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 4, Beltane 2012

Greetings from Natalie & Cormac O'Sé

With the heady scents of lilac and apple blossoms bursting out over the city, we celebrate Beltane. As this May marks our third anniversary of the Celtic Junction, we marvel endlessly at what has taken place here since 2009. While Cormac and I had a clear vision of a home for the Irish dance and music which measure out the rhythms of each and every day of our lives, we also trusted the chance of opening it to a broader band of Celtic arts and artists, and we have been bountifully blessed as it keeps taking root.  From gallery openings to poetry readings; from hurling club hooleys to Irish Nobel laureate’s words in skillful monologue from the stage, we are astonished at the wealth of character and camaraderie that weaves into our doors and into our lives.  

If you listen over the bustle of the dance classes and chatter, you can hear the strains of small pipes, bluegrass guitar or old-time fiddle, with our residents on the North side.  As mysterious as they may seem, they are long time Junction friends Laura MacKenzie, Gary Rue, Brian Barnes & Pop Wagner with whom we recently enjoyed an open house along with their celebrity guests and musical friends.  It is also Pop that we can thank for CJ's main lobby showing with his mohair cinches (go ahead - touch them gently - they are a treat to glide across with your fingertips.)  

Meanwhile, as their notes linger, soon Patrick O'Donnell and the Celtic Players again bring the great theatrical tradition of Ireland to our stage, with all of the intellect and insight of a long history of Irish writers.  The Outside Track and our dear Norah Rendell again grace the stage this very week, and then Len Graham & Brían Ó hAirt bring the incredible song traditions of Ulster and Connemara to our far mid-western Prairies... how lucky are we? Spring is about a gradual discovery and a sharpening of the senses... come in, and see what moves you.

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Wishing You a Bloomin’ May Day

by Siobhan Dugan

May Day has been an important holiday in much of Europe for millennia. It has been a sacred time to celebrate the joyous fertility of the world blossoming anew. In Wales, May Day is a known as Calan Haf, which means the first day of summer. Celebrations start on the evening before, known as May Eve, with bonfires. As with Calan Gaeaf, the Welsh equivalent of Samhain Eve, May Eve is a "spirit night," when the veil between this world and the otherworld is at its thinnest, spirits roam and divination is possible. 

May carols were sung, with songs being often of a bawdy or sexual nature in keeping with the ancient fertility theme. The carolers made a little procession among houses in the neighborhood with their songs on May morning to wish neighbors the greetings of the season and hope for a reward for their efforts. 

In Scotland and Ireland both, the day had significance not only for fertility, but for purification. These themes were in harmony as fertility was not perceived as unclean in the early period when these traditions were shaped. The form of the purification ritual was driving the village's cattle between two bonfires, to bring blessings, followed by the villages themselves. In Scotland, boughs of juniper were sometimes thrown on the fires to add to the purification and blessing of the smoke. Doors and windows of homes would be decorated with festive May Boughs, made of fresh-blooming Hawthorn blossoms. In modern times celebration have begun anew; the Edinburgh Fire Festival employs beautiful and elaborate pageantry to invoke the ancient story of winter dying and spring being born, in this case with the May Queen and Green Man in the principle roles. The Festival is held on Calton Hill, site of a very ancient volcano. In its 25th year, the Festival is extremely popular and growing.

With the Advent of the Christian period the old festivities where overlaid with or shifted to devotions to the Virgin Mary. St Paul Irish community member Teresa McCormick remembers May Day devotions in which parishes assembled near the cathedral in St Paul behind an image of the Virgin Mary, which was borne through the streets to the accompaniment of the Rosary read aloud, culminating in a Mass at the Cathedral.

At the Celtic Junction, we take note of May Day to celebrate each other, our community and the flourishing arts we create together!

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The Written Word: Celtic Community Theater Resurgence - an Interview with Patrick O’Donnell

By Siobhán Dugan

For a region well-stacked on a Scandinavian and German cultural foundation, Minnesota has a theater tradition with a markedly Irish flavor. The Guthrie Theater was, of course founded by Irishman Tyrone Guthrie and the Irish connection continues on through current artistic director, Joe Dowling. But there is a rich history of community- based Irish theater here as well.

The Irish Fair of Minnesota has supported theatrical presentation for several years running including Tír na nÓg Irish Children’s Theater, which grew out of the Irish Fair’s Summer School Children’s Theatre. Last year saw an exciting development in Irish children’s community theater with the production of an original play written and directed by Natalie O’Shea Get Up Your Irish, with Center for Irish Music’s Norah Rendell as music director.

Community-based Irish theater for grown- ups has also flourished. Founded in 1988, Na Fianna Theatre Group mounted numerous productions. Their first were Thirst, a comedy by Flann O'Brien and Riders to the Sea, by John M. Synge. The sometimes 20- person band also co-founded Acting Irish International Theatre Festival, an annual festival of full-length Irish plays performed by North American Irish community theater companies as well as some from Ireland; that continues to this day. Starting just a few years later, the Titanic Players produced forty- two shows over six years in the Titanic Lounge in Kieran's Irish Pub from 1994-2000.

Now The Celtic Players, a theater group that draws upon the Celtic tradition in literature from around the world has been formed, and will perform Scenes from a Celtic Album, at the Celtic Junction April 27-28. In happy anticipation of the show, I interviewed Patrick O’Donnell, founder and Director (in photo above). 

Q. Patrick, for those who don’t know you, tell us a little about yourself and your involvement in theater.
I'm an Irish-born Irish theatre historian, director and, occasional, writer. I've lived here in Minnesota since 1993. I'm married to Ann Treacy and live in St. Paul with my three daughters. I write (sporadically) for the Irish Gazette newspaper and am on the Irish Fair Board with a focus on the Cultural Committee. My dissertation (completed 2010) was on "The Irish Roots of the Guthrie Theater." Hopefully, this will appear as a book from Syracuse University Press in the next couple of years.

Q. What is your connection with Irish community theater in the Twin Cities?
I started out as an actor (a very amateur actor!) with Na Fianna. They were the premier Irish theatre group when I arrived in Minnesota in 1993. Their work was of a high quality and they deserve greater recognition for their achievements. Later I founded a theatre group called Cracked Lookingglass in 1994 which evolved into the Titanic Players. Our work was, like all theatres, varied in quality, but we did some solid productions.

Now I'm back producing and directing with a new company, the Celtic Players. We're still only at a very early growth stage, but have received a warm welcome from the community at large and crucial support from Irish organizations as well, including Irish Music and Dance Association and Legacy funding from the Irish Fair of Minnesota. We are a non-profit with a working board. All this is evolving. Other key players in our group are: Mike Casey, Rich Broderick (actor and Executive Director), Brian Casey, John Concannon, Kathleen Heaney, Kay Martinovich and Carol Kruse.  

Q. What have the Celtic Players done so far, including your newest piece?
Our first production was staged at the Landmark Center in March, 2011 and the Celtic Junction in April, 2011. It was called Nobel on Yer Bicycle and was a collage of short pieces from the works of the Irish Nobel Laureates: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett and Heaney (with a little bit of Brian Friel thrown in as a writer deserving a Nobel). Our second production is Scenes from a Celtic Album. It follows the precedent of 2011 and has appeared at the Landmark already in March as part of the IMDA Day of Dance, and will appear at the Celtic Junction April 27th and 28th.

We’re using ‘Celtic’ here in a sense broader than simply the literature of the lands of Celtic Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany and so on. As we say in the promo materials for this work: “the Celtic note in literature sounds in the spiritual imagination, playful wit, sometimes a melancholy struggle with history and an intense respect for language & symbolism. It echoes in the works of Shakespeare, as in The Tempest, and the Arthurian lyrics of Alfred Lord Tennyson as well.” We will, of course, also perform from some fine traditionally- defined Celtic texts, including the work of Brien Friel, Liam Flaherty and Billy Collins. We want our performance to be a sampling from this literary feast, with an array of courses reaching from drama to whimsy.

Q. What is the Celtic Players next production and why did you pick that piece? We hope to do Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock.  This will be our first full length production. The play seems to suit the mood of disillusion following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy.

Q. Why at the Celtic Junction?
It is the hub of Celtic and Irish arts production in the Twin Cities!

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Many Threads Come Together in CJ Resident Artist Pop Wagner

by Siobhán Dugan

Cowboy Singing Idol

When visiting the Celtic Junction this spring I was intrigued by the stunning fiber art on the wall. “Hello! I thought to myself. Not Celtic---and very beautiful!” Noting that the artist was Pop Wagner, one of the Junction’s resident artists, I determined to find out more. During the March 11th re-opening of the Studios of North Celtic Junction, the section that now houses teaching artists Brian Barnes, Laura MacKenzie, Gary Rue and Pop Wagner, I took the opportunity to pry away from the sessions, friendly crowd and goodwill, the man Garrison Keillor refers to as a ‘cowboy singing idol’ and we chatted a while.

Pop rounded out his compass later on, but his first love was music, with his first gig back in 1965. “Folk music in general, was always of great interest to me, the music, folklore and stories and poems, too.” Best known for cowboy songs, both traditional and those he pens himself, Pop also plays folk, blues and country songs, and genre-defying songs that echo from another era like the beguiling Windin’ Boy.

The ensemble I’m working a lot with now is Charlie Maguire, Tony Glover and we’re doing a Woody Guthrie show. ‘Cause this would've been Woody Guthrie's one hundredth year, his hundredth birthday is July 14th. We’ve been doing a tribute show on his birthday for several years, on his birthday but this year we’re doing an extended tour. We’re doing several shows in the area.“ As well, Pop will be appearing on A Prairie Home Companion in an upcoming show to be aired from the State Theater, a circling back to the formative days of the show when Pop was a frequent guest.

Lariats and Yarns

It was through his music that Pop got involved in doing rope tricks, for which he is also known. ”That came in kinda’ sideways along the way.” Pop says “An old cowboy friend, Glen Arlen, was on the Prairie Home Companion many years ago. And backstage he was doing his rope trick. My friend Sean Blackburn was there, too, who has since passed on. We were both pretty fascinated by the rope trick. But I had to go get my guitar and do the show and I thought that's pretty cool, but went off. Sean hung around to learn how to do some. And then soon after that about half a dozen of us got real interested in the lariat tricks for one reason or another. And we used to rent People Center Gymnasium to practice. The rope tricks fit into my performance pretty well as I do a lot of cowboy songs, that's my character onstage.”

“I don’t tell jokes with a punchline, but I do like to weave some humor into the performance; people enjoy it“, he says. Pop’s humor ranges from sly, through witty and touches absurdist at times. It isn’t everyone who can combine comicality and rope tricks in a stitch-raising French-medium show performed in a foreign country (OK, Canada), so I invite you to enjoy this one that includes a walk- on by V.I. Lenin.

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Historian of the West

In his work as an historian Pop also enjoys relating the way of life in the settler days, putting aside dull, stale myths to explore more complex realities. “The reason they were called cowboys is because a lot of them were only boys, 12 or 14 years old. And it was one of the most diverse working situations ever. Different backgrounds a lot of people of color, freed slaves went out West and that was the first work they could come up with. Hollywood skipped that, completely skipped over that. Native Americans and Mexicans, all the original cowboy gear came from the Mexican vaquero, they're the ones who put horns on the saddle, they're the ones he used the lariat to work stock. A lot of them were German, a lot of were Irish, and there were Chinese, too, especially as cooks. So the music and stories had a lot of different sources.”


A man of many talents, Pop Wagner also creates beautiful functional mohair cinches. These are the wide straps that are used to secure the saddle to the horse; the mohair is utilitarian as well as beautiful because its softness prevents sores on the horses’ skin. Pop learned mohair cinch making in 2006 in Cody, Wyoming. His teacher was Darin Alexander, a master cinch maker. Although it seems a surprising step outside his other talents, Pop says it came to him pretty naturally. He had learned embroidery and knitting from his mother at the age of 10 years, took art classes throughout high school and majored in art at Northland College where he concentrated on the creation of silver and gold jewelry. Knowing that, and given his life-long interest in the cowboy way of life, and deep respect for the folk traditions of the West, it makes sense that this Navajo traditional art found its way into his capable hands.

Pop and the Junction: Serendipity of Propinquity

And just how did Pop find himself at the Celtic Junction as an artist in residence? “I ran into the Celtic Junction by chance, because I live in this neighborhood. My wife was coming home from the food co-op and saw the signs early on and we decided to check it out, and we did. Came to a couple more events and talked with Cormac and Natalie and decided I wanted to be there. A less obvious connection here is that a lot of the canon of old cowboy songs have Celtic roots, too. Not the…Hollywood cowboy songs--I'm talking the old folk cowboy songs. For instance, The Streets of Laredo goes back to The Bard of Armagh. Same song. Another example, “Unfortunate Rake” which has Celtic roots, has an American version, “The Cowboy’s Lament.”

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Plate- Shattering Good: the Music of Orkestar Bez Ime

by O. Carillon RoseMeadows

Hornpipes, slipjigs, reels and slow airs suffuse the walls and spaces of the Celtic Junction. But come May 12th, a very different musical pleasure will blow our way; the mournful/joyful scrupulously-played-with-peasant-abandon Balkan sounds of Orkestar Bez Ime (OBI). The band’s origins as part of The Ethnic Dance Theatre create a music that makes it hard to remain seated while it’s playing. But while the vibrant beat can pull you in, this is no shallow seduction; the members of OBI have studied the music they love with commitment and musicality. Their effort has not gone unnoticed. In addition to a growing fan base and glowing reviews, the band has been awarded the prestigious 2011 McKnight Artist Fellowship for Performing Musicians.

Formation and Evolution

The band features musicians Colleen Bertsch (fiddle), Natalie Nowytski (vocals), Dee Langley (accordion), Katrina Mundinger (clarinet), Scott Keever (guitar), and Matt Miller (bass). OBI’s repertoire focuses on Eastern European and Rom (Gypsy) music, reaching from Albania to Ukraine.

The four female members of OBI have been playing together for over ten years. As members of The Ethnic Dance Theatre, they quickly discovered a shared vision of playing Eastern European dance music at the highest level of musicianship.

In 2009, with the addition of bass player Matt Miller and guitarist Scott Keever, the band’s material became “more complex and simultaneously more solid” according to Katrina, whom I spoke with recently. A 2010 tour of the Midwest gave the six members a chance to become closer friends and share eye-opening cultural experiences.

Plate- Shattering Appeal

Katrina relates a highlight of the tour when the band hit Chicago: “We played a Romanian restaurant, which may have been the first chance that Scott and Matt had to see how crazy the world of Balkan folk music could be. While we were playing, the owner, Branko, started shattering plates on the floor in appreciation... An amazing professional sax player from Romania, Gelu, sat in with us – this was a big deal! We were accompanying him... he's improvising and we're experiencing this fun interplay with a native born musician. At 3 AM the rhythm section (Dee, Matt and Scott) were trying to interpret Gelu's vague yet emphatic musical directions on what chords to play on a tune we'd never heard before... We're all listening and working together... That was a moment when, I think, we all realized the extent of the possibilities we had as a group.”

Bringing us to the present time, I asked Katrina what she felt was most noteworthy about Orkestar Bez Ime today: “I think what is cool about us is how tight we are musically, how we play in complex meters that you don't hear often in Western music... and, while we have an extremely strong trad foundation, we like to ‘funkify’ the music by adding a bit of our own semi-fusion world music to the sound.”

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A Rose without a Name

“Coming up with a name was difficult” recalls Katrina “we'd discover that names we liked in Serbian or Bulgarian would have …slang connotations we didn't want. In frustration I tossed out, ‘Fine, let's call ourselves Band Without A Name!’ I asked a Bulgarian friend if I had the grammar correct for Orkestar Bez Ime, and she exclaimed, ‘Oh, you've seen the movie!’ It turns out there is a 1982 Bulgarian comedy about a band that can't decide on a name called “Orkestar Bez Ime”. Though we'd never heard of the film, we had experienced the situation!”

Running Away with the Roma

Winning the McKnight Fellowship was not only an honor but carried with it a cash award. The group wanted to put that money to the best use they could, learning and traveling together, developing personally as musicians, and becoming a better band. As they had been seeking out and working up Rom material, the Amala School for Romani (Gypsy) Culture, located in the town of Valjevo in the hills of Serbia, is a perfect fit. The school’s founder, Dusan Ristic, says, “We break down the wishful and fearful mythology of the Gypsy and replace it with actual knowledge of Romani people, language, history, music, and dance.”

OBI's two-week trip takes place this July. Plane tickets have been purchased, but tuition for each member is still being raised. If you are unable to attend the May 12th fundraiser and would like to help out, please visit Kickstarter project “Orkestar Bez Ime: Study Abroad to Serbia” starting April 25th to make a donation.

Katrina says, “We will bring back tunes, techniques, tips, friendships and connections... and surely more that I can't imagine right now. We are all so excited about learning from these fantastic musicians!”

The Celtic Junction is delighted to host a concert and dance fundraiser for the McKnight Fellowship-winning Orkestar Bez Ime on May 12th. In response to the enthusiasm the audience had to dancing at the 2010 release, OBI is making it even easier to join in. The event will begin with a 30 minute segment called “Village Feet” consisting of dance instruction and demonstration. Simple Lesnoto, Pravo, and other folk dance steps will be taught so that everyone can join the fun.

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Celtic Cuisine: Casey’s Classic Irish Soda Bread

Longtime Irish Community supporter, musician, actor and baker Mike Casey shares his Irish Soda bread recipe with us this month. Mike says “I just retired from spending 10 plus years as a part time baker at Trotter's Cafe and Bakery. I have, however, been baking my own bread for 40 years. If you have never tried it, it's hard to explain the satisfaction that comes from it! I will say that my observation tells me that you can have the most tried and true recipes in the world, but nothing beats hands-on experience. My wife, Jan, can attest to some of the bricks I used to turn out when we were first dating! So, my best piece of advice is, if your first efforts are disappointing, don't give up; it will get better.

For Soda bread, I use a pretty simple recipe, actually:


  • 4 cups white flour ( or a mix of white and whole wheat)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp sugar (optional; I don't use it)
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • ½ cup currants, if you like (I usually don’t add them)
  • (Traditionally, Soda bread was made either in an iron pot or casserole over the fire, or else baked on a bakestone, an iron plate usually rested directly in/on the embers of the hearth. But I’m guessing you don’t have those amenities at your house; I sure don’t, so we’ll proceed with oven-baking directions. )

    Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees. Mix the flour, b. soda, salt, and sugar together. Sift by hand a few times to aerate. Make a well in the middle and pore in buttermilk. Mix together quickly. Add a bit of flour if dough seems too wet. Form into a ball and place on a floured baking sheet. Do a cross cut, forming an "x", across the top (it helps to flour the knife, to prevent sticking). Bake 30-45 minutes (ovens vary). Take out and tap the bottom; it should sound hollow. Wrap the loaf in a dish towel to cool; the towel will keep the crust from getting too hard. Enjoy!

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