Ryan Dye looks Irish. Green eyes, fair skin and an easy smile combine with an Irish first name to mislead almost everyone. But Dye, who spends the better part of every day immersed in Irish history in his position as a history professor and director of St. Ambrose's Irish Studies Program, is actually Slovenian, English and Welsh. So he didn't develop his passion for the Irish at home.
And it is a passion.
"In graduate school, I became captivated by the millions of Irish who left Ireland during the 1800's and created the Irish Diaspora in England and America and elsewhere," Dye relates. "Ireland is just a tiny island in the North Atlantic, but wherever the Irish went, they made their mark. In America they helped establish Catholicism as an influential force. They helped build the nation's infrastructure and political system. There are 45 million people of Irish descent here, while only four million actually live in Ireland. They have prospered, economically and socially. It's a real success story."
Since the Irish Studies Program was established in 2000 at the behest of Lawrence McCaffrey '49, a noted historian of Ireland and Irish America who donated his collection of nearly 400 Irish studies books and journals to O'Keefe Library, the program has grown to include a study abroad component in Carlow, Ireland, and close affiliations with such organizations as the St. Patrick Society of the Quad Cities.
In March, St. Ambrose received another major collection of 1,800 Irish and Catholic Americana books from Timothy Walch, director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, making SAU's collection one of the most significant in the region.
Even though the Irish immigration story makes for fascinating study, Dye says its lasting value is in the light it sheds on other matters.
"Irish Studies can teach valuable lessons," he says. "The Irish Diaspora is so vast that it provides a fascinating way to study world history. Also, it enables us to think about the impact of imperialism. And we can study both the Catholic and Protestant Irish to see how religion shapes ethnic identity. Finally, of course, it helps us study immigration issues. For instance, what kind of networks are used to survive?"
Networks are of particular importance to Dye at the moment. He and a group of students have helped sponsor a Rwandan family in the Quad Cities, an experience that has helped him see real people where only scholarship existed before (read "Apartment Rwanda"). .
"The Rwandans have been a very good learning lab, in a way," he says. "The students and I have had many of our assumptions challenged by watching real-life immigrants as opposed to reading books.
"The human condition is complex. I want my students to develop empathy for where others have been. It's easy to memorize concepts, dates and places. But I want them to think about their own great-grandmothers and -grandfathers, think about how challenging every phase of their journey was."
Such reflection inspires an inner journey that's just as important, Dye says. "Immigrating forces you to get out of your comfort zone. It's never easy, whether you're moving from Chicago to Moline, or Kigali to Rock Island. What I want for my students is that they learn a little empathy for immigrants in particular and for people in general. It's a long generational journey that every family takes. You have your own story, and it can help you empathize with others. The more you learn, the more you respect others and can see where they're coming from.
"We are all immigrants and pioneers in some sense."