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By Barbara Black
The Centre for Canadian Irish Studies (CCIS) marked St. Patrick’s Day by accepting a substantial donation from the government to support a scholarly research chair.
The announcement was made at a luncheon on March 17 at the Hotel Bonaventure attended by Premier Jean Charest, Irish Ambassador Declan Kelly, Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay, Concordia President Michael Di Grappa and about 1,000 members of the United Irish Societies.
The gift of $2 million from the Quebec government was made to the Canadian Irish Studies Foundation, which manages the program, and accepted by its founding chair, Brian Gallery. It will be topped up with $1 million from the Concordia University Foundation.
The $3-million endowment will fund a chair in a discipline as yet to be named. Founding CCIS director Michael Kenneally said it will likely be a year before a holder of the chair is chosen. “It could be in literature, history, geography — there are many possibilities,” he said.
The chair will be named after one of Quebec’s premier public families, the Johnsons. Daniel Johnson, son of a French-Canadian mother and an anglophone journalist from Ireland, was the Union Nationale premier in 1946. Two of his sons also became premier, Daniel, Jr., as a Liberal, and Pierre Marc as leader of the Parti Québécois. Many francophones have Irish forebears, and there has always been a close affinity between the two cultural groups.
The CCIS was established in 2000 on a general wave of interest in things Irish, from Riverdance to the Celtic Tiger phenomenon, and was propelled by the energy of Gallery, Kenneally and the rest of the Irish-Canadian community. Their fundraising efforts were given a substantial boost by a major gift from the Irish government that was matched by the Canadian and Quebec governments.
In the intervening years, the CCIS has presented 135 visiting speakers, many from Ireland. The Centre offers 18 courses in a dozen disciplines on Irish and Irish-Canadian subjects, and gives out 20 scholarships a year. It has also sponsored tours, notably of the haunting memorial at Grosse Ile, Que., where thousands of 19th-century immigrants landed in North America, many of them dying of disease and starvation after widespread famine in their own country.
Many Irish orphans from Grosse Ile were adopted by Quebec families, while others married into the French community. Poet Émile Nelligan (1879-1941), iconic folksinger La Bolduc (born Mary Travers, 1894-1941), publisher and politician Claude Ryan (1925-2004), like the Johnsons, had Irish roots.
Early in its existence, the organizers drew in Concordia professors with an academic interest or ancestral roots in Ireland, and created a network of friends in Montreal’s Irish community.
The CCIS offers a 24-credit minor and a stand-alone 30-credit certificate in Canadian Irish studies. These courses have reached hundreds of young undergraduates, but it has an equally important role as an educational link between Canada and Ireland, and claims as its mandate the promotion of “a fuller understanding of Ireland and the Irish experience in Canada.”
Accordingly, the Centre’s visiting speakers have ranged widely, from Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney and former prime minister Garret Fitz-Gerald to cooking expert Darina Allen. Courses are similarly varied, including not only Irish history, traditional music, the Irish language (Gaeilge) and the rich literary canon, but also contemporary Irish cinema, Irish geography, and issues of Irish and Quebec political identity. Students can also prepare for field study in Ireland on a specific subject.