For me, this biography of a nineteenth-century Irish American Catholic priest began with the puzzle of a wild-haired poet who found himself on the wrong side of history. How in the world did he become such a large influence on regional nationalism in the wake of the American Civil War? And how did a presumptive outsider become entangled in white supremacy even as many of his compatriots espoused emancipation for both the Irish and African Americans? The answers are revealing not just of contemporaneous worldviews and competing sympathies, but of the unimaginably steep price to be paid for the volatile mingling of political and religious ideologies.
I was fortunate to coauthor this book with Donald Beagle, who proved to be the ideal collaborator. Known for redefining the term “information commons” (1999), originating the concept of the “emergent Learning Commons,” and for writing the most-cited book on the subject), Don is a true Renaissance man—a fine award-winning poet, musician, and historian, among other things. His friendship and knowledge in so many areas have shaped my research and engagement with information science and archives.
Before the book was published, we spent years painstakingly piecing together a timeline from scattered newspaper articles, letters, and microfilm; within years of its publication many of them could be gathered up en masse with a few keystrokes. The book’s reflections on culture wars and partisanship, and recurring civil wars, have seemed to grow more relevant in the digital age and with each passing age. We are awash in information, overheated polemics, and disinformation, so the battles of Ryan’s time seems just as pitched in ours. And given the book’s pointed commentary on Confederate symbols, the years following its publication have offered something of a vindication. We think of those debates as contemporary, but they were fraught and unsettled from the start, as we document in A Life of Father Ryan.