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New Irish studies director brings experience to position

By Joe Cramer
On September 2, 2010


As thousands of freshmen adjust to new schedules, new tasks and new living spaces, one newly arrived professor, Joseph Lennon, has been quietly getting into a routine of his own as he begins his first year at the University, moving into the position of director of the Irish Studies program.

Lennon, who arrives from Manhattan College in New York City where he was an associate professor of English, replaces the recently retired professor and founder of the Irish Studies program, James Murphy. 

 Lennon comes from a background rich in Irish culture, both professionally and personally, having been raised in Newport, R. I. by parents with ties to Irish-America.

"My family grew up in really strong Irish-American communities," Lennon said. This cultivated in Lennon a desire to one day travel to the country where his great-grandparents lived. "I always wanted to go. It always seemed like this romantic place."

Lennon began his education at Knox College, a small liberal arts school notable for its many prominent political commencement speakers, where he majored in English. After earning his degree, he traveled to Ireland where he lived for the next year.

"I lived in Ireland because I wanted to write, and I wanted to read," Lennon said. During the summers between his years of  post-undergraduate study, he returned  to Ireland. "In the summer I would air-hitch over to Ireland, climb mountains, go to pubs and play in a band."

Continuing his study of literature after graduating from Knox in 1990, Lennon pursued his M.A. in British Literature at Northern Illinois University, where he experienced a change of heart with regard to his studies. After finishing his degree, he went to Boston College for a second M.A. in  Irish literature and history before earning his Ph. D. from the University of Connecticut in 2000.

"It dawned on me halfway through the first M.A. that I wanted to study Irish literature, not just British literature," Lennon said, speaking on the perception that British literature is often seen as the standard in academia. He has published a book on Irish Orientalism and has a book of poetry, "Fell Hunger," coming out from an Ireland-based publisher of poetry, Salmon Press, in the spring. He is also researching hunger strikes in late 19th and early 20th century Ireland for a second book.

Lennon assumes a role on campus that was cultivated over the years by the retired Murphy. Murphy brought prestige to the program through the foundation of the Heimbold Chair, which brings an Irish writer to Villanova each spring to teach for a semester. It also brings many guest speakers to campus, most recently the Irish poets Seamus Heaney and Peter Fallon.

"This is one of the oldest Irish Studies programs –– period," Lennon said. "The Heimbold chair is a very prominent position in the world of Irish Studies."

Lennon has plans both to continue the high pedigree of the program as established by Murphy, as well as to expand on certain aspects.

"One thing I want to expand is the Irish-American element," Lennon said. "This entire area of Philadelphia has been built by the Irish." Lennon also cited the influence of the Irish on the Augustinians who founded the University.

Lennon has already set plans in motion to continue the tradition of notable guest speakers and visiting writers. Novelist Colum McCann, who recently won the National Book Award for the book "Let the Great World Spin," will speak as a part of the Literary Festival in the spring. Poet Moya Cannon will visit Villanova in the spring as well to serve as the next holder of the Heimbold Chair. 

While new to campus, Lennon is no stranger to the University, having accompanied the students studying abroad in Ireland this past summer during the first week of their session.

"The Galway study abroad program was a great way to meet Villanova students and travel through the land I study and love," Lennon said. "The students witnessed and absorbed some of Irish culture's most vibrant spots, from Dublin's bustling Temple Bar to the far western Aran Islands and their ancient forts." Lennon will lead future summer sessions to Ireland as Murphy did in the past.

But for now, Lennon is settling in to his new home and new class schedule, teaching a class in Irish literature up to 1880, as well as a graduate level course on exoticism in Irish literature. He lives in Narberth, with his wife Marika Beneventi and his son Nicholas. As he enters his first semester, Lennon is well aware of the task ahead of him.

 "They're big shoes to fill, but I feel pretty confident," Lennon said on assuming Murphy's role. "I understand the program's history, and I look forward to expanding it. I don't want to dismantle anything that has come before."

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