It surely is understatement of the highest order to say that the Gerry Adams arrest/oral history saga has to go down as a painful chapter in the history of a university as closely linked to Ireland as Boston College always has been, and is likely to remain.
A century and a half ago, two Ulster immigrants – Father John McElroy, a Jesuit from Co. Fermanagh, and Andrew Carney, a wealthy businessman from Co. Cavan – joined forces to create a college largely aimed at Boston’s growing Irish-Catholic population.
The resulting school, which moved from its original 1863 home on Harrison Avenue out to the leafier environs of Chestnut Hill some 50 years later, worked exactly as intended, vaulting generations of Irish-Americans graduates into leading positions in business, government, the arts, and many other fields.
So it is more than ironic that this most Irish of American universities finds itself in an almost unimaginable position these days – accused by some of Gypo Nolan-like perfidy.
The facts are fairly well known, but, simply stated, they line up this way: As peace was beginning to take hold in Northern Ireland in 2000, two Boston College officials joined forces with the longtime Irish journalist Ed Moloney, the former IRA man-turned-historian Anthony McIntyre, and a former loyalist to build a library of oral histories from republican and loyalist soldiers during the time of the Troubles.
The process took a startling turn when several of the interviews were published sooner than might have been expected and linked Irish republican leader Gerry Adams to the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville, a Belfast mother of ten who was suspected by some of collaborating with the British.
Because the accusation contained in the BC archive tapes led directly to Adams’s recent arrest in Northern Ireland, the college founded by two Ulster Catholics has found itself painted as a pariah – as anything but a keeper of the Celtic flame.
“Take a bow, BC, Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre – you have done a wonderful job on behalf of British spookdom allowing them to whip up a whole new round of empty charges,” thundered Niall O’Dowd, publisher of the Irish Voice newspaper and Irish America magazine.
Another recent O’Dowd column appeared under the scalding headline: “Boston College tapes was a ‘Get Adams’ project from the beginning.”
On some level, O’Dowd’s is an understandable reaction, particularly from a media figure who is one of Adams’s chief allies in the United States. For his friends and supporters, the idea of Adams being in police custody, even for a matter of days, had to rankle. But the idea that Boston College has profaned its Irish heritage is, of course, absurd.
For starters, the core of what constitutes “Irishness” at Boston College is its outstanding Irish Studies academic program, and it cannot be considered a coincidence that the key faculty members in the program had virtually nothing to do with the oral history project and, thus, the Adams dimension.
As a matter of disclosure, I was fortunate enough to earn a degree on the Irish history side of the program (there are two tracks: history and literature) and I know firsthand of the talents of careful, distinguished historians like program co-founder Kevin O’Neill, Kevin Kenney, and Rob Savage. In addition to the Irish literature track, there is a vibrant musical component under the leadership of world-renowned fiddler Seamus Connolly. Collectively, BC’s academics, through their first-rate writing, research, and teaching, have created one of the best Irish Studies programs in the nation.
With Irish Studies at the center, Boston College has served as remarkable Celtic crossroads in recent decades, whether one points to its Burns Library collection, its work in bringing people from various Northern Ireland sectors to Boston for peace and reconciliation programs, its exhibitions of Irish art, its Irish film series, its forums on media and culture, or its ability to provide a platform and a welcoming environment for Irish political and governmental leaders of the day.
Certainly, there are lessons to be learned from this difficult moment in BC’s history, a key one being the obvious one: That the project never should have gone forward without the involvement of the university’s academic experts – and a lot more careful thinking.
In a masterful account of the situation published earlier this year in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Beth McMurtrie aptly described what unfolded as “a tale of grand ambitions undermined by insular decision-making and careless oversight.” No doubt the two officials who launched the project, Bob O’Neill and Tom Hachey, meant well, but the errors of the project are well established, and the headlines have been stark.
But the heart of Irishness at Boston College really is to be found in professors like Kevin O’Neill, Kevin Kenney, and Rob Savage – who work year in and year out engaging with the difficult questions of Irish history – and their colleagues, who are devoting their professional lives to similar explorations of Irish literature and culture.
Their work is really what matters, and, because of it, BC’s bond with Ireland remains strong and alive. And no doubt it always will be so.
Robert P. Connolly, a graduate of the Boston College Irish history program who has written about Irish issues for the Boston Herald and the Boston Irish Reporter, is vice president for communications at the University of Massachusetts.