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From Donegal to Texas: ‘I felt part of an Irish community for the first time in years’

‘I realise just how bloody surreal it is to learn about Ireland in America’

“Do you go by Edward or Éamon?” My creative writing professor at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas, asked.

No time to hesitate. “Éamon,” I said.

I had just written a poem about my family home in Ireland. I instinctively felt that my Irish name was more poetic than my English name. After living in America for seven years, I was beginning to contemplate my Irish emigrant identity.

After class, I walked over and sat by the surrealist Broken Obelisk sculpture. It was designed by American artist Barnett Newman and dedicated to Martin Luther King jnr. The Cor-Ten steel sculpture is an inverted obelisk balanced on top of a pyramid. By the sculpture’s reflecting pool, I took out my journal and wrote my name from English to Irish. I felt justified in choosing Éamon Ó Caoineachán that day.

Houston’s metropolis vastly contrasts with Rathmore’s meadow fields where I am originally from in Co Donegal. I emigrated to Texas during Obama’s Hope and Change campaign. I sensed hope and change, too, when I met a Texas girl, and we shared a mutual love of poetry.

I had a successful career in gardening and landscaping, but my passion was poetry. I wrote poems under the wild pecan trees in the garden nursery where I worked. Poems helped pass the time during the hot and humid Houston summers. I juggled work and college at the University of Houston and then pursued my master’s in English at the University of St Thomas.

St Thomas’s nickname is “the Celts”. As one of the true Celts on campus, I felt right at home in this small, Catholic liberal arts university. Although I was an English graduate student, I was intrigued by St Thomas’s Irish studies programme. I was initially unsure whether or not to enrol, but since I had a master’s in English, why not a master’s in Irish studies?

I never imagined that I would learn about Ireland in America.

The experience of reconnecting with Ireland through the Irish studies programme profoundly impacted me as an emigrant. Dr Lori Gallagher taught the history classes, while Dr Jonathan Ó Néill taught the language and literature classes.

Being part of an Irish community for the first time in years was emigrant therapy.

As vice-president of Club Eireannach, we held events to celebrate Irish culture. Watching other students, such as my friends, Lizanne from South Africa, and Emma and Michelle from Texas, express deep interest in Ireland made me extremely proud. As I navigated my way through the programme, I appreciated the opportunity to study Ireland’s history, literature and language.

Learning – and in many ways relearning – about Ireland in America offered me a renewed perspective to explore Ireland transatlantically. This insight is a common frame of reference for most Irish emigrants I have spoken to here in America.

One fascinating class I took was postcolonial Irish literature taught by Dr Ó Néill. I was interested in the concept of “de-anglicising” as detailed in Douglas Hyde’s The Necessity for De-Anglicising the Irish Nation. I wondered about the psychological impact of anglicised names on Irish people. It was still new for me to be identified by my Irish name.

After postcolonial class, I ambled around the Menil Collection, an art gallery and museum. I looked at the surreal paintings of Belgian artist René Magritte. I always loved how Magritte’s redefining perceptual boundaries challenged my own perceptions in life, even my Irish identity.

Waiting for my next class to begin, I sat again by the Broken Obelisk’s reflecting pool.

I realised just how bloody surreal it was for me to be learning about Ireland in America.

For the first time in my life, I was questioning my anglicised Irish name.

I wrote in my journal: “I found a symbol in the Broken Obelisk to represent my Irish emigrant identity. The sculpture strikes a structural balance between the steel obelisk above and the steel pyramid below. This rust-coloured patina monument symbolises that I seek a balance of my Irish identity between my English name ­­– Edward the Obelisk – and my Irish name – Éamon the Pyramid.

Since I identify with both these names, the sculpture is a united symbol of my identity. However, as Edward the Obelisk rises up into the air it suddenly breaks. At that moment, this break revealed to me the cornerstones of Éamon the Pyramid’s steel foundation.”

Over 4,000 miles away from home, Magritte’s paintings and the Broken Obelisk sculpture transformed into artistic touchstones for this surreal realisation. Thanks to the reward of learning from the Irish studies programme, a transplanted Irish emigrant re-rooted in his Irish identity.

Now, when I muse on Magritte’s paintings in Menil, I say “ealaín osréalaíoch” (surreal art). When I meditate on my reflection in the reflecting pool by the Broken Obelisk, I see “mise” (me). Currently, I am a PhD student at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. It is yet another surreal educational experience. I am studying at an Irish university, but I am writing my thesis under the blue Magritte skies of Texas.

I hope to return home to Ireland soon, but I have a thesis to write and more reflecting to do by the Broken Obelisk’s reflecting pool. I am still enjoying this surreal journey of rediscovering Ireland in America.

  • Éamon Ó Caoineachán is from Rathmore, between Bundoran and Ballyshannon, in Co Donegal. He emigrated to Texas in 2007. A writer and poet, he studied for his master’s in Irish studies at the University of St Thomas, Houston, Texas. He is currently a PhD student at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick.
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