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John V. Kelleher, a vivid storyteller with a mischievous sense of humor whose work at Harvard defined the field of Irish studies in America, died Jan. 1 of pneumonia. He was 87.
Kelleher, an emeritus professor of Irish Studies in the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures, first came to Harvard in 1940.
One of the world’s foremost Irish scholars, he specialized in modern Irish literature and the history of the early Irish annals, a project he once said would take him “25 lifetimes” to complete.
Kelleher was also a fluent Irish speaker who could stump native Dubliners with his knowledge of their language.
“He prided himself on speaking Irish. And he brought back wonderful stories about speaking Irish in Ireland,” recalled William H. Bossert ’59, Arnold professor of science and a former co-master of Lowell House, where Kelleher served as a member of the Senior Common Room.
“It turns out that many people in Ireland don’t really speak Irish, so he was always calling people’s bluffs,” Bossert said.
Growing up in a heavily Irish neighborhood in Lawrence, Mass., Kelleher developed an early interest in Irish studies. His grandmother, an immigrant herself, began to teach him Irish as a child.
After graduating from Dartmouth in 1939 with a degree in English, Kelleher came to Harvard as a member of the Society of Fellows, and during World War II served briefly in the Pentagon.
But it was on a bicycle trip through Ireland after the war that he forged friendships with some of the great modern Irish writers, including Frank O’Connor and Seán Ó Faoláin.
From 1947 to 1986, Kelleher taught as a professor in the English and history departments as well as the Department of Celtic Literature and Languages.
Colleagues remember Kelleher as a “giant in the field” who informed a generation of other Irish scholars.
“Just about everyone working in the field of Celtic studies—and especially in Irish studies—was either a student of his or was greatly influenced by his work,” said Robinson Professor of Celtic Languages and Literatures Patrick K. Ford.
Ford, who studied under Kelleher and now chairs the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures, said Kelleher’s loss would be felt across the globe.
“He was a wonderful colleague, a great scholar, and has left students all over this country and all over the world as well,” Ford said.
But friends and family described Kelleher as a warm man who relished telling stories as much as he loved his academic work.
“John had a speech impediment. He had a terrible stutter, to the point where it was very difficult for him to speak sometimes, and difficult to lecture. But when he would start to tell a story, or a joke—the more risqué the better—he lost his stutter,” Bossert said.
According to his youngest daughter Nora Stuhl, Kelleher was most comfortable in small groups with friends and family.
“Anytime he was relaxed and was among friends or with his family, he would tell stories,” she said.
But at parties, the playful Kelleher was more reserved.
“He didn’t really like parties very much,” Stuhl said. “He once told me that he happened to meet Samuel Beckett at a party in Dublin, because they were both at a party and they were both hiding behind some furniture.”
Though he preferred interacting with small groups, Kelleher’s classes on Irish history and Irish literature—especially his class on Yeats and Joyce—drew a wide student audience.
“Students flocked to his classes because he was such an important scholar,” Bossert said.
He did not publish widely, but in 1979 Kelleher released a collection of his own poetry and translations entitled Too Small for Stove Wood, Too Big for Kindling. A compilation of his major academic work was released in 2002.
When he retired from Harvard in 1986, the energetic Kelleher did not slow down.
“He certainly continued with his scholarship, continued to take long walks in the woods, chop wood,” Stuhl said. “He was physically active until the day before he got sick.”
Stuhl also described her father as a man who remained determined and stubborn throughout his life.
“He graduated from high school in the middle of the Depression, and his father told him that the only way he would be able to go to college was to go to West Point, so he walked all the way to Boston—a 34-mile trip—to take the physical,” Stuhl said.
The doctor failed him on account of his flat feet, but Kelleher never stopped walking—right up until the day that he got sick.
Kelleher’s wife, Helen Caffrey, died in 1991. He is survived by Stuhl and his other daughters Brigid McCauley, Peggy Oates and Anne Fisher.
A memorial service will be held at Harvard in the spring.
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