Maureen Waters, emeritus professor of English at Queens College, passed away on November 25, 2016. Her contributions to the English department, and the deep impact she made on her students, colleagues, friends, and family have been detailed in a QC announcement as well as a New York Times obituary (http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?pid=182899748).
But Irish Studies is also indebted to Maureen for her role as one of the pioneers of the program in its formative years and beyond. Without her, Irish Studies would not have existed and continued as it did, and developed in a spirit of highly personal and political commitment that sustains it to this day.
Maureen’s parents, according to her memoir, were born in Ireland and “came of age during the revolution and civil war,” leaving them “deeply scarred by that experience.” Her mother was raised on a farm in Mayo with six sisters and a brother, the sisters all moving to New York City after a youth that witnessed, among other things, brutal treatment by the British Black and Tan soldiers. The sisters would remain close, and, in the words of Maureen’s husband David Kleinbard, “were lively conversationalists of unforgettable character and spirit.” Maureen’s father, Daniel, was born and raised in Sligo, near where Yeats had lived with his grandparents. In a short memoir that Maureen included in Crossing Highbridge, her father described teenage years in which he planted the flag of the Rising on top ofBen Bulben in 1916 and raised it there again when the police shot it down. Other actions included his guarding Josslyn Gore-Booth at Lissadellas during the Rebellion, serving as a member of Michael Collins’s Free State Army during the Civil War, and and personally witnessing their shelling of the Four Courts building.
Maureen’s own childhood bore witness to voices—her parents and others-- that were “melancholy, cantankerous and humorous all at once,” the “play of wit” functioning as “a mode of survival and communication” encapsulated in enduring traditions of storytelling. Her own story, which she would recount in her memoir, reflected deep connections to the second-generation immigrant experience at the same time that it revealed her own extraordinary trajectory into life as a scholar, teacher, and writer: her running through streets in skates or “Woolworth’s sneakers”; her listening to stories of the sea told to her by her father, and the songs sung in the house; sharing radio programs with her sister Agnes; being educated by the nuns. The Bronx “was a state of mind, insular and familiar,” she wrote; “I was in no hurry to move on.”
After obtaining her undergraduate degree at Hunter College, Maureen raised two young children on her own, taught in Queens high schools, was hired through an experimental program at Queens College in 1967, and proceeded at the same time to put herself through graduate school at Columbia University, where she earned her PhD. Her position at Queens, she was told, “would last no more than two or three years.” But she would remain the rest of her life, becoming deeply involved in the civil rights and political protest movements on campus, picketing during the financial crisis of CUNY in the 1970s, serving as Associate Chair of the English department under Charles Molesworth, and displaying commitment to students who shared the same formative experiences that she had as a youth.
In addition to Crossing Highbridge and numerous essays—and serving as Vice-President of the American Conference for Irish Studies--Maureen would write three other books: a collection of poetry (In Black Bear Country), a study of modern Irish fiction and drama (The Comic Irishman), and, with Lucy McDiarmid, an introduction and edition of Lady Gregory’s selected writings. The President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, would invite Lucy and Maureen to her home to meet with her when the latter publication was celebrated at the Abbey Theatre.
Above all, Maureen would remind her colleagues, students, and readers of the Irish dimension that pervaded so much of English literature. As she wrote, “Some students at Queens College have seen murder and rape at first hand; they have lost homes and possessions. Reading W.B. Yeats and Edna O’Brien, they are better able to articulate what they have been through themselves.” “Although their stories are far more horrendous than my own,” she continued, “there are common strands that bring us together.”
Equally important was her contribution to Irish Studies, which was founded at Queens in the early 1970s in the wake of a resurgent student interest in civil rights and the events unfolding in Northern Ireland. “Drafted” into developing interdisciplinary courses in Irish history and literature, Maureen later wrote that it was through “grappling with the history I thought I had left behind” that allowed her to “grasp something larger,” not only about the experience of other brutalized peoples, but of her own story, and family, as well.
Clare Carroll, who directed Irish Studies for many years and would make her own deep contributions to the study of Ireland, reminds us that Maureen “taught many courses on Anglo-Irish literature that were popular with students,” while also bringing interesting people to campus. “One of them was Derek Mahon, the poet from Belfast, who taught at Queens College in the early 1990s. She also brought other great Irish poets to read at Queens, including Seamus Heaney, in the early days, and the great Irish language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.” In doing so, she opened up students of all races, religions, and ethnicities to the rich strains of Irish literature, introducing those writers to one of the most diverse schools in the country.
Maureen underwent personal hardships, above all in the tragic loss of her son, Brian (“Heart scalding trickster, he lingers at thresholds…If my listening eye were keen enough/ Would there be an explanation?”). But it was at Queens where she would meet her beloved husband David Kleinbard, and watch her other son, Lee, graduate from Yale and become professor of English at Holy Cross. According to David Kleinbard, “Lee’s wife, Kate, and our red-headed granddaughters, Ellie, a freshman at Holy Cross, andBriana, a seventh-grader at the Trivium School, were a frequent source of pleasure”--as was her home with David in New Paltz, with birds and flowers (“Heavy scented, outrageous/ out of all proportion to the house”).
And she returned to Ireland too, describing it at length in her poems and in Crossing Highbridge. Describing herself walking through Connemara, as “sun flooded the slope where barley grows,” she evoked her ancestors, even if “the ghosts had vanished.” “But the living carried with them a cage of words/ whistling blackbirds/ set free by the Atlantic.”
Four years before she passed away after a long illness, she would write the following poem, looking back on her life.
At the finish we lose everything,
But days are now perplexed by
What refuses to be gone. The bridge
That spanned the river of childhood
Stands firmly in the forefront of my mind.
I cross back along the cracked
Brick pavement to gather what was there:
Pieces, a thousand pieces—a puzzle
Framing the bridge to what is now.
How surely a form emerged from
Disparate shapes and blots of color.
How confident I was that it would all
Add up to something recognizable and true.
Solid as the gray stone houses we lived in
(long gone to weed and empty space).
Yet certain things remain, insistent
As lampposts on a deserted street.
While their coordinates are now elusive
There is assurance in this universe of parts.
Maureen is survived by her husband David Kleinard, her son Lee Oser, her daughter-in-law Kate, and her granddaughters Eleanor Marie and Briana Steen Oser. Her son Brian died in 1993; his partner Nancy Wise and her son Jeremiah also survive Maureen.