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A love affair with Irish America's history

Author: Arts and Letters

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University of Notre Dame historian Jay P. Dolan is retired, sort of.

Precision is a challenge in calculating the date. Dolan’s “emeritus” status became official six years ago, but he continued teaching a very popular course in Irish American history for two years after that.

While evidently quite happy to be retired, Dolan obviously is a man who dislikes idleness. After joining Notre Dame’s history faculty in 1971, he founded the University’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism in 1975 and served as its director until 1993.

He taught courses in American Catholic history, American religious history and immigration history. He also wrote and edited numerous books, including the magisterial “The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present.” During his Notre Dame tenure, his teaching, scholarship and lectures nationwide soon ranked him among the most authoritative historians of the Catholic Church in America and the experience of the immigrants who were its members.

A preoccupation with the immigrant experience in general, to say nothing of his own ancestry—both of Dolan’s parents were Irish, and he was born on St. Patrick’s Day—naturally gave way to a fascination with Irish America in particular. By 1986, when a Fulbright fellowship took him to Ireland to teach and study at University College, Cork, he had begun to specialize in Irish American history.

“In many ways it was a love affair that intensified over the years,” he wrote recently.

In the four years since he retired from his post-retirement teaching duties, Dolan’s love affair with Irish America has borne fruit in a 384-page book, “The Irish Americans,” forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press in November. Critics are beginning to agree that it is the most ambitious and comprehensive such history to be written in the last 50 years.

Much of the book’s structure arises from the four major themes of Dolan’s Irish American history course: politics, religion, labor and nationalism. In a slight but conspicuous departure from the conventional approach to Irish American history, Dolan introduces his story not with the catastrophic famine which drove so many Irish refugees across the Atlantic to America in the 1840s, but with the early 18th century. This, Dolan insists, is where the narrative properly begins, “and it is not only a Catholic narrative, but also an Irish one that includes both Protestants and Catholics.” Before delving into the more familiar historical terrain, Dolan devotes two chapters to this “forgotten area,” tracing the paths and telling the stories of the Irish immigrants who settled, hunted, farmed, and fought and traded with Native Americans on the America frontier long before the Revolutionary War.

Written nearly a half-century after the election of President Kennedy, Dolan’s narrative also is able to include an unprecedented examination of what the penultimate chapter describes as “the triumph of the Irish,” that multifaceted cultural resurgence that has given rise to such phenomena as the “Riverdance” dance troupe, the U2 rock band and Frank McCourt’s bestselling memoir, “Angela’s Ashes.” The triumph was memorably and humorously summarized by the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, who said, “Ireland is chic!” Dolan used Heaney’s quip for the title of his concluding chapter.

One early reader of “The Irish Americans,” the sociologist Rev. Andrew Greeley, called it “a superb history of the Irish in this country, both scholarly and popular. Indeed, it is the best available story of the Irish in America. [Dolan] covers the poverty of the immigrants, their loyalty to one another, their struggles to create a place for themselves in this country against intense hostility and deep-seated prejudice, and their ultimate success despite all their enemies. The book explains why so many Americans who have an option to choose their own ethnic identity decide that they want to be Irish.”

Dolan was lavish in expressing gratitude for the research assistance he received from Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Libraries.

“Not only does the library have a rich collection of books, but it has a wonderful staff,” he said.

He also thanked his successor as Cushwa Center director, Timothy Matovina, adding that “during my retirement the center has become my academic home.”

He is far from idle in his residence there, and as he describes, over lunch, plans for a documentary film based on his most recent book, a friend marvels.

Jay Dolan is indeed retired, but it’s difficult for him or anyone else to say exactly what that means.

Originally published by Michael O. Garvey at on August 06, 2008.