Irish Roots at St. Thomas

Archbishop John Ireland, the Irish-born founder of the University of St. Thomas believed passionately that education was the means by which the Irish and the Irish-American community could best honor its heritage and secure its future. Born in County Kilkenny, John Ireland came to the Minnesota territory as a boy in 1852, bringing with him a deep sense that his native country had always been distinguished by its love of learning.

When John Ireland established the college and seminary that became the University of St. Thomas, the very ground on which the school stood was a gift from another Irish immigrant, the farmer William Finn. Many of the early faculty were Irish priests and the children of immigrants formed the core of the student body for many years.

St. Thomas has stayed close to its Irish roots. Reminders of the school’s Irish heritage are still found throughout the campus. In 1917 the St. Thomas library acquired the core of what became its "Celtic Collection." Housing more than 9,000 volumes, it now stands among the largest such collections in North America. Distinguished Irish visitors to St. Thomas over the years have included poet William Butler Yeats, Nobel peace laureate Sean MacBride, Cardinal Tomas Ó Fiaich,  short story master Sean O’Faolain, Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds, and more recently, a “who’s who” of modern Irish poets.

Even the names of buildings at St. Thomas bear witness to its links to Ireland: names like Brady, Coughlan, McNeely, O'Shaughnessy and Murray. So, for that matter, have the names of 14 of our 14 presidents.

From 1962 to 1995, St. Thomas provided generous support to the efforts to foster knowledge of Ireland through the work of Dr. Eoin McKiernan and the Irish American Cultural Institute. St. Thomas continues to enjoy high recognition in Ireland through these activities.

The fullest expression of the university's historic and contemporary bonds with Ireland came in March 1996, when St. Thomas established the Center for Irish Studies. Through the center, St. Thomas has developed a national presence for scholarship and programs devoted to Irish culture, literature and the arts.