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Why Ireland?

Why Ireland?

By Dr. Allen H. Merriam
Professor of Communication (Ret.)
Missouri Southern State University Allen Merriam

Mention “Ireland” and one can elicit a variety of images. Some people might think of Guinness beer, Waterford Crystal, or U2. Others might envision a shamrock, a leprechaun, or eating corned beef and cabbage on March 17. In any case, this country of 5.2 million people on the northwest edge of Europe provides the focus for Missouri Southern State University’s 2023 themed semester.

The Republic of Ireland (Eire in Gaelic) occupies five-sixths of the world’s 21st largest island. The other sixth consists of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom and the scene of deadly conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the latter half of the 20th century.

For centuries the Irish were dominated and humiliated by their powerful British neighbors to the east. Periodically full-scale violence erupted, as in the Battle of the Boyne (1690), the Rising of 1798, and the Easter Rebellion of 1916. The Irish finally achieved independence in 1922.

Today, Ireland is a proud member of the United Nations, the European Union, and the Euro Zone. It enjoys the world’s third highest per capita Gross Domestic Product, after Luxembourg and Singapore and ahead of Qatar. (2023 World Almanac, p. 735).

Ireland’s great national tragedy involved the Potato Famine of 1845-52, known in Gaelic as An Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger). After mold devastated the staple crop, an estimated one million people died of starvation and malnutrition and as many as another two million emigrated, many to Australia, Canada, and the United States. In 1997, British Prime Minister Tony Blair belatedly apologized for his country’s lack of assistance during the crisis. (

Like its politics and geography, Ireland’s cultural history reveals a close connection to Great Britain. For example:

  • Patrick, the nation’s primary patron saint, was a fifth century British missionary who spread Christianity.
  • Dublin’s prestigious Trinity College was founded in 1592 with a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I.
  • George Frideric Handel traveled from London to Dublin where, on April 13, 1742, he conducted the first public performance of his oratorio, Messiah.
  • In 1851, the British scholar, former Anglican clergyman, and future Cardinal, John Henry Newman, helped establish the new Catholic University in Dublin.
  • Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre was founded in 1904 with funding from Annie Horniman, an English tea heiress.
  • The popular song, Londonderry Air, is named after the county of residence of folklorist Jane Ross who got the tune published; later were added the lyrics of Danny Boy, written in 1910 by the Oxford-educated lawyer and songwriter, Frederic E. Weatherly. (
  • The luxurious but ill-fated Titanic, built in Belfast for the White Star Line, made its last port of call at Cobh (then called Queenstown) in Cork Harbor on April 11, 1912, before setting sail across the Atlantic Ocean.

Among Ireland’s notable writers rank Jonathan Swift, a brilliant satirist and dean of St. Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral in Dublin, whose Gulliver’s Travels (1726) remains a classic of world literature; James Joyce, whose Ulysses (1922) was once banned in the United States; and Samuel Becket, whose hauntingly mysterious play, Waiting for Godot, helped him win the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Ireland contains two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Bru na Boinne, considered Europe’s largest concentration of prehistoric megalithic art, and Sceilg Mhichil (off the County Kerry coast), an early Christian monastery built in a pyramidal rock formation and now a bird sanctuary. (

The country has experienced considerable social change over the past 30 years. In a major breakthrough, Mary Robinson became the nation’s first woman president (1990-97) and then the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. Her forceful advocacy of gender equality, human rights, and climate justice caused one website to call her “the most consequential Irish woman of the 20th century.” (

In rapid succession, Pope Benedict XVI issued a pastoral letter (2010) apologizing for the “sinful and criminal” sexual and physical abuse of children by priests, brothers, and nuns in Ireland (the, same-sex marriage was legalized (2015) with 62% of the vote in a national referendum, and abortion was legalized (2018) with 66% of the vote in another national referendum. (

In 2017, Leo Varadkar, a medical doctor, emerged as Ireland’s first openly gay taoiseach (prime minister). This marked a stark contrast to 1895, when famed playwright Oscar Wilde had a sensational trial in London and endured two years in prison for homosexuality.

The Irish Diaspora significantly impacted the United States. Both President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy have Irish ancestry. The White House was designed by the Irish-born architect, James Hoban. The Irish American Hall of Fame in Chicago includes actress Maureen O’Hara, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, boxer Jack Dempsey, President John F. Kennedy, and Father Flanagan of Boys Town.

An Irish heritage led to the names of sports teams across the United States, from the Boston Celtics and Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish to the Gaels of Iona University in New York and St. Mary’s College in California.

Ireland produced one of Joplin, Missouri’s most prominent citizens. Born in 1847 in County Kerry, Thomas Connor came to the U.S. as a boy with his family to escape the potato famine. Eventually settling in Joplin, he made wealth through banking, real estate, saloons, and lead and zinc mining. He contributed generously to St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church and St. John’s Hospital and built the ornate Connor Hotel, a city landmark from 1908 until its dramatic collapse in 1978. (See Chad Stebbins, Joplin’s Connor Hotel, 2021).

Many newcomers, however, found life difficult. Instead of economic opportunity and religious freedom they encountered the exploitation of labor and anti-Catholic hostility. The influential 19th century cartoonist, Thomas Nast, depicted the Irish as pugnacious heavy drinkers. The emergence of Irish American street gangs in numerous cities and a large Irish immigrant presence in the Draft Riots of 1863 in New York City – during which businesses were looted, African Americans lynched, and an orphanage on Fifth Avenue housing over 200 black children burned to the ground – fueled negative stereotyping. (

Despite a tumultuous past, Ireland has maintained a unique cultural identity. Nicknamed “the Emerald Isle” for its natural beauty, this land invites exploration during the Ireland Semester.