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By the book — Terence Killeen on lawyer and literary scholar Joseph Hassett

Hassett’s book The Ulysses Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law is by far the best account of the legal saga surrounding Joyce’s novel in the US

A special event at the Museum of Literature Ireland recently honoured the work and achievements of a person who, unlike on some of these occasions, was alive, well and present. Joseph Hassett is an Irish-American lawyer whose passion for Irish literature has brought him a distinguished second career as an exemplary scholar and exponent of that literature, especially Yeats.

Hassett was born in Buffalo, New York State. All of his great grandparents were born in Ireland in the late 19th century, except his mother’s grandmother who was born on a ship en route from the country just a short time before it arrived in New York. So that was as close to an Irish origin as one could get, without being actually born here.

For many Irish immigrants, employment on the railroads was a major resource. The prospect of work on the New York Central line drew his great-grandfather, Dennis Hassett, to the Buffalo area. Potential employment associated with Great Lakes shipping seems to have drawn his great grandfather Cornelius Meegan to Buffalo. The Hassetts were from Clare; the Meegans from Cork.

His late uncle Bill Hassett was a great reciter of poetry, Joseph Hassett says, adding that perhaps his dramatic rendering of The Lake Isle of Innisfree had an unconscious effect on him. Rather remarkably, though, Hassett’s interest in both literature and law seems to have developed simultaneously while he was an undergraduate at Canisius College, now Canisius University, Buffalo.


On the literary side, while at Canisius he was awarded a scholarship funded by small contributions from local Irish Americans designed, as he recalls, to permit students from three local Catholic colleges “to see the Irish people walking into the 20th century hand in hand with God”. Hassett says he found Yeats instead, or perhaps Yeats found him. He spent two weeks at the UCD summer programme, and two weeks at the fourth annual Yeats Summer School in Sligo in 1963. All of 56 years later, he gave the welcoming address at the school and has often lectured there.

Although, as he says, this first experience was transformative – “the Yeats bug had bitten” – Hassett did not neglect his legal studies. He went to Harvard Law School after leaving Canisius, not a place you just walk into. The law firm in Washington that he joined after law school allowed him time to pursue his interest in Yeats and he completed a PhD with Gus Martin at UCD. That work, WB Yeats and the Poetics of Hate, was subsequently published by Gill and Macmilllan and St Martin’s Press.

As a lawyer with the firm of Hogan Lovells, Hassett’s work covered a broad range of areas, with a heavy emphasis on corporate and securities litigation, but he also handled other significant cases , including constitutional issues and tricky questions arising out of clinical trials of new therapies. He found distinct affinities between legal work and literary studies: arguing a trial case also involves, he says, finding a “masterful image” by which to bring coherence and control to the “foul rag and bone shop” (sometimes very foul) of daily experience.

Of course, he is far from being the first lawyer with strong literary interests: the late Frank Callinan and Adrian Hardiman, both friends, come to mind. His literary and legal interests came together in his book The Ulysses Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law, by far the best account of the legal saga surrounding Joyce’s novel in the US. In addition to Yeats, Hassett takes a lively interest in the living poets Paul Muldoon, Paula Meehan and Bernard O’Donoghue, among others. He also has a strong commitment to the work of Seamus Heaney, another close friend, and has curated an exhibition on him at UCD.

In addition to his own literary and legal work, Hassett is a very generous donor, both materially and financially, to Irish institutions – materially in the sense that he has donated substantial collections of Irish literary manuscripts and books. The National Library of Ireland and UCD have been particular beneficiaries and both institutions have named bursaries and lecture series after him.

A representative example of Hassett’s activities is his contribution to the ongoing restoration the Yeats tower at Ballylee.

In December 2022, he very appropriately received the Presidential Award for Distinguished Service by the Irish Overseas, the only such official honour available to this category at present.

Hassett’s three books on Yeats are WB Yeats and the Poetics of Hate, Yeats and the Muses, and most recently Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life (Lilliput, 2020). This work deploys passages from the poetry to address issues that everyone has to engage with in the course of a normal life. It presents Yeats as a figure of wisdom, his poems as songs of experience, an experience which, as Hassett interprets it, has a universal bearing.

As is clear from the foregoing, Hassett is by now indeed a veteran: he turned 80 last year, hence the MoLI occasion. But he still conveys a certain youthfulness, an engaging enthusiasm, openness, optimism and positive commitment to the causes he believes in – and this, rather remarkably, despite prolonged experience of the “real Ireland”, as distinct from the early Yeatsian ideal one. It is as if the qualities of his ancestors who ventured forth and built a new life in the New World have been reimported to a place which badly needs them – and very much to our collective benefit.