ONE OF IRELAND'S most respected historians and academics has called the decision to close London’s only Irish studies department “stupefying.”
Roy Foster, the Carroll Professor of Irish History at Hertfold College, Oxford has criticised St. Mary’s University, Twickenham for deciding to put an end to “the long-lived and distinguished tradition of Irish studies.”
In a strongly worded letter, Foster, a lauded Irish writer, wrote:
I find it both shocking and stupefying that the management at St Mary's has apparently decided to put an end to the long-lived and distinguished tradition of Irish Studies there, by suspending the the successful MA in Irish Studies and effectively withdrawing support from the Centre of Irish Studies."
He goes on to say the decision is "a cavalier and unjust way to treat the distinguished and hard working academics."
Foster concludes by stating both the staff and the subject "deserve better".
A letter signed by two former research fellows at St Mary's, Prof Mary J. Hickman and Prof Shaun Richards, confirms that the MA Irish Studies at St. Mary’s will not be offered for the coming academic year and the University has not included the Centre for Irish Studies in its strategic development plans for 2016/2017.
The contract of the Director of the Centre, Professor Lance Pettitt, ends this month and is not being renewed. Additionally, the department’s fellows have been made redundant.
Professor Mary Hickman was a research fellow at the Centre of Irish studies.
She said: “The University has long had links with Ireland since its inception in 1850. While the current MA students will be “taught out”, London will not have a university-backed centre for research and postgraduate teaching in Irish Studies for the first time in a generation, despite the capital being home to the largest Irish community in Britain.”
She added: “It is deeply ironic that this decision has been taken in 2016 after all the renewal of relations between Britain and Ireland so far this century, including reciprocal Head of State visits. The cultural and social analysis and understanding that is provided by ‘Irish Studies’ is needed now more than ever as the relations between the UK and Ireland are tested, and the political nature of these islands is being recast internally and within Europe.”
The Centre for Irish studies was formed in 1990, offering a Bachelor of Arts in Irish Studies and from 2012 a Masters in Irish Studies.
Former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese was a visiting Professor at the department. In a visit to the Centre in 1999, she described it as “an acknowledged leader in the field of Irish Studies.”
Frances Harkin, 28, from Co. Donegal currently works as a research officer in the housing sector in London. She completed her undergraduate studies at the Centre for Irish Studies, going on to earn a Master's and PhD in Irish Studies from Queen’s University Belfast.
Attending St. Mary’s between 2006 to 2009, she studied for a joint honours degree in English literature and Irish Studies.
She told The Irish Post: “I loved my time there. The Irish Studies program provided the opportunity to study literature, history, language, sociology, film and drama through an Irish lens.
This all enhanced my passion for research, and interest in Irishness, identity, diaspora, the relationship between Ireland and its diaspora, and the social and cultural role of sport.”
She continued: “The department and staff created a stimulating academic environment to consider all these things. I would have stayed to do an MA if it was offered when I finished in 2009.
My interest in looking at the role of sport within the Irish community in London started there and this played a key role in informing PhD research. It will be a real shame to see the department wind down.”
When contacted by The Irish Post a spokesperson for St Mary’s University said: “The decision was taken to suspend the MA Irish Studies programme as only one full time student had accepted a place to study at the University.
"The Centre for Irish Studies has not closed, rather its future is currently under review and we are inviting submissions on the future of the Centre.
"As per existing contract arrangements three Research Fellows fixed term contracts are due to expire over the summer.”
See the letter from Roy Foster below: