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(Almost) 1,001 things you should know about Edward O'Donnell '86

By Phyllis Hanlon

Edward O'Donnell '86An inspirational quote from Winston Churchill and recent family pictures share wall space with an aerial photograph of New York, copies of several 97-year-old newspaper clippings of the General Slocum steamship disaster and an Irish flag. An obstacle course of books, magazines, folders and other papers greets visitors to Ed O'Donnell's newly occupied office in Holy Cross' history department. After a 15-year absence, this Massachusetts native is already firmly re-established on familiar turf. The intervening years have brought him a wife, four daughters, a Ph.D. and an enthusiasm for all things historical, particularly if tied to the Irish, which has led to a teaching position at his alma mater and publication of his writing.

From the time he first experienced an afternoon of football fever in the early '80s-the Holy Cross/Boston College rivalry was at its peak in those days-O'Donnell knew he was destined to wear the purple and spend his college days on St. James hill. Planning to follow in his father's footsteps, he enrolled in the premed program but soon ran into a major stumbling block. "I was gung ho until I failed chemistry in my first semester," he says. "Of course, that was probably due in part to a vigorous social schedule as well as the fact that I wasn't all that good in science." The following year, he decided to tackle the science course once again; a mediocre grade prompted a shift in thinking.

In his quest for an alternate direction, O'Donnell found himself in a history seminar with Rev. Anthony Kuzniewski, S.J. "That was an eye-opening, wonderful experience," he says. "In that course, I discovered I was a pretty good writer." At that point, he decided that a career as a history professor and author held more appeal than a vocation in medicine.

In addition to Fr. Kuzniewski, O'Donnell credits several other professors at Holy Cross with providing encouragement and motivation. William A. Green and Ross W. Beales, Jr. of the history department strongly influenced his decision to pursue a degree in that subject. Currently involved in campus ministry and Student Programs for Urban Development (SPUD), a community service organization, O'Donnell notes that Rev. Robert E. Manning, S.J., and Rev. William E. Reiser, S.J., laid the groundwork for his deep commitment to the church.

For the last 13 years, he and his wife, Stephanie Yeager '86, a New York native, have lived in Manhattan with their four daughters. The Big Apple held a certain charm and plenty of opportunity, of which O'Donnell always managed to take advantage. Working at Hunter, a city university system school in Manhattan, he faced the challenge of a huge student population that was generally unprepared for the rigors of learning. "The school colors are purple and white like Holy Cross," he says. "That's where the similarities end." Teaching ethnic urban history, O'Donnell spent as much time honing writing skills as he did conveying his intended subject. "It was great work, rewarding," he says. "But you didn't feel like you reached the number of students you wanted to."

After six years at Hunter, O'Donnell became a tenured associate professor. However, long hours-as many as 100 per week-were taking their toll. He longed to spend more time with his growing family, and the urge to write was calling. Early in 2000, he resolved to land a book contract or a new job by year's end. He missed his goal, but only by two months. On Feb. 8, 2001-a date etched into his memory-both his wishes were granted.

That winter day brought an offer from Holy Cross to fill the position of associate professor in the history department. O'Donnell still wears a look of incredulity at his good fortune to be back at his alma mater. "It's exceedingly rare that an alum gets to come back and teach here. It's a million to one shot," he says. "Two hundred people apply when a job opens up. It's usually ridiculous to think you'd be chosen to fill an open position. I am astonished to be here." Although he and his wife had always planned to return to the area, he shakes his head at the reality of the dream. "It's still a process of moving from unbelievable to believable," he says.

Lady luck continued to smile on O'Donnell as the long sought-after book contract arrived in the mail. Seeing bookshelves lined with volumes targeting Jewish, African-American, women and other specific niche groups, O'Donnell hatched the idea for an Irish book. "I wrote a proposal with 25 sample items and sent it off to the man who would eventually be my agent," he says. Time passed and day-to-day living distracted him while the project slipped into the background. Strolling through a book display at a history convention a while later, passion for his book project was re-ignited. A quick call to the publisher brought a contract within four weeks. Scheduled for publication in early spring 2002, 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about Irish-American History, provides details about ancient Celtic lore and clarification of Irish myth to inside information on Irish politicians and entertainment figures and much more in between.

The years he spent living in New York opened O'Donnell's eyes to the rich history around him and prompted him to explore some of the more interesting local events. His research into the story of the General Slocum, a steamship that burst into flames while on a pleasure outing on the East River, led to another book, scheduled for publication in the next couple of years. The disaster claimed the lives of 1,021 German immigrants and surpassed the casualties of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, even though locals soon forgot the ship's blaze. "This story fell out of people's memory," he says. His book details the events of that fateful day and explores the reasons why such a tragedy took place. "New York has dozens more stories like this," he says.

O'Donnell's thesis, a biography titled Henry George for Mayor! Irish Nationalism, Labor Radicalism & Independent Politics in Gilded Age New York City, will also be published sometime in 2002. According to O'Donnell, the manuscript requires a bit more polishing.

To add to his literary success, O'Donnell is a regular contributor to the Irish Echo, the only national Irish-American weekly newspaper. Since June 2000, he has written a column called the "Hibernian Chronicle," which spotlights relatively unknown or forgotten historic Irish individuals who have made a contribution to the world. Some of his column ideas stem from reader suggestions, and others he discovers through his own reading efforts.

Although moving from a huge city like New York to the countryside of Holden-"There are no wild turkeys in Manhattan," he says-has been a bit of culture shock, O'Donnell emphasizes the change was well worth it. "Lifestyle and opportunity-wise what this job offers compensates for any culture shock," he says. He and his wife agree that the years they spent at Holy Cross played a critical role in shaping the people they are today. "Attending Holy Cross was a formative experience in our lives," he says. "It's miraculous that we found our way back here."

* * *

From 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History
By Edward T. O'Donnell '86

Eleven Common Words with Irish Origins

664. galore
from the Irish go leor, enough, plenty 665. shanty from the Irish seantigh, a run down house

666. spree
from the Irish spreath, spoils taken in a raid (i.e., cattle)

667. slogan
from the Irish sluaghairim, a war cry (literally "army shout")

668. smithereens
from the Irish smidirini, fragment

669. shenanigans
from the Irish sionnachuighim, literally "I play the fox"

670. spunk
from the Irish sponc, spirited or courageous

671. whiskey
from the Irish uisce and beatha, water of life

672. boycott
from the name of its most famous victim, Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, who was ostracized for carrying out tenant evictions during the "Land War" of the 1880s; to shun or withhold patronage

673. donnybrook
from the wild behavior associated with the annual fair at Donnybrook near Dublin, from the late fourteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries; a brawl

674. hooligan
from a notorious Irish family named Hooligan living in the slums of London in the 1890s (and later popularized in Fred Opper's cartoon, Happy Hooligan); a rowdy

Phyllis Hanlon is a free-lance writer from Charlton, Mass.

 

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