On a shelf in the office of Chris Morash, the new Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing at Trinity College Dublin, sits the head of a troll. In terms of interior decor it's something of a surprise. In terms of ideas, however, it fits the bill perfectly, because Morash – who officially takes up his post today as students return for a new term – is a fan of the surprise, the unorthodox and the unusual.
“A student made that troll head for me,” he explains. “I was teaching a course on masks, and at the end she came in and said, ‘This is for you’. It made a memorable appearance at my son’s fourth birthday party.”
It's still with him, more than 15 years, and a lengthy stint as head of the English department at NUI Maynooth, later. After almost a lifetime of immersion in literature, Morash retains an infectious enthusiasm for his chosen subject. "Whatever questions you throw at literature it comes up with answers, but not the ones you expect," he says.
He would not be sitting in this prestigious academic position, he points out, but for the unexpected generosity of the man whose donation will be paying Morash's wages: the US businessman Mark Pigott, chief executive of the company Paccar. "They make DAF trucks. It's a great story. His family left Kenmare during the famine in 1847, and Forbes voted him one of the top CEOs in the US a couple of years ago," says Morash.
“The fact that somebody like that is supporting Irish writing should make us think a bit about some of the discourse around third-level education in Ireland. There has been a lot of talk about universities not providing the kind of graduates industry needs, yet here’s somebody who is at the very apex of the game, and is happy to fund a chair in Irish literature.”
Glen Dimplex founder Martin Naughton was also involved in the sponsorship of the post.
“A new position created through philanthropy is a brave thing for Trinity to have done at the present moment,” says Morash, a native of Nova Scotia who came to Trinity to do an MPhil in Irish writing in 1985 and has been here ever since. “I first fell in love with the library in Trinity and stayed to do a PhD. Then a greater love came along: I met my wife,” he says. He lectured at Maynooth for 23 years, so this is a big move for him.
"Here in Trinity you get a sense of an institution that thinks in terms of the long game," he says. "When they talk about notable alumni, Edmund Burke comes up, as if he might pop in to a seminar or something. But I think that's one of the things that makes Trinity a necessary corrective in Irish culture, because we have become acculturated to very short-term thinking. The way we think about culture often works on quarters and annual reviews. I think we need institutions that think in terms of centuries."
Morash's research interests range from Irish famine literature through Yeats to contemporary fiction. His latest book, Mapping Irish Theatre: Themes of Space and Place, co-written with Shaun Richards, will be launched at the Long Room in Trinity tonight. But he stresses that the Seamus Heaney chair won't be "one of those ivory-tower chairs where you never see a student".
Morash will be teaching a course called Reading the City, which is bang up to date in content and approach. “There’s a second reason why creating a chair of Irish writing at the present moment is brave,” he says, “and that is, we’re at a point where what constitutes Irish writing is not at all clear. We can answer the question of what Irish writing was; it was related to places. Think of Synge and the Aran Islands; think of Heaney and Mossbawn; think of Friel and Ballybeg.
“But Irish space has been transformed in the past 20 years in ways that are unprecedented. For somebody who lives in Citywest, or in Docklands, the sense of relationship to place that informs the writing of Heaney or Synge, that whole tradition, doesn’t exist any more. That’s not even counting diaspora people in Sydney or Toronto who are watching GAA matches on their iPads. Or new migrants to Ireland. There’s a substantial part of the population here who go home after a day’s work and watch Polish or Lithuanian television.
“With Heaney’s Mossbawn poems, we can pretty much recreate the geography of that little townland. We know where the forge is and the crossroads; it’s all there. A lot of the experience of Irish space for people now is, they don’t know the people next door or down the road – and also, as we move around our own space, we’re connected to spaces all around the world. So we’re simultaneously in multiple spaces.”
Dublin as phantasmagoric video game: a small town that isn't on any map; this is the Ireland of a Mark O'Rowe or a Kevin Barry, both of whose work Morash will be teaching in this seminar. "Students respond very well to that literature, because that's the world they're living in," he says.
As you read this, he’ll be meeting his new students for the first time. “One of my favourite places to be is in front of a roomful of first years,” he says. “For them, it’s all new. It’s all possibility.” It’s a pretty good place to be.