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Howard Keeley receives Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad

Howard Keeley (right) received from Dr. Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, the 2023 Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad, the highest honor that the country of Ireland can bestow on a non-resident.

On Jan. 16, Howard Keeley, Ph.D., director of the Center for Irish Research and Teaching (CIRT) at Georgia Southern University, received the 2023 Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad from the Government of Ireland. It is the highest honor the country of Ireland can give to a person who is a non-resident.

Thirteen awards were announced worldwide, only two of which went to individuals based in the U.S. Keeley received the award in the business and economic development category. Achievements cited included his development of Georgia Southern’s presence in Ireland and his facilitation of trade and investment opportunities between Georgia and Ireland.

Keeley, who is originally from Ireland, has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years and will celebrate 20 years at Georgia Southern in 2024. To receive this honor was humbling, he said. 

“In some ways, I think this award has a bit of a reputation for being a lifetime-achievement award,” said Keeley. “People who receive it work very hard for many, many years on projects that are truly impactful for Ireland and Ireland’s reputation. I know some of the people who’ve been recognized in the past, and it’s a huge honor to be included in that company.  I’m very humbled by it.” 

Keeley has been dedicated to growing Irish research and teaching at Georgia Southern since he joined the faculty in 2004. 

“When I first came here, the Irish Studies program was literally a one-room affair,” he said with a laugh. “Its budget was zero dollars per year. It just wasn’t what I thought it should be, given the nature and scope of Irish studies programs in the North American academy.”

Keeley began by working with faculty to broaden the curriculum across multiple disciplines, and he would go on to raise significant philanthropic support and establish a diverse study abroad program in Ireland.

“Eventually we were established enough to turn to the work we should have been doing for years before that, which is grant-funded academic research,” he said. “We reversed the narrative of asking the community for help and instead asked the community how we could help them because as a university, that’s really what we must be doing.” 

Today, the once-small program has grown into an established center (CIRT), based on the Armstrong Campus in Savannah. Because of Savannah’s historic connections with Ireland, CIRT is committed to using archives, oral histories, and other resources to study the identities, experiences and achievements that constitute Irishness in Georgia and the American South.

Keeley was instrumental in establishing the University’s Learning Center in the town of Wexford, Ireland, making Georgia Southern the first public university in the United States to establish a bricks-and-mortar presence in Ireland. Over the spring and summer of 2024, around 180 students will study there. 

Currently, philanthropic monies are funding the conversion of a former convent, an iconic building in Wexford, into a residential center for Georgia Southern students. Furthermore, Georgia Southern recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ireland’s South East Technological University. That agreement will advance collaborative research in sustainability. Already, faculty members from several Georgia Southern colleges are working with Irish colleagues on exciting projects in engineering, coastal sustainability, water and social justice.      

“I’ve always wanted our center to be truly competitive with such well-funded Irish Studies programs as those at the University of Notre Dame and Boston College,” Keeley said. “I think we have a ways to go, but I am always looking forward. Opportunities abound for people both inside and outside Georgia Southern to participate in this international relationship.” 

The award also recognizes Keeley’s central role in the development of TradeBridge, a partnership whose other founding members include World Trade Center Savannah (the international arm of the Savannah Economic Development Authority), Wexford County Council and Wexford Enterprise Center. The initiative facilitates trade and investment between the Savannah region and the Southeast Ireland region.

In addition, Keeley has collaborated with Visit Savannah and Irish partners on grant-funded public history projects that advance heritage tourism on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2022, at a ceremony in Savannah City Hall attended by Ireland’s Minister for Justice, Mayor Van Johnson of Savannah and Councilor Barbara Ann Murphy, Chair of Wexford County Council, established a Partner Communities Agreement to recognize and support the many exciting projects happening between the two regions.

Ireland’s Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, commended the recipients of the Presidential Distinguished Service Award and their dedication to Ireland. 

“This award recognizes the exceptional achievements, contributions and service of members of our diaspora in all its forms,” said Martin. “Each of the 13 awardees has made an outstanding mark in their field of endeavor – across the arts, culture, charitable works, business, education, science, Irish community support, peace and reconciliation, and inclusion and equality. I look forward to meeting them in Ireland when the President presents the awards.” 


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