April 2018 Scholar Spotlight

Mary Burke, University of Connecticut

Posted by Sarah on April 9, 2018


Mary Burke, UConn Associate Professor of English, directs its Irish Literature Concentration and coordinates the Irish Studies program at UConn. She is author of Tinkers: Synge and the Cultural Tinkers: Synge and the Cultural History of the Irish TravellerHistory of the Irish Traveller (Oxford, 2009), and has published widely on twentieth-century Irish drama and on Irish and Irish American fiction writers and topics as diverse as sex and food in Edna O’Brien, Home Rule and Henry James, and Dracula’s Scottish Enlightenment sources. She has held the NEH Keough-Naughton Fellowship at University of Notre Dame and a Boston College-Ireland Visiting Research Fellowship. She is current MLA Irish Literature Forum Committee Chair and a former President of NEACIS. Burke is a native of Galway and a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast. Her current book project is a cultural history of the Ulster Irish in America, while her three most recent publications consider motherhood and creativity in relation to novelist Claire Kilroy, riot and the avant-garde on the turn-of-the-century Dublin and Paris stages, and the critically unacknowledged socialist, loyalist, queer, and feminist voices of Bryan MacMahon’s GAA-commissioned 1966 Easter Rising commemoration pageant. She has articles forthcoming in the James Joyce Quarterly (on the trauma of catastrophic weather events in Joyce) and the Journal of Design History (on how mid-century Irish state bodies and the era’s female-dominated fashion industry sold “Irishness”). She also writes creatively, and her story “Hy-Brasil” was included in an edition of the Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories. She was nominated for a Hennessy Irish Writing award in 2008 for “Shakespeare’s Daughter.” Both stories were broadcast on Irish national radio.

What led you to graduate work at Queen’s University Belfast?

For my BA, I studied English at Trinity College Dublin, where I spent four wonderful years immersed mainly in British literature from Beowulf onwards and in Irish literature in English up to the late Revival period. After college, I traveled in Europe and then lived and worked in Japan, and having to continually answer questions (in imperfect French and Japanese!) about contemporary Ireland and the Northern Irish Troubles made me realize that I needed to know more about my island’s more recent culture and history. Having to respond in a second language meant that clarity of opinion was required, a clarity I quickly realized that I didn’t possess. Right after two years in southern Japan I enrolled in 1998 at Queen’s University Belfast in an MA in Post-Colonial and Irish Studies because I thought that in order to fully understand the complexities, contradictions, and ironies of Irish history, culture, and identity, I needed to get out of my political and identity comfort zone by living on the other side of the border.

How did that experience shape your scholarship?

The necessity of thinking about identity critically helped me frame some of the questions I have been drawn to subsequently in my scholarship. My first book was on the “tinker” or Traveller figure in Irish culture, a topic that emerged in a postcolonial seminar at QUB when I considered internal colonialism. It occurred to me that Irish Travellers were a “third” and elided identity in the bi-vocal emphasis on Catholic/Nationalist and Loyalist/Unionist/Protestant, a minority with no stake in the drive to own or control Irish soil. My book examines Synge’s subversive depiction of “tinkers,” and that representation’s Scottish, German, and Irish-language ideological and linguistic roots. In contrast to their Revival-era romanticization, hostile postpartition discourses on both sides of the border portrayed “tinkers” as enemies of proprietorship. However, after Travellers politicized in the 1960s, more even-handed dramatic representations emerged, heralding a querying of a “tinker” fantasy that has, nonetheless, continued to shape Irish, British, and US screen and literary representation. Though its Irish equivalent has oscillated between idealization and demonization, US racial history facilitates the cinematic and televisual figuring of the Irish American Traveler as lovable “white trash” rogue. In response to this long cultural history, contemporary Traveller dramatist Rosaleen McDonagh transubstantiates Otherness into the empowering rhetoric of ethnic difference.

You moved to the United States when you were awarded the Keough-Naughton Fellowship at the Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame after finishing at QUB in 2003. How did this move shape your scholarship?

Having lived in Northern Ireland, I had become aware that in the Republic of Ireland we often assumed that “Irish Protestant” meant Church of Ireland and/or landlord class, which elided non-conformism. Additionally, once I moved to the US, I became interested in what happened to pre-Famine Irish identity when it collided with ideas of “whiteness” in America. The Ulster Irish in America (“Scots-Irish”) remain pretty unconsidered within serious literary and cultural studies, a fact that has led to my current project, which is provisionally titled White Irish: A Cultural History of Scots-Irishness. The differentiating label “Scots-Irish” receded with the social rise of the post-Famine Irish in the Grace Kelly/Kennedy era, and this seeming lack of relevance had caused me to let this book project flounder a little. However, the upheaval of 2016 and the ensuing need to understand the cultural history of what I argue has begun to be theorized as the least-understood Trump constituency energized the project. I situate the understanding of this population within histories of both marginalized and privileged “whitenesses” in America, encompassing public figures who negotiate evolving Irish identities and political loyalties from Ulster Presbyterian-descended Henry James to Grace Kelly, an elite Catholic of Famine-era descent from historically Scots-Irish Philadelphia, and on to influential memoirist J.D. Vance.

What else have you been working on?

I have a forthcoming article in James Joyce Quarterly on what I term the public trauma of weather catastrophe in Joyce. I was living in coastal Connecticut when Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012. We were homeless for two weeks afterwards, and I noticed how traumatized neighbors kept referring to previous catastrophic weather events in the area going back a century. These were local memories, passed down orally to a huge extent. This personal trauma and the broader communal anxiety regarding climate change led me to think about how extreme weather events seem to constitute a form of shared public trauma that collapses time by inducing the memory of previous storms in the work of Joyce. January 6th, the setting of “The Dead,” was the anniversary of the worst storm in Irish recorded history, “The Night of the Big Wind” of 1839. The merely bad weather of January 6th, 1904, in “The Dead” is a ghostly echo of the earlier storm. The geographically and economically marginalized suffered the worst losses in 1839, with many believing that the Day of Reckoning had arrived. In retrospect, the storm appeared in Irish-language and Ulster Scots folk memory and in millenarian Catholic and evangelical Protestant recollection to have been a harbinger of the Great Famine, with succeeding weather events stirring up memories of the seemingly related mass traumas of ruination and hunger.

January 6th is also “Women’s Christmas”? I think you invoke that in the article also?

Yes, the folk calendar also observed January 6th as “Nollaig na mBan,” on which housewives took a break from the season’s chores and ate their preferred foods together. The invocation of the Famine in “The Dead” adds a frisson to the party’s over-abundance, and Gabriel’s lack of real appreciation for his aunts’ labors on what would have been their day of rest in a more folkloric Ireland comes into view once the date’s traditional significance for women is acknowledged. Overall, an interest in the folk memory of history – which does not always cleanly align with nationalist, unionist, or male-centered versions of events – is present in Joyce’s work.

This forthcoming James Joyce Quarterly article is, as you note, ultimately a response to ecological issues, so how else has the urgency of the current political climate in Ireland and America shaped your work?

In the past few years, I have been working on questions that derive from my book projects – however distantly – but that also often intersect with current hot-button issues in Ireland and sometimes with personal concerns. I have done some work for radio on Irish Traveller women and the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland for NPR and WNPR and I was involved in the Fordham University Waking the Feminists event organized by Keri Walsh in 2016.

Precisely how does the personal and political intersect in your scholarship?

I think the personal and political intersect for me in the case of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home [in whose grounds fetal and infant remains were recently uncovered], since I was born and raised within that town’s orbit. I have recently submitted an article on the Home and Tuam dramatist Tom Murphy’s work and will speak on the Tuam Home on Matthew Reznicek’s ACIS panel for MLA 2019 (“Sexual Transactions: Economic Bodies, Social Reproduction, and Texts”). St. Mary’s operated in Tuam between 1925 and 1961. Murphy was born in 1935 in the vicinity of the Home and emigrated to London in 1962, so his lifespan in his hometown overlaps almost exactly with that of St. Mary’s. I read his dramas for traces of the hidden history of Tuam’s church- and state-endorsed incarceratory regime as pertaining to women and their babies alongside its potentially subversive folk Catholic history of unconsecrated burial grounds for unbaptized newborns.

I suppose too that the personal and political intersected for me in an interview and critical overview article I did on Irish novelist Claire Kilroy for Claire Bracken and Tara Harney-Mahajan’s recent LIT issue on post-Celtic Tiger Irish women’s writing. It became, without planning, a feminist intervention into how the interviewer-author exchange is sanitized when Kilroy and I decided to retain the complicated logistics of scheduling and conducting an interview when we were both working mothers. Amid the din of our children, Kilroy shared her incisive thoughts on creativity, economics, gender, and motherhood. The unexpurgated ruptures (of various sorts) of the interview honestly represented the behind-the-scenes compromises, interruptions, distractions, and restarts that the working mother often feels forced to hide. I think in the current climate for women – and if we ever wish to renegotiate some of its terms – it behooves working mothers to lay bare the invisible or unappreciated negotiations often required of us.

How has the current political climate impacted Irish Studies in your opinion?

We have been forced to ask how we can situate ourselves within pressing national and global debates. For instance, the 2019 MLA Irish Literature Committee Forum CFP asked scholars in Irish and other Area Studies to debate the new importance of regional expertise in countering global forces, while 2018’s MLA panel on contemporary literary responses to Ireland’s current moment ended up focusing particularly on urgent issues of bodily autonomy as pertaining to women and incarcerated immigrants.

So, has scholarship any potential for being mere fun in the current fraught political climate?

Absolutely! I started thinking about Grace Kelly both for my book project and for a keynote address on Irish Crafts and American Tourists for the Mid-Atlantic ACIS conference in 2015, and this led to a forthcoming article on 1950s Irish fashion exports in the Journal of Design History that meant a few weeks’ immersion in the Vogue archives at NYPL and in some mid-century Irish magazine archives at the INL, which was great fun! Fashion and design have been discounted in the broad cultural and economic history of Ireland, but are central to understanding the Irish and Irish American midcentury. When Bord Fáilte Éireann and similar promotional state bodies were established in the 1950s, the sophisticated marketing of quality native goods became their focus in promoting Ireland internationally. Ultimately, and for all the references to “tradition” in the marketing, such offerings functioned as a shop-window for a government eager to advertise Ireland’s economic modernization.

In the postwar period, the industries of aviation, tourism, brewing, crystal manufacture, advertising, film, couture, crafts, and textiles worked with state bodies to symbiotically cement an international image of Ireland that centered on the making, selling, and marketing of heritage and designer goods. Everything that became visual shorthand for Ireland in the global marketplace – from The Quiet Man, Waterford Crystal, Aer Lingus, Avoca textiles, to Bunratty Castle – begin cooperating in the cross-promotion of Ireland/Irish industry in that period. Women were central to this moment: Elite Americans of Irish connection such as Jacqueline Kennedy and Grace Kelly played a role in the postwar promotion of Irish apparel, and images of premodern Irish womanhood were deployed by savvy Irish businesswomen to sell their clothing designs. The female-dominated fashion industry was at the vanguard of economic modernization from 1952 on in a way generally uncredited in male-centered Irish economic histories that overemphasize economic policy introduced in 1958 and underemphasize the apparel industry.

What has been your greatest challenge in terms of scholarship?

I suppose the Irish language is the greatest challenge for me as I was taught it as though it were a dead language – in Galway, of all places! – so I read and translate it pretty well, but feel less comfortable speaking it. (The manner in which I’d learned Irish hit me when I saw how English was taught in Japan in a similar way and with equally bad outcomes!) I have, however, tried to ensure that I account for Irish-language texts and sources when relevant, so I did consider Irish-language folklore and literature in my Tinkers book and in my forthcoming James Joyce Quarterly article, and have published on the complex relationship with the language of both Martin McDonagh and Synge. I have recently presented papers on Ó Conaire and Yeats and on Ó Cadhain and Irish modernism in English and hope to publish those, and I am trying to keep broadening my interest in Irish modernism, particularly Bowen and Joyce, to encompass modernism in Irish. The unfortunate tendency in postpartition Ireland for any engagement with the Irish language to be policed for fluency above any other consideration – which I think is much less true recently – has meant that there has traditionally been too little overlap in the scholarship of Irish literature in Irish and that in English. Thus, as I argue in a forthcoming piece in the Irish Times, scholars of Bowen or Joyce tended not to pay much attention to contemporaneous writers in Irish such as Ó Cadhain, and vice versa.

What has been the biggest achievement of your career?

After my time at Notre Dame, I went on to an Irish literature position in UConn’s English Department in 2004, which hired me to reinvigorate the Irish program on the UConn Storrs campus, and it has been an ongoing privilege to be able to teach Irish literature at undergraduate or graduate level pretty much every semester and to have worked with some amazing graduate students in the field. We currently have about eight PhD dissertation projects in the English department with a partial or almost wholly Irish literature focus, a Fulbright-funded instructor in modern Irish, a concentration in Irish literature for English majors, and the annual endowed Gerson Irish Reading series, which in recent years has featured writers such as Anne Enright, Claire Kilroy, Glenn Patterson, and Colm Tóibín. In fact, our most recent Gerson Reader (April 2018) was Colum McCann, and he read at the Storrs campus about five days after my colleague, Rachael Lynch, hosted Colm Tóibín at UConn Waterbury, so that was a particularly exciting week for things Irish. I assign the work of one or two Irish writers whom I have invited to campus each semester, so that the students in my contemporary Irish literature class really get a genuine feel for that tradition and get to meet some its best emerging and established practitioners. Our northeastern location means that we are also able to host wonderful scholars from the many Irish Studies programs in the area, including a few ACIS Book Prize winners in recent years!