The Irish Connection

Read about some of the great Pitt Social Work alumni who come from the beautiful island of Ireland. Dating all the way back to 1979, we are incredibly lucky to be able to share this history with them.
Photography by
Getty Images and Tom Altany/Pitt Visual Services

When Irishman Denys Candy (MSW ’81), came to Pittsburgh in 1979 with his new bride, a Western Pennsylvania native, he was looking for connections to community organizers. He soon learned about the community organizing program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and the name of an organizer he needed to meet. One day, while wandering around the Cathedral of Learning, Candy finally encountered Jim Cunningham, who chaired the school’s community organizing program. Cunningham welcomed Candy into his office, where they talked about community organizing. Candy became the School of Social Work’s first MSW recruit from Ireland.

It was this Irish connection that would, in 1980, see Candy bring Cunningham to Ireland for his first visit to explore his family’s roots as well as the Irish countryside, cities, and towns.

“I wanted Jim to see some of the wild beauty of Ireland and enjoy the hospitality of friends of mine in Sligo, my birthplace, before heading to Dublin city, where I grew up. Jim insisted on driving for a spell—his first time driving on the left and navigating our narrow country roads. We survived, and his driving got a little better on the trip, though I refused to let him drive in Dublin. We had many conversations and made connections that would serve Pitt and the school well for years to come,” says Candy.

In 1982, while executive director of the Community Technical Assistance Center (CTAC), Candy met Conor Ward, dean of social science at University College Dublin (UCD), and offered to host two students from UCD for a summer internship at CTAC. Ward promised to recruit “two of our best.” Candy raised a small grant for stipends from the H.J. Heinz Company and turned to Cunningham to house the students. The Cunningham family would host the students in their home in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Pauline Cooper (MSW ’88), from Rostrevor, County Down, and Mary Lou O’Kennedy Bolger (MSW ’88), of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, arrived that summer. This successful pilot project laid the groundwork for all that followed.

“Jim was a great role model in thinking strategically with a new view to building sustainable partnerships and coalition. We decided to approach Dean David Epperson to seek scholarship funding for students from Ireland to pursue MSW degrees at Pitt while living with the Cunningham family. Dean Epperson readily agreed and later visited Ireland, says Candy.”

Cooper, O’Kennedy, and the late Bridget McGuane (MSW ’88), became the vanguard of UCD grads to earn their MSW degrees at Pitt. Jim and Rita Cunningham hosted these young women as well as all the subsequent MSW students from Ireland. Prior to the European Union, the economy in Ireland was quite distressed, so a scholarship in America with the possibility of finding good U.S. jobs was quite attractive to UCD graduates.

Other students from Ireland soon followed, including Eve Kemmerling, Michael Beary (MSW ’93), Brian Conway (MSW ’99), and Niall Sexton (MSW ’96) as well as Pauline Faughnan, a doctoral student. Irish alums found good jobs as well as lifemates in the Pittsburgh region and elsewhere. Some stayed in the United States to work, like Sexton, who worked with Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services, or to complete further study, like Conway, who earned his PhD at the University of Notre Dame and eventually returned to Ireland to teach and work. Beary parlayed his industrial social work specialization into a professional career in employee assistance, recently moving from Amazon’s Seattle, Wash., headquarters to its EU headquarters in Ireland. Kemmerling, O’Kennedy, and McGuane returned to Ireland and their families after graduation and pursued careers in community and youth work back home.

Ireland’s rising economic fortunes have lessened the appeal of the Pitt MSW program. However, the school has made other Irish/EU connections over the years: hosting visiting Irish community organizers, sponsoring three transatlantic symposia on community and social development for Pitt’s European Studies Center, leading a study abroad service learning experience in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and consulting and lecturing on university-community partnerships for community and economic development in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Faculty, students, and alumni traveling to Ireland have enjoyed the hospitality and collegiality of Pitt Social Work Irish alumni.

As the reflections of these Irish alumni underscore, the encouragement, leadership, and innovative thinking they experienced at the School of Social Work, as well as the hospitality offered by the Cunningham family, facilitated wonderful learning and transformative experiences for organizers, students, and faculty on both sides of the Atlantic. Pitt’s School of Social Work is now more internationally engaged thanks to its Irish connection.


Irish Alumni Reflections

Denys Candy (MSW ’81)

“In addition to being the first Irish alumnus [of the School of Social Work] and building our Irish connection with Jim Cunningham, I worked in Pittsburgh for decades after graduation, including as the second and then last director of the Community Technical Assistance Center in Pittsburgh. For many years, I worked as president of Community Engagement Partnerships, Inc., my consulting firm, and also as an adjunct faculty member working closely with the school on many Ireland exchanges and EU projects. Now, as director of the Jandon Center for Community Engagement at Smith College in Massachusetts, I coteach a course called Overcoming Divided Histories in Dublin and Belfast. I had often worked on cross-border reconciliation between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and I return regularly to visit family and friends in Sligo and throughout Ireland.”

Mary Lou O’Kennedy Bolger (MSW ’88)

“I attended the MSW program from 1986 to 1988. My friend Pauline Cooper and I had spent the summer of 1984 working in the Community Technical Assistance Center headed by Denys Candy as part of our degree work experience at University College Dublin. We were hosted by Jim Cunningham’s family, which led to our return to the school’s MSW program and the Cunninghams in 1986 with a third Irish student, Bridget McGuane. The Cunningham house in Shadyside was a hive of academic and social activity.

My memories are of the wonderful tutors and mentors: the inspiring Moe Coleman, who instilled [in me] a love of policy and critical thinking; the irrepressible Kiernan Stenson; the wise Charlotte Dunmore, a valued mentor; the school research team I worked with—Hidenori Yamatani, Gary Koeske, Bert Maguire, and Pamela Martz—and the always encouraging Tracy Soska, whose community knowledge and practical approach got us out of delicate situations in our internship. Their legacies, and the school’s, reach beyond Pittsburgh, certainly to here in Ireland!

“I returned to Ireland, working initially at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin but returning to community work in 1991, managing a new social innovation program, County Wexford Partnership, for 11 years, then spending another five years managing a private company for independent living through telecare technology. One of my fondest School of Social Work memories was Moe’s negotiation class that always stayed with me—so much so that in 2006, I trained in mediation and have been self-employed as a mediator and conflict management trainer since.”

Pauline Cooper (MSW ’88)

“Mary Lou O’Kennedy and I first came to Pittsburgh on an internship at CTAC organized by Denys [Candy]. Father Conor Ward told me about an internship abroad, and I got excited thinking it would be in Europe. I never had any desire to go to America, yet here I am 35 years later. On the other hand, Mary Lou always wanted to go to America, and she is back in Ireland now, so we never really know where life will take us. I told her we would only go if she promised that we would leave Pittsburgh when the internship ended. I lived in Pittsburgh for more than 20 years and was heartbroken when I had to leave.

“We stayed with the Cunninghams, who gave us such a wonderful introduction to the city and the school, which are so intertwined. It was my first visit to America and it left an everlasting impression [on me] of the goodness and generosity of the Cunningham family, who provided us [with] the comforts of home away from home.

“I grew up in Northern Ireland in the ’70s during the Troubles and as a Catholic. Upon graduating from UCD, I had few opportunities for employment; both Northern Ireland and the Republic [of Ireland] were in a recession. I loved organizing, but trying to organize in Northern Ireland would have landed me in jail. I was fortunate and forever grateful for the internship that first brought me to Pittsburgh and introduced me to the Cunninghams. I also am very thankful to Grady Roberts; to Dean [David] Epperson, who always asked, “Pauline, how’s your family back in Ireland?”; to Kiernan Stenson and Moe [Coleman] for all that they did; and to Ed Sites for teaching me how to write a successful grant, which is helpful in my career as a fundraising consultant and grantwriter.

“After graduation, I stayed in Pittsburgh, working first as manager for regional programs with the Mon Valley Initiative and then as executive director of the Aliquippa Alliance for Unity and Development, a community development corporation that Jim Cunningham developed with another community organizing program alumna. Later, I began my career as a fundraising consultant/grantwriter working with nonprofits in Southwestern Pennsylvania and with Catholic and faith-based nonprofits nationally.”

Pauline Cooper and her daughter

Donal Costello (MSW ’92, PhD ’97)

“I first met Jim Cunningham in the bleak year of 1987, a gloomy time in Ireland, with double-digit unemployment—as high as 80% in the community where I worked—from declines in manufacturing and dockside jobs, leaving inner-city communities particularly affected. The National University of Ireland, Maynooth, and Dublin were developing education and research [initiatives] that engaged with communities, and the government funded some programs in community organization. Jim was part of a team from Pittsburgh linking communities there with projects in Ireland in Maynooth and Dublin.

“I visited Pittsburgh in 1988 on a Marshall Fund program and saw firsthand the extraordinary commitment of the community in response to the huge economic crisis in this industrial region. I also saw the amazing engagement of the University [of Pittsburgh] in this work and the MSW scholarship that was offered to Irish community organizers on an annual basis. When I was offered a scholarship in 1990, I didn’t hesitate and later completed my doctoral work at the School of Social Work.

“My years in Pittsburgh were among the most enjoyable and fruitful that I can remember. I loved the city and the incredible people that I met. The energy of the faculty and the optimism of the activists were infectious. Jim, Moe Coleman, Tracy Soska, and others were an inspiration. Behind every memory is the figure of Jim Cunningham, whose honest and unselfish commitment to others represented the best of humanity. The legacy of his Irish program is the great work that is still carried out here by those who benefited from it.

“Community organizing is even more important in filling the void and representing the communities that no longer have a voice in political discourse. I have felt this very strongly in any work I have done since returning, which has involved managing an information, advice, and advocacy service in southwest Dublin serving more than 100,000 people as well as independent consultancy work with other projects. In all that time, the values and knowledge that I gained in my time in Pittsburgh have been indispensable.”

Brian Conway (MSW ’99)

“I first heard of the School of Social Work’s Irish connection through University College Dublin’s then Department of Social Policy and Social Work. Not knowing much about Pittsburgh, I arrived in August 1997 and still remember meeting Professor Cunningham and his son Steve at the airport. I stayed with them for nearly two years.

“The standout memories of my time at Pitt were my cohort of MSW students, the field placements I undertook, and the challenges of living in the United States, which were all new to me then. After graduation, I worked for a short time in the community organization field, organizing social housing tenants in a Midlands Irish town. Being at Pitt influenced my decision to later pursue doctoral study at the University of Notre Dame, Jim Cunningham’s alma mater. While at Notre Dame, I had the privilege of hosting Professor Cunningham and

Pat Murphy to talk about their community economic development book. I now serve as an assistant professor at Maynooth University and research comparative historical sociology, especially organized religion.”