At the head of Ireland’s highest-ranked academic department, Trinity’s School of English, is Prof Chris Morash, the Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing. Originally from Nova Scotia on the East Coast of Canada, Morash was the first in his family to go to university. This, he said, always left him “with a sense of not taking university for granted.”
“I still have a sense that it’s a privilege to be here, after having been in a university for quite a while. And I always think that that’s an important perspective to have – that sense that this is valuable”, he said.
Morash studied English and theatre at Dalhousie University. In 1985 – attracted to “the relatively small place” that had produced Yeats, Joyce and Beckett – Morash came to Trinity to do an MPhil in Irish writing. Sitting in his office on the fourth floor of the Arts Block last week, he explained the weird feeling of “circularity” he had. Being a Trinity professor welcoming visiting students is a thing that makes him feel like he has looped back on himself.
“It was kind of strange, because nobody came to Ireland in the 1980s. I had to go out and get my passport stamped. They’d look at me despairingly.”
The question that Morash came to Ireland with is still unanswered. “There’s something going on here”, he says. “It has to be more than coincidence that somewhere the size of Long Island has four Nobel laureates in literature. I haven’t figured it out yet.”
Morash completed his PhD under Prof Terence Brown in 1990. Speaking to The University Times by phone, Brown, an eminent literary scholar and Fellow Emeritus of Trinity, said that, from the start, Morash was “a born researcher who was deeply interested in sources. He was a pleasure to supervise because he took advice immediately and carried it further”.
Following his PhD, Morash assumed that he was going to have to go back to Canada. “There were no jobs in Ireland”, he said. “There was very little academic hiring. There was no research money.”
Then, he met his wife. The way Morash tells the story, things just seemed to fall into place. “Two days before we got married, I got a phone call offering me a job in Maynooth”.
In Maynooth, Morash founded a media studies department. “Maybe I was bored”, he says. “I was interested in media and the university wanted to start a media studies course. It was very much demand led.”
Unhappy to be in charge of a media studies programme without the requisite academic pedigree, Morash wrote the History of Irish Media, an expansive volume that starts in 1551 and deliniates the development of news and current affairs in Ireland.
Without much of an academic background in media, Morash said he had to educate himself very quickly. When he tells this story, there is a sense that it epitomises his approach more generally: unhappy to be in charge of a media studies programme without the requisite academic pedigree, Morash wrote the History of Irish Media, an expansive volume that starts in 1551 and deliniates the development of news and current affairs in Ireland. “I thought if I was going to do this credibly, I need to become research active in the field. There was no history of media in Ireland, so I wrote that book”.
Still, while media studies seems like a bit of an aberration in his career path, Morash is very quick to explain how it’s all connected.
“I was always – and still am – interested in theatre, and interested in how the audience form part of the theatre”, he says. With theatre and news, he says, there is an audience. What an audience member brings with them into the theatre is not dissimilar to what a reader brings to the pages of a newspaper.
“For somebody to go to the theatre in 1900 is completely different thing from somebody going to the theatre in the year 2000. We inhabit space, we inhabit time very differently now because of constantly being connected, because of digital media, because of having the internet out there and being kind of constantly wired in. It’s very different”, he says.
In 2007, Morash applied for the professorship of English in Maynooth. “I think I probably realised that my real interest was in English literature.” There’s never a sense, though, that Morash leaves anything behind. He may have taken up a professorship in English and moved away from media studies, but, just before arriving in Trinity, he published a book with Sean Richards, entitled Mapping Irish Theatre: Theories of Space and Place. “It’s about how there is a space in relation to theatre. I teach a sophister option [in Trinity] called Reading the Irish City, which is – again – about how there is a space and how the space of the city is produced by literature, by novels, by plays, by poems. And a lot of that comes out of the media work”, he says.
“If you’d looked at the books I’ve written, you’d say ‘jees, he’s written a history of theatre, a history of media, he’s written about the famine. How does all this fit?’ But to me, it’s all just one big book. It’s just a very complicated one.”
Whilst professor of English at Maynooth, Morash was appointed the first chair of the Compliance Committee of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). The BAI regulates both public and private radio and television. Morash led the committee during the time it made a ruling about the RTÉ Radio 1 show, “Mooney Goes Wild”. The ruling meant that any time a news and current affairs show had someone in favour of marriage equality that there also had to be the opposing view – something that was presented as some kind of draconian stricture during the referendum.
Morash says a lot of perceptive things about fairness and the BAI’s role in laying down a marker in the public sphere, but one line stood out in particular. He explained: “There was always a danger that the whole thing was just going to become not debated, because the people who opposed the referendum were going to feel threatened coming into the public space.”
And that’s where you get a sense that Morash has some kind of unusually discriminating wisdom about him, in the sense that he seemed to grasp long before anyone that for the “logical argument” of the yes side to win out, you’d actually need to have someone there to oppose it, every time.
That’s where you get a sense that Morash has some kind of unusually discriminating wisdom about him. He seemed to grasp long before anyone that for the “logical argument” of the yes side to win out, you’d actually need to have someone there to oppose it, every time.
“You have to have that opposing voice, because the basis of a rational society is that the listener can listen to both sides and say ‘that one makes sense and that one doesn’t’. And I think as the referendum progressed – once it hit stride – the people supporting the referendum realised that. That, look, this is a logical argument. It makes sense that in a civilised society, two people should be able to get married regardless of sexual orientation. Logical argument.”
Following our conversation, Morash emailed me to ensure that I understood his, and the committee’s, priority: it was to ensure that the broadcasting environment was “fair, objective and impartial”, he said – using the language of the legislation. That means “putting one’s own private views on hold”, he said. “Fairness” meant that everyone could have a say – and trusting the “rationality and corresponding fairness of the audience to sift right from wrong”.
Edel Hackett, the PR Director of Persuasion Republic, sat on the compliance committee alongside Morash. “From my point of view”, she said in a phone conversation with The University Times, “he was the consummate chair. He allowed everyone to put their point across.”
When criticism of the committee’s decisions raged, “he never got annoyed”. “He accepted that that was going to happen.” Hackett indicated that Morash has had a sustained influence on her: “Whenever I think of meetings, or how to chair meetings, I think of Chris.” The only time he decided to interject, she said, was when he needed more clarity on someone’s views.
Just a year after being appointed the Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing in January 2014, Morash was appointed Head of the School of English. On the steep learning curve, Morash notes the school’s collegiate structure and how it made things easier: “You have roles like Director of Undergraduate Teaching and Learning, Director of Postgraduate Teaching and Learning, Director of Research – that feed into university-level committees. So, as a head of school, you’re not the top of the pyramid. It’s much more like cabinet-style decision making.”
His description of his place within the school, and his style of leadership, sounds oddly reminiscent of Hackett’s portrayal of his chairing at the BAI.
In terms of a strategy for the school, Morash said his plan was to “have fewer strategies”. Mirroring College-wide developments, he said that they were probably going to have to look at the school’s relationship with non-EU students, noting that they’ll become increasingly important to the way Trinity works. “There is a sense of coming out of the hibernation of the austerity years, of new possibilities, and looking at new ways of doing things”, he said, mentioning the expansion of the school’s creative writing offerings as something they can “really move with”.
At the same time, there’s a lot that the school does right, he says. “The commitment to small-group teaching is just so important. Where a lot of other universities are moving to diffused degree structures where you take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, my sense is that a lot of students come here to do English in Trinity because they really know what they want to do.”
“There is a sense of coming out of the hibernation of the austerity years, of new possibilities, and looking at new ways of doing things.”
Morash’s focus seems to be much more than a faux commitment to engaging with students. Speaking to The University Times, Dr Amanda Piesse, the Head of Discipline in the school, said that his “pro-student” focus really struck her. “Whenever we’re working on anything, he’s really keen to have student input and student engagement with things. He leads by example, he is always in there first with stuff, he always gets stuff done and has this real sort of ‘can do’ attitude which is just great, actually”, she said.
“He has this really first-rate academic presence himself as well, so you feel that this is someone to emulate academically and personally”, Piesse continued.
Prof Emer Nolan, the Head of English at Maynooth, told The University Times in an email that Morash “was especially well-regarded as a hugely lively and encouraging lecturer in first year”. This mirrors descriptions of Morash’s lectures in Trinity: he is known for theatrics and putting an immense amount of effort into them.
Noting that she was a colleague of his for nearly 20 years, Nolan said that the department missed him.
It’s not just colleagues: Aisling Mullins, who completed her final-year dissertation under Morash’s supervision last year, said that he “struck a great balance between giving freedom and guidance”.
“I remember several specific incidences of arriving for a meeting completely overwhelmed by everything, and invariably left feeling excited to get writing”, Mullins said.
This student focus moves into a passion for pedagogical approaches, and taking new directions when it comes to things like assessment. There has been a shift in the school to assessment that isn’t based on “some kind of random ratio of 50 per cent exams, 50 per cent essays” but rather how the material is best assessed. As such, many sophister modules no longer have exams – because they might be best assessed by essays or research projects. Predictably, this has made him very popular with English students.
Asked if he could outline a broad set of goals for the school, he contrasted what he’d have thought he’d be saying ten years ago with what he actually thinks now: “I’d have been thinking transformationally, but I think a lot of what we do is actually on the right track.”
“I think we have a good balance of teaching and research. We’re a really research-active department. We’ve got lots of good research, but people don’t see teaching as being punitive. They see teaching as part of what they do, which is not universally the case in every university. So, in some ways, I would see it as a case of trying to consolidate those things we do really well, rather than turn it inside out and start over again.”