2004-08-04 / Obituaries

Eoin McKiernan, Champion of Irish Culture, Died at 89

Former Cold Spring resident, Eoin McKiernan, who has died aged 89, in St. Paul, MN, was one of the pioneers of Irish studies in the United States. Director emeritus of the Irish-American Cultural Institute (IACI), he founded the organization with his wife, Jeanette, in the early 1960s to promote Irish culture among Irish-Americans.

The institute’s chief executive, John P. Walsh, said this week: "Eoin McKiernan’s achievements in and contributions to the world of Irish studies and Irish culture are immeasurable. Ireland and Irish-America have lost a great man."

Born on May 10th, 1915, in Manhattan, New York, he was one of the four children of Henry McKiernan and his wife, Delia. He and his two brothers, Tom and Jim, and sister Marge, lived on Parsonage Street in Cold Spring when he was a boy until his father died of an injury he sustained while working on the NYC aqueduct. Henry McKiernan lies at rest in the Cold Spring Cemetery.

Eoin spent part of his childhood with his mother’s family in Lahinch, Co Clare, Ireland. In New York he attended Irish classes organized by Conradh na Gaeilge, winning a scholarship to Coláiste an Phiarsaigh in Rosmuc, Co Galway. That year had a major bearing on his life’s work.

Having graduated with a BA in literature and classical languages from St Joseph’s College, New York, he secured a Master’s in psychology at the University of New Hampshire and a PhD in English at Pennsylvania State University. He headed the English department at the State University of New York at Geneseo before, in 1960, becoming professor of English at the College of St Thomas, St Paul, Minnesota, where he introduced Irish to the curriculum.

Aware of Irish-Americans’ strong sense of pride in their Irish heritage, in 1962 he founded the IACI to make them more aware of it. Irish President amon de Valera became a patron of the institute, as has every subsequent president of Ireland, and Princess Grace of Monaco chaired the IACI board for many years.

As director of the institute, Dr. McKiernan awarded grants to Irish writers, composers, artists, and Irish-language initiatives, introduced Irish-Americans to literary and historical tours of Ireland, established a summer program in Ireland for American high-school students, brought Irish writers, musicians, academics and theatre companies to the US, and published the interdisciplinary scholarly journal ire-Ireland. The Butler Literary Award, which he administered, proved a boon to writers in Irish, among them Máirtín " Cadhain, Breandán " hEithir and Liam " Muirthile

Today the IACI’s research fund facilitates research into the Irish-American experience, while the institute jointly sponsors a visiting fellowship at the National University of Ireland, Galway. And the IACI, in partnership with the Arts Councils of the Republic and Northern Ireland, runs an artists-in-residence programme at the prestigious Contemporary Art Centre in New York.

In addition to honorary doctorates from St Thomas, Marist College and the National University of Ireland, Dr. McKiernan was awarded a life membership in the Royal Dublin Society, an honor never previously granted to an American in 253 years. He also was presented with the United Dominions Trust Silver Sculpture and the John F. Kennedy Gold Medal of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Eire Society Gold Medal. Four years ago the New York-based Irish America magazine featured him as one of the top 100 Irish Americans of the century.

McKiernan was preceded in death by his wife, Jeannette, and is survived by their nine children, Deirdre, Kevin, Brendan, Nuala, Ethna, Fergus, Grania, Gillisa and Liadan, 34 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews. His nephew, Tom, and his wife Karen, their son, Kevin, daughter-in-law, Carie, and grandson, Townes are current residents of Cold Spring.

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