Maureen Waters (1935-2016)
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.
“Ours was a deep, strong, intense, and lasting love. We were together for forty-two years. I was blessed in living with a woman of great visible and inner beauty, gifted with extraordinary intelligence and wisdom (often in uncertainty I turned to her for insight), generosity and kindness, and a keen sense of humor. Her courage during the years in which her illness brought her suffering was heroic.
— David Kleinbard
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.”
“With Maureen and me—and how sad it is that she’s gone—it was Bronx Irish meets Brisbane Irish, redhead to redhead, and though neither of us was politically ethno-nationalist, some Irish-ness, in Benedict Anderson’s sense of nation-ness, certainly wove itself into our collective work in the English Department. Our working-class origins also meant much, whether from the New York transit workers union or the Australian Labour Party, and we were both active unionists in the PSC right here at the enormous knowledge factory CUNY is. So when we chatted about our courses, or worked on panels for a conference, or organized for a union campaign, or swapped reading lists, or lunched and laughed—and how I remember Maureen’s silvery laugh—or compared notes for a department debate on curriculum, or talked over the briefly-supported but brilliant World Studies Program at Queens, or the intersection of women’s studies and area studies, or the way postcolonial Nigerian writers read modernist Irish literature, some of the historical memory of the Irish diasporic working class “flashed up,” in Benjamin’s words, in the many moments of danger and opportunity we shared in two long teaching careers. Oh how her death marks an ending of all that! Ave atque vale, Maureen, comrade-in-arms in the classroom and the union hall, so sharp, so feelingful, so beautiful, so kind, so fiery, so beloved.
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.
“Maureen worked on the Department’s Personnel & Budget Committee for several terms, most of the time as Associate Chairperson. This entailed overseeing and conducting the teaching observations of part-time and full-time instructors, many of whom taught composition. An accomplished writer herself - as shown beautifully by her memoir about her early years growing up in the High Bridge section of the Bronx - she was a model of tact and helpfulness to one and all. At the same time she administered the Irish Studies program, enlisting the support of her colleagues, drawn from several departments, to make the study of Irish history and literature flourish at the College. Brief as this “record” is, it cannot go without mentioning that she was intelligent, tender, generous and beautiful in soul and aspect.”
— Charles Molesworth
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.
“I don’t think I know anyone else who has published a book of literary criticism (The Comic Irishman), a memoir (Crossing Highbridge: A Memoir of Irish America), an edition of a major writer (Lady Gregory: Selected Writings), and a book of poetry (In Black Bear Country). The writing talent is gene-linked in the Waters family: Maureen’s father Daniel left an enthralling memoir of the Irish War of Independence that Maureen published parts of in an appendix to her own memoir; her son Lee has published novels as well as literary criticism; and I’m sure those wonderful granddaughters, Eleanor and Brianna, are storing up memories to shock another generation with, as Maureen shocked a few relatives with hers. It was I who suggested to Maureen that we work together on a selection of Lady Gregory’s writings. I had several other friends, experts in the literature of the Irish Revival, who would have been good co-editors, but I wanted to work with Maureen for a reason I don’t think I ever told her. Around the time I was mulling over the Lady Gregory book, a singularly unpleasant incident occurred in the English Department in which I was then a professor. I found it very upsetting, and the next time I spoke with Maureen, I told her about it. The compassion that she poured forth was beautifully soothing. She understood at once how horrible the incident was, and every word she said made me feel better immediately. — And that was why I wanted to work with Maureen, to spend more time with her, to talk with her regularly. – Of course, her literary gifts were exceptional, but it was the warm and loving person that I was drawn to.”
— Lucy McDiarmid
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.”
“My most striking memory of Maureen was her beautiful husky resonant voice; I also recall her singing very beautifully. I commuted to Queens from the upper west side with David and Maureen, and they were both such thoughtful, serious, and generous souls and great conversationalists. We shared tales out of school, talked about our teaching highs and lows, and compared notes on our various scholarly endeavors. For me her keen knowledge of Ireland and Irish studies was a kind of fascinating corrective to my own ignorance. Most of the English writers and figures I worked on — Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, the Earl of Essex — behaved quite badly toward the Irish. She was one of the first to get me thinking about the complex relationship between my scholarship and my heritage. She was a lovely person, great companion, and smart teacher and scholar.
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.
“She helped welcome me as a newcomer to the field of Irish Studies by inviting me to join panels with her and her friend Lucy McDiarmid at regional ACIS conferences in the early 1990s. Having edited with Lucy a major edition of Lady Gregory’s Selected Writings with Penguin, Maureen was a considerable scholar. And that edition was celebrated in Ireland with a launch at the Abbey Theatre.
Maureen was also a lot of fun. She had a great laugh and a great sense of humor, always fun to exchange the latest gossip with. I remember a number of wonderful dinner parties that she hosted with her husband David Kleinbard at their great sprawling apartment on West 110th Street for colleagues in English, Comparative Literature, and Irish Studies. I used to commute back and forth from the Upper West Side to Queens College with them and experienced their generosity and hospitality on many occasions.
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.