Historical Context to NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House
On a fine April afternoon in 1993 they marched through Washington Square Park, dressed in the purple robes of New York University, bagpipers clearing the way, around the ponderous arch newly scrubbed of past disorder, two towers looming in the background, ever present. They proceeded across an unrushed Washington Square North towards a brick building that might well be described as a cottage, built for another time and for other uses, built where Fifth Avenue’s addresses start and where its traffic ends.
As of this moment on April 26, 1993, that cottage on Fifth Avenue would be called Glucksman Ireland House.
Lew Glucksman and Loretta Brennan Glucksman, patrons of the house, founders of the feast, were at the head of the march, to the bemused delight of some of Lew’s colleagues on NYU’s board. Loretta would remember years later that Laurence Tisch, the board’s chairman, would “tease the daylights” out of Lew over his Irish obsession -- Lew Glucksman, a Hungarian Jew, giving his name to Ireland House. They had a good many laughs over that, Loretta said. But they also knew what she knew: “Lew,” she said, “truly loved Ireland.”
The procession came to a halt outside the building, in front of the new doorway fronting the avenue. There the robed procession became a huddle of purple as the president of New York University, L. Jay Oliva, the Irish-speaking son of an immigrant from County Galway, greeted such a gathering of talent and brains and wit and personality that no roundtable could possibly accommodate them. Waiting to cross the untouched threshold were Seamus Heaney, with two years left to wait for his long-anticipated Nobel Prize for Literature; the Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Albert Reynolds; the playwright Brian Friel; the actress Maureen O’Hara; the flutist James Galway; the producer Noel Pearson, the writer Cyril Cusak, the humanitarian Sister Stanislaus Kennedy.
It was, Loretta would later remember, an astonishing display of Irish history, culture, art, politics … and memory. For on that glittering April afternoon in the last decade of the twentieth century there were few who did not think of who had come before, not by air but by ship, not given the privilege of marching through the square but left to trudge through the streets of the Lower East Side and dozens of other American neighborhoods, women and men and children whose stories had not been recorded and preserved and passed on as object lessons. Had they not been who they were and had they not done what they did, there would have been no procession, no waiting on the threshold, no gathering of a generation’s keenest minds.
President Oliva told the multitude that this new institution, Glucksman Ireland House, would “provide New York City with a focal point for the breadth and depth of Irish culture both old and new.” And then Lew and Loretta Glucksman joined Oliva in cutting a purple ribbon across the doorway and in they went, to inaugurate a space for which there were plans and ambitions and visions but which was, on this first day, very much a work in progress and one for which there was no stereotype. For there was nothing quite like Glucksman Ireland House, not even in the pulsating city of a thousand identities and cultures. There were other academic houses tied to language and culture, there were other programs that focused on artifacts and history, there were other societies that sought to knit together old and new. But there was nothing designed to interrogate and narrate the history, the literature, the music, and the lived experiences of the Irish in America, all of it, in all its glory, with all its flaws...
It surely was an unlikely journey, or so it seemed in 1993, for there were few mileposts along the way and the destination was uncertain. Irish America, one Harvard scholar would conclude, had faded into something he called mere “whiteness,” embracing the solidarity of skin color over the cultural and religious differences, the hyphen that defined past generations cast aside in return for acceptance and assimilation. That theory received an elegant reply from the novelist and essayist Peter Quinn, who said that what was truly interesting about the Irish in America is not that they became white but that they remained Irish....
But then there are others who have crossed new thresholds in careers and culture, their journeys no longer tethered to the parish, the union hall, the expectations of the past. They have marched in a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Queens that proclaims itself open to all, they have explored and interrogated the hyphen in their identity as never before, they have grasped opportunities denied their parents and grandparents, and they have decided that the book of Irish America is very much open and there are many more stories to write. The doctors and chief executive officers whose parents were cops and schoolteachers are writing those stories even now, to be read alongside the stories of late-night television hosts, political commentators, actors, novelists, journalists and historians unabashed about their Irish roots and yet unmistakably American. They are the legatees of the Irish-American revival of the late 20th Century, and their connection to Ireland is arguably stronger today than it was a quarter-century ago.
Glucksman Ireland House has presided over, benefited from, and inspired a quarter century of questioning, commemorating, and preserving Irish-American identity and culture. The essays that follow offer reflections, some deeply personal, on all that Glucksman Ireland House has witnessed, and led, since that April day in 1993, when Lew and Loretta Brennan Glucksman opened a door on Fifth Avenue and invited in the world.
An excerpt from Being New York, Being Irish
Edited by Dr. Terry Golway
Co-Edited by Dr. Miriam Nyhan Grey