Joseph Hassett: From Irish-American Lawyer to Exemplary Scholar of Yeats and Literature

Dublin, Ireland – The Museum of Literature Ireland recently held a special event to honor the remarkable accomplishments of Joseph Hassett, an Irish-American lawyer with a deep passion for Irish literature, particularly the works of Yeats. Unlike many such events, Hassett was alive, well, and present to receive this well-deserved recognition.

Hailing from Buffalo, New York State, Hassett can trace his Irish roots back to the late 19th century. Although he was not born in Ireland himself, his connection to the country is unmistakable. His great-grandfather, Dennis Hassett, was drawn to the Buffalo area by the employment opportunities presented by the New York Central line, while his great-grandfather Cornelius Meegan found potential work associated with Great Lakes shipping in the same area. The Hassetts hailed from Clare, while the Meegans had their origins in Cork.

Hassett’s interest in literature and law began to bloom during his time at Canisius College, now known as Canisius University in Buffalo. It was during this time that he was bestowed a scholarship funded by contributions from local Irish Americans. While the scholarship aimed to highlight the Irish people’s progress into the 20th century, Hassett discovered Yeats and embarked on a transformative journey into the world of Irish literature. His passion for Yeats led him to participate in the UCD summer program and the Yeats Summer School in Sligo in 1963. Five decades later, Hassett delivered the welcoming address at the school and has since become a frequent lecturer there.

Despite his fervent literary pursuits, Hassett never neglected his legal studies. He went on to attend Harvard Law School, where he honed his legal skills while maintaining his deep-rooted love for Yeats. In fact, he completed his PhD in Yeats studies at UCD, delving into the poetics of hate in the renowned poet’s work. His extensive research culminated in the publication of his book, “WB Yeats and the Poetics of Hate,” which garnered critical acclaim.

As a lawyer at Hogan Lovells, Hassett worked on a range of legal cases, with a particular focus on corporate and securities litigation. However, he did not shy away from tackling other significant matters, including constitutional issues and the complexities arising from clinical trials of new therapies. Hassett discovered parallels between his legal work and literary studies, recognizing that arguing a trial case involves finding a compelling and masterful image to bring order and clarity to the chaos of everyday life.

Hassett’s literary and legal expertise beautifully merged in his book, “The Ulysses Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law,” an authoritative account of the legal battles surrounding James Joyce’s seminal novel in the United States. In addition to his admiration for Yeats, Hassett has a keen interest in contemporary poets such as Paul Muldoon, Paula Meehan, and Bernard O’Donoghue. He has also curated an exhibition on his dear friend Seamus Heaney at UCD.

Beyond his academic and professional pursuits, Hassett has generously donated substantial collections of Irish literary manuscripts and books, supporting institutions like the National Library of Ireland and UCD. His contributions have been recognized through the establishment of bursaries and lecture series in his honor.

In one such endeavor, Hassett has played a significant role in the ongoing restoration of the Yeats tower at Ballylee. His commitment to preserving Ireland’s literary heritage remains steadfast and unwavering.

In December 2022, Hassett received the Presidential Award for Distinguished Service by the Irish Overseas, a prestigious honor recognizing his outstanding contributions to the Irish diaspora.

At 80 years old, Hassett’s youthful spirit, infectious enthusiasm, unwavering optimism, and profound dedication to the causes he believes in are truly remarkable. It is as if the resilience and determination of his Irish ancestors, who forged new lives in the New World, have been reincarnated in him, benefiting all who encounter his work.

Hassett has authored three significant books on Yeats, including “WB Yeats and the Poetics of Hate,” “Yeats and the Muses,” and his most recent work, “Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life” (Lilliput, 2020). Through these books, Hassett explores the profound wisdom and universal themes in Yeats’ poetry, connecting them to the experiences and challenges faced by individuals in their daily lives.

Joseph Hassett’s contributions as a scholar, lawyer, and patron of Irish literature are invaluable. His impact on the preservation and celebration of Irish literary heritage resonates far and wide. As we reflect on his achievements, it becomes clear that Hassett’s enduring dedication is a testament to the power of literature to transcend boundaries and enrich our lives.