Weaving the traditions of Dance, Music, Art & Language

Celtic Junction Arts Center

Best Cultural Center in North America –IrishCentral, 2018

836 Prior Avenue, St. Paul, MN, 55104

A 501(c)(3) organization

Issue 1 - Samhain 2011

The Celtic Junction: Phoenix from the Flames

by Siobhán Dugan

Once upon a time…

It was just about two years ago that The Celtic Junction (TCJ) made its appearance in the Twin Cities. Quickly establishing itself as not only an important arts venue, but increasingly as a community center, the Junction has known some reversals in fortunes including a major sewer collapse and a serious fire. These adversities, instead of sinking the fledging center have prompted large- scale rebuilding. As we look forward to a Grand Re-opening Party and Fundraiser in October, I asked members of the Twin Cities Irish community to cast an eye back to the beginnings of TCJ and its role today.

Community Voice

Teresa McCormick is a long—time member of the Twin Cities Irish community, perhaps best known for tours of ‘everything Irish’ that she has run from time to time through St Paul Community Education. Teresa is currently offering an Irish American history tour of the Connemara Patch through the Celtic Junction on October 1st.

“For me, my strongest previous connection to the Irish cultural community was from following the activities of the Brian Boru pipe band. I never performed myself, it never occurred to me to take lessons. As I spent time in the Celtic Junction for performances and the gatherings that go with them, I began to think ‘well, I don't play an instrument, I don't dance, and I'm not all that young to start. But… maybe I could sing.’ And in this supportive environment, I have started to do that, to my great enjoyment and my own surprise, in the harmony class through the Center for Irish Music (CIM) at the Junction.”

Teresa has also found herself drawn into other activities, such as a role in “Get Up Your Irish,” an original work created by TCJ’s Natalie O'Shea & Norah Rendell.

David Ochs and Teresa McCormick in Get Up Your Irish!

Also in the play is David Ochs, a young lad who embodies the Celtic Junction experience. Now age 14, David had already started on American style fiddling at a very young age when he saw a Riverdance and found it “totally moving.” He started studying Irish fiddle with Jode Dowling of the Center for Irish Music (one of the key resident companies at TCJ). David also started with the O’Shea School of Irish Dance and followed it to the Junction when it opened.

David, who does not come from an Irish background, says he has “learned so much about Irish history through the play, the starvation back in Ireland and humiliation here in the early days” and that he has met so many interesting kids he never have would crossed paths with as they worked together on the play.

Dáithí Floody remembers the excitement of his 18th birthday in 1976. He could go into a pub legally for the first time, and headed straight to McCafferty's in search of Irish music and chat. “The pubs were the access point to Irish culture in those days,” Dáithí recalls. “Besides the music upstairs, I spent a lot of time down the basements because that was where the Irish language classes were held. Every couple years we’d have to move to another pub basement for some reason or another. Some held Irish dance classes down there, for a while. Better than the hedge row schools of old Ireland, yes, and we appreciated it, but… not ideal.”

Floody says of the Junction: “Spending time here reminds me of the traditional Irish ‘Oíche Airneál’, when friends and neighbors in the community got together to share stories, song, recitations or dance—whatever talent was there, they brought together for enjoyment in long, cold evenings.”

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Founder’s Voice

Natalie Nugent O’Shea, one of the co-owners of TCJ, says that’s exactly the idea she and husband Cormac had in mind. “My interest in the arts is wide-ranging, leading me to pursue jazz and folk dance, flute, and even lighting design, through which I met Cormac when the original Riverdance came to town. I love theater most of all, and that’s a highly collaborative art by its nature. Cormac is deeply steeped in the Irish dance tradition, but his first love is for the music; dance of the body is the soul’s response the tunes. It’s natural that together we would want to build a place like TCJ where we hope to honor the traditions in a refreshed and evolving way by bringing people from the arts community together. We didn't have a specific vision of what the Celtic Junction should be, we just wanted to start it and open it up to the community to make their own art’s center, and see what would happen.”

When I was interviewing Natalie at the Junction the joint was jumping; adults chatting in corners and kids and teenagers swarming with energy, a rehearsal having just let out, and dance classes ready to begin. That brought up another aspect of TCJ for her: “I love it like this, full of buzz, shoes tossed off at the door, kids flopped on the couches chatting away, a home away from home for them. That we have teenagers in the mix as well shows we’ve got something of what we wanted, where the whole family, folks from all the generations in the community feel they belong here. ”

Artist’s Voice

Dáithí Sproule, internationally famed Irish musician of Altan and long-time member of the Twin Cities Irish cultural community shared this: “The Celtic Junction immediately became a communal center people could depend on being able to do things—whether to do with music, setting up a gig, housing the school Center for Irish Music—and also just a place you would bump into people. I think that's something everybody liked from the start, that instead of different organizations and different people just being off on their own tracks and maybe only crisscrossing on very special occasions, we were bumping into each other all the time.” 

“I think there was talk—I was never involved in it—about setting up an Irish Center before, and I like the fact also that Natalie and Cormac just did it, there wasn’t the series of consultations and committees and all. They just did it—but they did it in a way that was completely welcoming to everybody else, I mean sincerely welcoming to everybody else. So if there is a gig now, if someone's coming to do a concert, this is the first place I would think of. For my recent CD launch some friends were saying ‘well, maybe we should do it at the Cedar [Cultural Center]’ but I said ‘No, no, it has to be the Junction’. Because that's where we do everything, almost everything, now.”

Although Irish culture predominates, broader Celtic arts abound at the Junction, such as the Scottish Hart School of Dance in residence, and a concerts series that has brought Cape Breton and French-Canadian fiddling and the superb Scottish band Malinky. Beyond the Celtic cultural boundary the Junction has welcomed musicians from India and Bulgaria, a Jewish Klezmer band, and cowboy folk musician Pop Wagner, who is among the resident artists.

Arts beyond music and dance also find a home at TCJ; the walls and cabinets showcase paintings, prints, quilts and exquisite Celtic pottery. Photographer Danny Diamond held an opening here, and here poet Ethna McKiernan will launch her new book of verse, Sky Thick with Fireflies, on November 13th. There have been classes in the Irish language and on the mythology and lore as well.

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Not all beer and skittles

While the past several years have been crowned with many successes, there have been severe trials as well. A major sewage back up in May 2010 interrupted activities and added expense. In December 2010, fire scorched the building, rendering thousands of square feet unusable, disrupting resident companies, dwindling critical revenue for an extended period. Natalie, whose appearance of a dainty Belleek figurine belies the sterner stuff she is made of, had this to say: “Cormac and I could have taken the insurance money and rebuilt what we had, relatively quickly and easily. We talked it over, thought about what we’d seen in the past few years, how TCJ had grown and the community’s incredibly positive response and we’ve decided to go for broke; we’d take the fire as an opportunity to jump ahead with our dreams about what more the Celtic Junction could be.”

Cormac adds, “We have met with some success, and much joy, but it has been an enormous undertaking. We can see that the work has only just begun.” The road forward to the rebuild has been cluttered with obstacles, but the O’Sé’s are pressing forward, precious building permit finally in hand.

Phoenix from the flames

What will be different in the renewed Celtic Junction? Some of the upgrades are not flashy, but will improve in the daily experience at the Junction: bringing the heating ventilation and air conditioning in the whole building up to code will increase the comfort and safety of residents and visitors year-round. The installation of an elevator that reaches all 3 floors of the building will make a big difference to mobility- impaired students & family as well as audience members. Extended, lighted parking will make for a smoother visit.

Another change will be the addition of square footage, space to fill now and to grow into over time. The two largest residents companies, the Center for Irish Music (CIM) and O'Shea Irish Dance have each tripled in number of students since locating to the Celtic Junction. Plans for the rebuild include another dance studio, more cozy waiting areas and built-for space for CIM.

Norah Rendell, musician, music teacher and CIM Executive Director has this to say: ”Many stalwarts in the Irish music scene here have told me that there have never been so many young people playing music so well in the history of the Twin Cities scene.  This would not be possible without the wonderful base we have in The Celtic Junction. Both students and teachers have been nurtured by the home-away-from-home atmosphere here. Parents love the comfy surroundings where they find themselves relaxing while kids enjoy a variety of music and dance classes.  A number of parents have found themselves enrolling in classes while they wait, taking up the fiddle, tin whistle or enjoying a song class!”

“With the built-for space in the renewed Celtic Junction we will have even better facilities; music rooms with proper acoustics, sized to fit our variety of individual and group classes, and the sound more contained than now. It can be a little hard to teach a reel tune for flute with a bodhrán group class held next door and an advanced hard shoe class below us!“ she laughed. “As well, we are grateful that Natalie and Cormac have the faith in us to be building room for us to grow further, space that we may not be able to take advantage of now, but hope to as more Twin Citians find out about traditional music here and the rich community around it.”

Cormac sums it up:  “One of the greatest things our society can offer is an enriched integration for children and teens into our adult society, and a haven for the artistic and physical growth of all the generations together. This, at its core, is my vision for the future.”

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Renewed Celtic Junction: artist's concept

The Written Word: Author Ethna McKiernan

Ethna McKiernan is a Minnesota author with strong Irish connections. She grew up in a literary household, began reading at four years old and published her first poem while still in her teens. Ethna owned and managed Irish Books and Media for 30 years while raising three children as a single mother. She was also writing poetry when she could scratch out some time for it.

When circumstances dictated the closure of the business in 2007, Ethna turned to work that she had been doing as a volunteer through St. Stephen's Human Services; working with the homeless. For three years she served as an outreach worker, connecting with people under bridges and on the streets in order to get their basic needs met, connect them to services and for some rare lucky few, the ‘gold ring’, long-term housing off the streets. She continues her work now, in the role of housing case manager for the Ending Long Term Homelessness Program. Ethna's poetry is informed by a life rich in experience, love of family, loss and new beginnings, and shaped by her ongoing relationship to Ireland and to this community.

Her first book of poetry, Caravan, was co-published by Dedalus Press, Ireland and by Midwest Villages & Voices in 1989. That same year she was awarded a MN State Arts Board Fellowship in literature. Her second book, The One Who Swears You Can’t Start Over (2002), was also published simultaneously in the US and in Ireland. Her work has appeared in The New Hibernia Review, Poetry Ireland, The Notre Dame Book of Irish American Poetry, and 33 Minnesota Poets.

Ethna’s third book of poetry, Sky Thick with Fireflies, will be launched November 13th at the Celtic Junction and we welcome you to join us there.

For information on getting a copy now, contact www.dufoureditions.com. In 2012 the book will be on amazon.com and in local bookstores. If you would like to contribute to the work of helping Minnesota’s homeless, go to www.ststephensmpls.org.

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Here is a selection from her latest book, a poem that won the Milwaukee Irish Fest Donn Godwin Poetry Award:


“Somewhere you are writing or have written in
a room you came to as I come to this
room with honeyed corners…”
  —Eavan Boland, from “The Rooms of Other Women Writers”

This is the place, Eavan, the kitchen
late at night, its untidy counters
heaped with books,

the boys asleep upstairs.
Here is where the first halting drafts appear
as the oven warms my feet

and here the blue midnight surges
through the window as it blends with stove-light
falling now upon the pages of Akhmatova.

Here lies the teenager’s jacket dropped to the floor,
here the hardened spills of last night’s meal.
Here’s the stove-top which doubles

as my desk, and this is the room where
the light whir of wings can be heard
sometimes, an indiscriminate brush of air

blessing all that’s ordinary -- the spit of steam
rising from the kettle, my own bent shoulders
curved above the notebook. This is the room

in which my mother’s ghost sings
as she kneads her soda bread, and right here
is the mortar of poetry, the plain materials of love.

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Traditional Celtic Cooking—FatHead Brennan Style

FatHead Brennan, aka Tony Ayriss, is a London-born Irishman whose Celtic art is cooking, about which he is passionate. FatHead's traditional food has been enjoyed at Scottish, Irish and Renaissance events across the Upper Midwest, and will be on offer at Celtic Junction Halloween Bash and Re-opening Gala! We have asked him to give a preview of the menu. As well, in celebration of our Halloween theme, we cajoled him into sharing his spookiest-soundingand most delicious—dish: ‘Babies’ Heads’!! Editor

A casual observer might think we, in the British Isles, live on a steady diet of corned beef, fish and chips, Irish stew and beans on toast (my favorite). The idea for Fathead Brennan's menu was to bring a sample of the kind of food that anyone from the British Isles would recognize, but perhaps be a tad obscure to Americans. Because of that, we offer explanations of our dishes on the menu and spend a large amount of time talking with our customers about the origins and folklore attached to our food.

For the Celtic Junction Halloween Bash and Re-opening Gala, we are offering four of our favorite dishes and one desert. Although the dishes or various names for them may have their origins in specific geographic regions, they are enjoyed in all areas of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.

Babies’ Heads

The term 'Baby’s Head' originates from the Liverpool area of Northern England and also from the Armed Services. Babies’ Heads are traditionally a steak and kidney pudding. The original recipe called for kidneys to be added to bite sized chunks of steak and sometimes oysters, wrapped in pastry and steamed for about three hours. Contrary to what some people think, it is not sweet nor a product that Bill Cosby would be touting; it is the steaming that makes it a pudding. To adapt to American tastes, we have omitted the kidneys and oysters, using just steak and onions. Babies’ Heads absolutely have to be eaten with brown gravy and preferably mashed potatoes.

Recipe for Babies’ Heads - Family Size

Printable Recipe (PDF)

From FatHead Brennan fatheadbrennan@yahoo.com


You may use your favorite recipe for pie crust or use ready- made from the store. If using ready- made it is important to let it thaw, then form into a ball before rolling it out.


  •  1 lb beef or stewing steak; trim and cut into bite-sized cubes
  •  2 cups onions; peel and chop
  •  salt and pepper to taste
  •  1/2 cup water

1. Roll out 2/3 of pastry on flat surface. Use it to line a 1/2 quart well-greased pudding basin (use oven proof round bottomed dish).

2. Fill the basin with steak and onions, salt and pepper to taste and water.

3. Roll out remaining pastry and make a lid. Seal the edges.

4. Cover with double thickness of aluminum foil. Fold over edges of basin to seal.

5. Place basin into a large pan of gently boiling water on top of stove. (Or use steamer). Steam for 3 1/2 hours, adding more water as needed.

6. Let cool for ten minutes, remove foil and turn upside down onto a serving plate. The rounded bottom of the pudding creates an authentic looking “baby’s head.” (Or you may spoon helpings directly from the dish onto your plate.)

7. Serve with brown gravy, mashed potatoes and vegetable for a delicious family meal.

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Scotch Eggs

Despite the name, I doubt if these things originated in Scotland. Peel a boiled egg, wrap it in sausage meat, roll it in breadcrumbs, deep fry it for about eight minutes and eat cold with Coleman’s very hot mustard. Not really as simple as it sounds - the trick is in the sausage. American sausage is completely different than it's British Isles counterpart. It is not only the taste, but the texture and ingredients differ greatly. If you try and wrap an egg with Jimmy Dean sausage, you end up with something the size of a grapefruit and would take more than a half hour to cook. To properly prepare a Scotch Egg it needs to be more the size of a tennis ball. The ideal foil for these delicious eggs is beer… they were made for each other.

Cheese and Onion Pie

A vegetarian alternative, this recipe comes from a one- time landlady of mine from Manchester. She served it up once a week and I never got tired of it. As one may expect, it is made with cheese and onions, plus sour cream and lots of eggs. It is something like a quiche, but not quite. The Cheese and Onion Pie is served warm. We offer a delicious steak sauce, I make up myself, to complement the dish.

Bangers and Mash

This is the popular name for sausages and mashed potatoes. It a great favorite with children. The name bangers, it is said, originated during WWII. Because of rationing, a high level of water was put into the sausages and if they were cooked too quickly they had a sligt tendency to explode. Hence… bangers! We have the meat prepared exclusively by my butcher and stuffed into natural casings. Of course Bangers are served with mashed potatoes and gravy.

Apple Dumplings

In keeping with the season, we are making mighty loads of apple dumplings. Home grown apples are wrapped in pastry and baked in a caramel sauce and topped with real whipped cream, for a tasty treat.

You may wish to explore authentic cooking by making your own family meal. Try the recipe for Babies Heads above. It seems rather simple, but it is time consuming. If you have any questions or comments, contact me at fatheadbrennan@yahoo.com

Good cooking!
- Tony Ayriss

Connemara Patch Walking Tour Video

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