Tim McMahon on his recent experience at the ACIS conference held in New Orleans.
Marquette’s spring break provided me with the chance to attend the annual meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS), which was hosted by Tulane University in New Orleans from March 14 through the 17th. Attendance was at its highest total to date—more than 450 presenters from twelve countries gathered in the Crescent City—a place with a long long history of Irish immigration. Scholars came from a wide range of disciplines, including Irish literature, history, political science, folklore, and anthropology.
The serious business of the meeting was remarkable for its breadth, and I for one was impressed by the high level of research on display. Literary giants, such as Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, received attention of course, as did discussion of the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland; Ireland’s place in the wider world, both past and present, also was a theme that emerged in several sessions, including one that I chaired on Ireland and Empire in the latter-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. As we considered the program, my colleagues and I noted two themes that stood out across the entirety of the program: the critical mass of interdisciplinary scholarship and the richness of transnational comparisons, in subjects ranging from anti-colonial struggle to women’s work in and outside of the home. We also noted the challenges we commonly face when economic uncertainty makes it difficult to undertake long-term research.
Having participated in such meetings for sixteen years now, I am nevertheless continually amazed at the popular interest in them. For instance, host cities find community partners willing to sponsor the conferences, so that business persons (or other interested members of the locality) can learn about Ireland and its present-day challenges. I should add that such partnerships have been integral to every conference I have attended, so that if one is interested in a specific area of the world—not simply in Ireland—or if one has a desire to learn about a particular theme, you are likely to find others who attend with you. These conversations are, indeed, important ways for academics to contribute to our home communities and the wider world. Another measure of the particular importance of the ACIS as a bridge between “town and gown” is that the Minister for Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht—a cabinet member from the Republic of Ireland attended the event and addressed us on our opening night.
One of the great draws to any meeting is its location, and New Orleans certainly did not disappoint. Noted for food, music, and parades(among other things), New Orleans has distinctive architecture and a blend of old and new elements that keeps things lively, especially at St. Patrick’s Day. A massive parade through the central part of the city spread more Mardi Gras beads than I have ever seen in my life, and this more formal event spurred neighborhood –sized copies throughout the day and well into the night. (One colleague left his hotel to catch an early morning cab and watched as one of these echo processions coalesced at about 4:00 am on March 18th!) Such revelry is, for many of us, the antithesis of the shock we felt six and a half years ago when so much of New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but it is also seemingly synonymous with the city, and it certainly was one of the real draws for colleagues from overseas. In Ireland, while there are some large parades on St. Patrick’s Day, the traditional recognition of the day featured more subdued meals with family and friends, possibly a stop at church (in honor of the saint), and very little of the artificial greenery with which so many Americans recognize the day. The conference was a way for them to participate in an American-style Paddy’s Day in grand style, and I can assure you that they lived up to the city’s unofficial motto: laissez les bon temps rouler!
Timothy McMahon is an associate professor who specializes in Irish and British History. His most recent book is Grand Opportunity The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society, 1893-1910.