WINTER 2018 / VOL. 18 ISSUE 1

St. Tom’s Jim Rogers Talks Irish
By Martin Hintz  
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Why is it that just about every Irish person has a great personal story. Minnesotan James Silas Rogers is no exception. Rogers is director of the University of St. Thomas Center for Irish Studies in St. Paul and editor of the respected New Hibernia Review: A Quarterly Record of Irish Studies. From this professional skeleton, here is more of his tale.

IAP: How did you become so interested in Irish history and in your family’s own history? 

JR: I was very much a child of the "roots" phenomenon of the 1970s: there were a lot of things in the air, back then that spurred me, and gazillions of other people, to take in interest in ethnicity. One was the bicentennial; one was the success of Alex Haley’s Roots; one was the emergence of the Chieftains as an international music phenomenon. 

It was a very interior decade; the activism of the 1960s had given way to self-examination. I’m not dismissive of that wish to look inside, to take some note of where we are from, to admit that maybe we don’t arrive in this world as a blank slate – we come out of a history. 

Also, two or three books hove into my life when I was in high school that set me off on a lifetime of reading Irish lit. One was Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer, which isn’t that good a book but I couldn’t put it down. Another was Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan; I picked it up at a drugstore rack, and was instantly over the moon about the linguistic extravagance. And the third was Edwin O’Connor’s novel about a broken-down priest, The Edge of Sadness, which opened a window on the old Catholic Irish-American ghetto, but affectionately so. Books really can change your life: these three changed mine.

My dad was not Irish (though he said he was!), but old stock WASP, New England by way of Kentucky. Actually, in my childhood I was more attracted to the Kentucky side of the family than the Irish side, but for the same reason: I loved the quirky, audacious language of the South, all those outrageous metaphors ("feel like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs’), proverbs, nicknames. 

IAP:  Were your mom and dad active in Irish American affairs/social scene

JR: No, not at all – though St Patrick’s Day was a really big deal to my parents, who always marched in the parade and had a breakfast for their friends with, God help us, green scrambled eggs. They were pretty much Exhibit A for a condition I write about in the intro to Extended Family: my folks were "certain that being Irish in America conveys something distinctive– even if not always clear what that distinctiveness is." 

My mother, who’s still with us at 102, is from a small town in southern Minnesota called Green Isle that was overwhelmingly Irish. Now, I realize what a treasure it was to have seen an enclave like that, but when I was a little boy I couldn’t understand what the old people were saying. I published a memoir piece a while back in which I say that "like all Irish small towns, it raided tedium to an art form." That was Green Isle to a little boy.

I grew up in South St Paul, a packing-house town that was overwhelmingly Eastern European: almost all of my classmates at St Augustine’s grade school were Polish, Croatian, or Bohemian. But the pastor was Fr. Tom Nolan who was from Wexford and he always gave us St. Patrick’s Day off school.

I’m widowed, but my late wife was from pretty much the same background as me. Back in the ‘70s, when I was trying to dig my way into my Irishness, she was my step-dancing teacher. This was northing like the sophisticated Irish dance we see today --- threes and sevens and nothing more. But we thought we were hot stuff. 

IAP:  What attracted you to Irish studies? 

JR: At a certain point, I found that my interests in Ireland were more and more in the academic realm. In the last book, I write about that:

In 1976, in the opening flourish of the ‘roots’ phenomenon, I hit on the idea of doing Irish Studies as a self-designed undergraduate major (mostly because I was taking incompletes in all the other classes). Four years later, things took another turn when I went to my first meeting of the ACIS, the American Conference for Irish Studies, hosted by the great historian Emmet Larkin at the University of Chicago. In the company of those titanic, foundational scholars I felt like a kid in a World Series locker room."

I still kind of feel that way, when I go to conferences or meet our Irish poets. 

IAP:  How did you land at St. Thomas.  How did you get involved in the Irish Center? 

JR: I’m the luckiest guy in the world. In 1983, I evidently had caught the attention of Eoin McKiernan, the founding genius of the Irish American Cultural Institute, and he called me out of the blue to ask if I was interested in applying for a job as a membership recruiter for the IACI–which I did. I don’t think I recruited anybody, to be honest, but I soon became more or less the staff writer. I left for a while (couldn’t pay my bills!) but in 1988, I was invited back to be the director. 

It worked out great until 1995, when there was a change in the character of the IACUI board, and they up and moved to New Jersey, which I wasn’t ready to do. But St. Thomas, to its eternal credit, really felt something was lost, and with the huge help of a gift from the late Larry O’Shaughnesy, opened a Center for Irish Studies.

IAP: What are your duties at the New Hibernia Review

JR: I do everything but feed the cat; if we had a cat, I’d feed it too.

Most of our readership is on-line, now, through Project Muse and J-Stor – those are library-based subscription services. But I still like the hard copies, which are beautiful (all modesty aside). And though most of our readership consists of academic readers, I carefully edit the journal for interested non-specialists. I sum up the editorial philosophy is in three words: "Plainly argued scholarship."

I’m really proud of the memoir pieces that open each issue – that’s something I’ve very much developed since I took over the editorship from Dr. Tom Redshaw in 2006. Redshaw is a brilliant editor – I feel tremendously lucky to have learned at his feet in what was really sort of an old-fashioned apprenticeship.

IAP: How do you have time to write your articles and books, with all the school responsibilities? 

JR: It’s not like I rush into them. Irish- American Autobiography was 22 years in the writing! 

IAP:  What is your writing regime?

JR: Unfortunately, I never met a distraction I didn’t like – look, a bird! – but most of what I publish, academically, begins life as a conference paper. That’s why you give those papers: to imposes a deadline on yourself. (Of cours , every time I give a paper I think I’m going to be laughed at and derided… but I never am. Not to my knowledge anyway.) 

I write in fits and starts. I would love to have nice quiet coffeehouses to write in, but… 

IAP:  What do you love about writing, about writing on Ireland? 

JR: You always start with what you don’t know, what you don’t understand – then you write your way to some sort of answer. The writing process is all about discovery: if you write about what you already know, well, that’s something else – preaching or pontificating. 

IAP:  What is the favorite piece/book you’ve written? 

JR - Oh, my goodness: do you have any idea how vast my literary vanity is? Next thing, you’ll ask me which of my children I like best.

I don’t let things go into print until I’m completely happy with them, so it really is hard op say. I think the last chapter in the book about autobiographies, about what I call "secular pilgrimages" to Ireland is all new material. For After the Flood, I wrote a chapter about leprechauns in American popular culture that said things nobody’s ever noticed. I’m ferociously proud of my essays about cemeteries in Northern Orchards. And I have an article about O’Connor’s Edge of Sadness that first appeared in U.S. Catholic Historian that pleases me enormously 

IAP:  How many times have you visited Ireland?  What is so special about that country? Where’s your favorite pub there?  Do you go on holiday or work trips?  Who do you visit in the academic/literary world there? 

I think It’s 25 or so, starting in 1975. (That’s a little misleading–when I was with the IACI, my trips were generally in the same square mile of downtown Dublin.) I think the best trip ever was with my friend Pat Sweeney, in 2006 – no work, just seeing friends among the poetry world and reconnecting with the landscape

IAP: With all those Scandinavians around you in the Twin Cities, is there room for more Irishness in the community?  What protects the Minnesota Gael from the ‘fury of those Norsemen?’

I’ve come to conclude that there is no limit to the American appetite for things Irish, in Minnesota or anywhere else! Back in the ‘70s, there was a New Yorker cartoon that showed a boarded-up disco with a sign that said "Closed Until the Next Big Thing Comes Along," and I thought, well, that’ll be the Irish soon. But it’s never happened.

And we are lucky here in Minnesota – there are some extraordinarily talented and energetic people in the Irish community, like the Celtic Junction Arts Center and the Center for Irish Music, and the heroic work of the Irish Genealogical Society. The care and feeding of Irish identity around here is in good hands. 

If there is one thing that stands out about the Irish in this part of the world, it’s that their presence is a lot larger than raw numbers. But that’s true in a lot of places – I am sure people are always asking you, why is the nation’s premier Irish Festival in Milwaukee? 

IAP: What are you working on now, regarding writing?  Any new books in the offing?

JR: Believe it or not, I’m editing a book about deathbed scenes in Irish literature. They’re everywhere. I must not get enough editing on my job–I’m doing this one at home. In the mornings and on the weekends.

But lately my interests are more and more in the literature of place and environmental writing. I sort of started writing about that in the graveyard book (which is very Irish, by the way- there’s no way I can keep the Irish dimensions from percolating into my writing) . I’ve got a couple of inchoate ideas for future essay collections, but I’ll keep chipping away at them. 

I do think that environmental writing and "eco-criticism" Is only going to get more and more important in Irish Studies. We had a symposium here last fall called "How Green Is the Emerald Isle? Irish Environmentalism." That was a good start on introducing those topics into the Irish conversation. I want to do more in that vein. 

IAP:  Who are your favorite Irish/Irish American authors/poets/film personalities? 

R: The Irish-American novelist Alice McDermott is a national treasure; I say that because I’m in the midst of her latest book. But if I started listing all the others, well, hell, I’d never stop….

IAP: Why are Irish such great writers and poets?

J>R: I wish I knew. A lot of it has to do with a history, in Irish life, of revering language–the storytelling tradition, the delight in wit, the example of all those great writers that went before. A young Irish person who wants to write knows that his or her aspiration is going to be taken seriously.

I also think there is sort of an inherited weight in Irish life of construing Ireland as an alternative to the crassness and commercialism of the larger world. I know better than most people that Irish people can be as philistine as anyone else–but there’s at least a thread of idealism running alongside that. 

IAP: What's next for Jim Rogers, Irishman?

JR: That’s something else I wish I knew… would I have dreamed, forty years back, that the course of my career would run this way? As the theologian Frank Sheed said about the church, "we must always leave room for the incalculability of the Holy Spirit." Or the incalculability of life itself. I’m 65 now, and can smell retirement: no date set, but one of these days. 

I think the deathbed book is going to be my last academic book, but I’ll keep writing, keep reading. And I’m not going to leave Irish things behind , no more than I’d amputate one of my own limbs–and if I did, it’d be just as life-threatening. 

Editor’s Note: For the record, here is more about Jim Rogers

Publications (Professional)
Irish-American Autobiography: The Divided Hearts of Athletes, Priests, Pilgrims and More (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2017)

After the Flood: Irish America 1945-1960 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009), co-edited with Matthew J. O’Brien
Extended Family: Essays on Being Irish American from New Hibernia Review (Chester Springs PA: Dufour Editions, 2013), edited and introduced.

Numerous refereed articles in such journals as Studies: An Irish Quarterly; Études Irlandaises; Canadian Journal of Irish Studies; U. S. Catholic Historian, and The Journal of College Writing

Book chapters in Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Literary Journalists, ed. Arthur Kaul (Detroit: Gale Research, 1997); New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora, ed. Charles Fanning (Carbondale: SIU Press, 2000); and Breaking the Mould: Literary Representations of Irish Catholicism, ed. Eamon Maher and Eugene O’Brien (Bern: Peter Lang, 2012)

Publications (Creative)
Northern Orchards: Places Near the Dead, essays and poems (St Cloud: North Star Press of St Cloud, 2014). Finalist for the Minnesota Book Award in creative nonfiction.

Sundogs, poetry chapbook, (Madison WI: Parallel Press, 2006) 

Individual poems in numerous journals, including Spiritus, Café Solo, North Dakota Quarterly, Crab Creek Review, Natural Bridge, South Dakota Review, Briar Cliff Review, National Catholic Reporter, and the Irish Times

Literary nonfiction in such journals as Ascent; South Dakota Review; ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment; Ruminate; Still Point Arts Quarterly New Letters; and Notre Dame Magazine, among others. My work has been selected as a "notable" in Best American Essays on four occasions.

Numerous other articles in regional and national publications 

Conference presentations 

Since 1993, I have presented more than three dozen conference papers at regional and national meetings of the American Conference for Irish Studies, chiefly on Irish-American topics. I have presented at other academic gatherings, including the Nonfiction Now Conference; the Canadian Association for Irish Studies; the Association for Gravestone Studies; the Conference on Christianity and Literature; the Religious Faith and Literary Art conference; and the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies.

In addition, I have extensive experience in speaking to community groups, library audiences, senior learning settings, and the like. 

Professional memberships and activity

American Conference for Irish Studies (14 years on executive committee, including President, 2009-11) 

Canadian Association for Irish Studies

Council of Editors of Learned Journals 

Association for Gravestone Studies


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