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DePaul University experts discuss St. Patrick’s Day folklore, history of holiday, Irish literature

DePaul's collection of Irish literature and drama
“The Secret Rose” and “Irish Fairy and Folk Tales” are books found in DePaul's collection of Irish literature and drama found in the John T. Richardson Library. DePaul University experts are available to discuss St. Patrick's Day folklore, history of holiday and Irish literature. (Photo by Jamie Moncrief)
CHICAGO — DePaul University faculty experts are available to provide insight into the many facets of St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage. Topics include: mythology and folklore, religious and contemporary history and literature.

Experts available for interviews are:

Liam Heneghan, professor and chair of Environmental Science and Studies, College of Science and Health. Heneghan, an environmental scientist, was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. He is an expert on Irish landscapes with an interest in Irish mythology and folklore. He can speak about the tale of St. Patrick banishing all snakes from Ireland, and also about leprechauns and shamrocks.

“St. Patrick must be absolved of the high crime of banishing snakes from Ireland. By the time of his mission in the fifth century, there were no snakes to banish,” said Heneghan. “His reputation of snake-killer might have been earned by his introduction of Christianity to Ireland. Snakes being a symbol of Irish paganism and Celtic druidism were conquered by St. Patrick’s evangelism. By spreading Christianity, St. Patrick rid Ireland of the ‘snakes.’”

According to Heneghan the word leprechaun in old Irish translates to “little body.” He adds, “The earliest accounts of leprechauns in Irish literature describe them as young, fair and representative of the ancestral spirits of the early habitants of Ireland. Some might say they have suffered an embarrassing and dishonorable end.

“As for the shamrocks, there is no evidence that St. Patrick used them to symbolize the trinity,” he said. “There is brisk competition among the counties of Ireland about which plant species is the true shamrock,” said Heneghan. “In the late 19th century, Irish botanist Nathaniel Colgan surveyed botanists and concluded that the Trifolium minus of Smith has a decidedly stronger claim to be regarded as the shamrock of modern Ireland than the Trifolium repens of Linnaeus.” Heneghan can be reached at​ or 773-325-2779.

Mary Donoghue McCain, Irish Studies instructor, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. McCain is an expert on Irish history. “St. Patrick was probably not the first Christian to arrive in Ireland, but he was certainly one of the most successful at spreading the new faith,” said McCain. “He actually was not born in Ireland either, but rather on the ‘other island,’ perhaps in Wales, possibly in Scotland, to a Christian family where he was captured as a young boy by raiders and brought to Ireland.”

McCain can also comment on the history of the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. “In the United States’ early years, Irish immigrants faced a lot of prejudice, especially in the big cities in which so many of them settled. Irish immigrants began holding parades on St. Patrick’s Day as a celebration of their culture and a rallying cry for fellow immigrants,” said McCain.

“Today we see people of all different ethnic backgrounds wearing buttons on March 17 that say ‘Kiss me, I’m Irish.’ Being Irish has become something to celebrate. It’s a great American story,” she said. “In fact, most of the publicly festive traditions in Ireland were imported from, and heavily influenced by, big cities in the United States.” McCain can be reached at​.

James H. Murphy, English professor, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Murphy is a former director of the Irish Studies program at DePaul University. He has authored and edited a total of 14 books and is a leading scholar of 19th-century Ireland who researches Irish literature. He also can comment on DePaul’s collection of Irish literature and drama located in the Richardson Library, which he uses for teaching in his courses.

“For a small country, Ireland has produced quite a few winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature,” said Murphy. “There are four of them, two playwrights and two poets to be exact. George Bernard Shaw was a playwright whose works inspired the musical and movie, 'My Fair Lady.' Samuel Beckett, an avant-garde playwright, was most famous for his work 'Waiting for Godot.' W.B. Yeats was also a playwright and leading figure of the Irish Literary Revival. Yeats is best known for his poetry and is responsible for some of the essential English poems of the 20th century, including ‘Among School Children.’ Finally, Seamus Heaney is a poet of more recent times whose work is noted for its lyrical beauty,” said Murphy. “In addition to these four Nobel Prize winners there is of course James Joyce, author of ‘Ulysses,’ perhaps the greatest novel of modernism in literature because of its experimental forms of narration.”

He adds, “Perhaps the most famous Irish writer of the pre-Nobel era was Jonathan Swift, author of ‘Gulliver's Travels.’ Irish literature is noted for its variety and energy and it is still flourishing today,” said Murphy. He can be reached at​ or 773-325-4859.

Jamie Nelson, head of Special Collections and Archives, John T. Richardson Library. Nelson is the head of Special Collections and Archives at DePaul University’s Richardson Library. She can speak about DePaul’s collection of Irish literature and drama.

“We’ve all heard the expression ‘luck of the Irish,’ but how many people are familiar with the literature of the Irish,” said Nelson. “DePaul Special Collections and Archives holds a collection of Irish literature that is particularly strong in titles from the Irish Literary Revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when William Butler Yeats and Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory founded the Abbey Theatre and stirred interest in Ireland’s Gaelic literary heritage.”

The collection began at the Illinois Chapter of the American-Irish Historical Society and was gifted to DePaul in 1927. For more information on DePaul’s collection of Irish literature and drama, contact Nelson at​ or 773-325-2167.


Media Contact:
Wendy Zamaripa Smit​
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