Cathleen Houlihan '19: Irish Studies Minor and Visa Officer, Ireland's Consulate in Chicago

Author: Mary Hendriksen


Cathleen (“Caiti”) Houlihan ND ’19 is the visa officer for the Consulate General of Ireland, Chicago—and one with a recognizably Irish name.

As she tells the story: “I grew up going to Irish events all around the Metro-Detroit area with my parents and siblings. My paternal grandfather was from County Clare and moved to America when he was almost 30. Although I never met him, my dad passed down his dad’s love for Ireland and Irish culture through enrolling my sister and me in Irish dance and proudly celebrating St. Patrick’s Day each year. My parents’ decision to name me after the play Cathleen Ní Houlihan [W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory] secured my fate to study all things Irish as I grew older.”

At Notre Dame, Caiti decided to major in economics and was a four-year member of the campus Irish Dance Team. She attended Irish events and talks around campus.

The first Irish Studies course she took was fall of her junior year: “The Hidden Ireland” with Peter McQuillan (Associate Professor of Irish Language and Literature).

“Professor McQuillan made me even more eager to learn more about Irish identity, literature, and history in an academic setting. His class led me straight to the Irish Studies minor.”

Signing up for her first Irish language course took some courage.

“In my visits to Ireland, the road signs—in Irish—seemed formidable; yet taking my first Irish class with Mary O’Callaghan (then Assistant Teaching Professor of Irish Language and Literature and now Advising Dean in the College of Arts and Letters) made me fall in love with the Irish language. I made friends in that class with whom I still talk as Gaeilge today. Many of us continued on into the third sequence of Irish with Tara MacLeod (Associate Teaching Professor of Irish Language and Literature), where we grew even closer and perfected those complicated verb tenses before we graduated.”

Caiti names two additional influential Irish Studies courses as “Cultural Anthropology of Ireland” with Diarmuid Ó Giolláin (Professor of Irish Language and Literature and Concurrent Professor of Anthropology) and a seminar on “Storytelling, Memory, and Place: From Ancient Ireland to Modern Chicago” taught by Amy Mulligan (Associate Professor of Irish Language and Literature).

Caiti notes that, with funding from the Keough-Naughton Institute, she was fortunate to travel to Ireland twice for language immersion during her time at Notre Dame.  In summer 2018, she spent time in Carraroe, Co. Galway; and, in summer 2019, right after Commencement, she studied Irish in Donegal.

“Not only did my Irish improve, but I met people from all around the world and even connected with some familiar faces from Notre Dame!” she says. 

Between those two summers, Caiti wrote her capstone thesis in Irish Studies on Conradh na Gaeilge’s An Chéad Leabhar (the Gaelic League’s first book of membership, 1893)  with guidance from her advisor Faculty Fellow Brian Ó Conchubhair (Associate Professor, Irish Language and Literature).  This experience, she said, prepared her for graduate studies at New York University in the masters’ program in Irish and Irish American Studies and now her role with the Consulate General of Ireland, Chicago. 

That job is a plum position for a young graduate. 

As the visa officer, Caiti receives applications and processes visas for visa-required nationals currently residing in America who plan to travel to Ireland for employment, tourism, joining their family, or similar reasons.  In that role, she works closely with Vice Consul Sarah Keating. 

The role of visa officer is made significantly more complex because of the pandemic. While Ireland is in Level 5 lockdown, visas can be approved only for emergency/priority cases based on current Irish government restrictions and recommendations.

Caiti is also involved with the Emigrant Support Program, which funds various organizations supporting the greater Irish community in the Midwest for projects in the categories of welfare, connection, and celebrating Ireland’s diverse and underrepresented diaspora. Past recipients have included music schools, business networks, and cultural organizations from across the Consulate’s 12-state region.

 “The goal is to make personal connections with these organizations,” she explains, and “to support them in the funding application process and with whatever questions they may have during the grant year.”

Like so many, Caiti is eager to begin attending events in person.  The week in which St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated would normally find Chicago Consul Kevin Byrne and Vice Consul Sarah Keating, as well as all members of the consulate staff, attending Chicago’s famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade, sprinting from event to event, and hosting ministers and dignitaries from Ireland. This year, the pandemic has made programs  virtual—such as “Shades of Green”, an event sponsored by Ireland’s embassy in Washington, D.C. in partnership with Irish cultural centers and festivals throughout the United. States.

With vaccine distribution proceeding well in Chicago and throughout the Midwest, Caiti looks forward to a summer with more opportunities for Consulate staff to meet with people throughout its 12-state area in person and, she hopes, perhaps even a visit back to campus in the fall to reconnect with her Irish Studies professors.