the USF Library, had more than 160 attendees, including a large contingent of AOH and LAOH members from Sun City Center, FL. Tampa’s then mayor, Bob Buckhorn, presented a proclamation declaring it “USF Irish Studies Day.” 

The Honorable Shane Stephens, former Consul General of Ireland to the Southeastern United States, lectured to a very large audience at USF in October 2018, and came away extremely impressed with what was happening at the university, offering the future assistance of his office for travel abroad opportunities. faculty from the Irish Studies program look forward to working with the new Consul General in the future. 

Looking Ahead 

In March of 2020, Matthew was awarded a Summer Gaeltacht Award from the Fulbright Office of Ireland, and, while unable to spend the requisite six weeks immersed in the Donegal Gaeltacht in 2020 or 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions, he hopes to travel to Gleann Cholm Cille in 2022. 

In Fall 2021, Jennifer will be on Professional Development Leave to begin a research project on Irish women. 
The Southern Regional American Conference for Irish Studies will be held at USF in 2023, and preparations are just getting underway for that incredible opportunity to put a spotlight on the advancements in Irish Studies made at USF in just a few short years. 

The Irish Studies program at USF offers students an interdisciplinary approach to Ireland’s rich history and culture, with a focus on language, literature, colonization, immigration, civil war, politics and conflict resolution, famine, rebellion, national identity and more. If you would like to learn more please reach out to Dr. Jennifer Knight or Dr. Matthew Knight

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The College of Arts and Sciences is the intellectual heart of the University of South Florida. We are a community of teachers and scholars united in the belief that broadly educated people are the basis of a just, free, and prosperous society. By focusing on the big questions facing all of humanity, we prepare students for successful, socially responsible personal and professional lives. By conducting innovative, interdisciplinary research and scholarship, we advance knowledge in ways that prepare us to address complex social and scientific problems and enhance the quality of life for people and communities.