Celtic Junction Arts Review
Ambassador Mulhall’s Visit
Natalie Nugent O'Shea
How does one plan a two-day visit for an ambassador? I had no idea what a challenge it would be — especially in St. Paul on a Monday — so many places, restaurants, treasures I was dying to show off – all of them closed.
Following a smooth pick up at the airport we traced our way up the Mississippi River past Fort Snelling, historic St. Peter’s church, the meeting of the rivers at B’dote, and up along West 7th and into downtown. Time was tight for the morning, so a pre-arranged breakfast of Caribou coffee, Boulangerie Marguerite (my local, black-owned and French-trained) bakery in a vintage picnic basket complete with floral tablecloth and Newbridge silver was my go-to. We didn’t have long, so the elegant lobby of the St. Paul hotel (famed for hosting writers, politicians, actors, and, of course, diplomats) became our glamping site du jour as we chatted about their journey, their travels (they are citizens of the world by profession, of course) and our itinerary for the day.
I love this area and can mark out most of my favorite places in this lovely city from the highest windows of the St. Paul Hotel. Rice Park with the joyous girl in the fountain, F. Scott Fitzgerald with his soft, bronzed smile, James J. Hill Library, the turrets of the Landmark Center, the Ordway, the Cathedral, Summit Avenue, all the delicious restaurants along Selby Avenue, and at the Western horizon – our home Celtic Junction Arts Center. There wasn’t enough time to share but a fraction of these jewels – but born and bred in this lovely city, I set out to make the most of it.
After our picnic, we attended a Special Exhibition curated by Acquisitions Director Patrick Coleman and Outreach Coordinator Lori Williamson at the Minnesota Historical Society together with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, and in the good company of our own Eoin McKiernan Library Director Brian Miller.
One of the great treasures of the MNHS is a 1595 Ortelius Atlas that includes a very early map of Ireland laying on its side. Patrick Coleman pointed out the detail included around the coast, and especially in Waterford, the ambassador’s hometown which was founded by the Vikings. The Ambassador remarked tongue in cheek that Santa does not come in a sleigh to Waterford – but in a Viking longboat.
Other pieces included a portrait of one of our earliest Irish politicians in Saint Paul, General James Shields; the diary of Mary Hill as she wrote of the plans for the Cathedral; a scathing, one-off newspaper printed by F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to mock their guests one night at the University Club, and a specially printed letterpress edition of poetry by Eavan Boland. As is his custom, the ambassador treated us to a reading of one of his favorite poems in the collection, Exile! Exile.
As we wrapped up at the Historical Society, Ambassador Mulhall expressed delight at Minnesota’s deep commitment to preserving its rich and diverse history. He also shared the solidarity and support of the Irish government for the African American community of Saint Paul and noted the strides the city is attempting with racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. Mayor Carter was presented with the gift of Waterford crystal, and in turn, he gifted the ambassador the Saint Paul pin off his very own lapel.
We whisked ourselves back to the hotel for an interview with MPR’s Tom Crann of All Things Considered followed by a special lunch with Cormac Ó Sé, original cast member of Riverdance, director and choreographer of O’Shea Irish Dance, and President and founder of Celtic Junction. We were met by Kieran Folliard of the Food Building, publican, distiller, and farm-to-table entrepreneur. Together we were regaled with their tales from nearly forty years of posts living in India (where Greta was posted in the Australian Foreign Service herself), Austria, Malaysia, Belgium, Germany, and his latest post, pre-Brexit Britain. We discussed sports, family (they are besotted by their young grandchildren), and plans for the future.
We continued our journey down Summit Avenue, past the James J. Hill House, Fitzgerald’s home, former embassies, and to the site where once stood a small Seminary but now boasts the magnificent St. Thomas University. David Gardiner, Irish Studies Chair and Editor of the New Hibernia Review welcomed us as we wound our way down to the special collections in the O’Shaughnessy library, where they have many of Eoin McKiernan’s papers from the Irish American Cultural Institute. With CJAC’s newly digitized collection of his television series, we were delighted to see this article on his programs from 1968!
Special Collections manager Ann Kenne put together a collection of their rare Irish pieces as well as a sampling of the O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award winners, a few of which were personal friends of the Mulhalls. They opened a publication by Waterford poet Seán Dunne, finding a poem he wrote as a dedication to their wedding day, “Wedding-Letter To New Delhi” . We were treated to another of the Ambassador’s poetry readings.
“With that I saw two Swannes of godly hewe Come softly swimming down the Lee, Their gae set on the current’s flow, necks Curled against the dismal showers. Around Them, cranes turn above anchored ships And in their perfect poise I find your match: A measured pace, oriental in its calm. From here to Delhi let their echoes ring.”
After a quick refresh on the part of our dignitaries and a behind-the-scenes hustle on the part of the Celtic Junction Arts Center board and staff members, we finally welcomed Ambassador Mulhall, Greta, and Consul General Byrne to a tour of Celtic Junction Arts Center and the Eoin McKiernan Library. We shared some special ephemera from Eoin McKiernan, selections from our Oral history project, our copy of Douglas Hyde’s book Mo Turas go Meiriceá 1891-1906 (including accounts of his stop in St. Paul!), and elements of our archives and exhibitions.
CJAC hosted a small VIP Reception, welcoming board members from our resident companies Irish Fair of Minnesota, Center for Irish Music, and the Irish Dance Parents Association as well as a great supporter of CJAC this year, Nasibu Sareva from the African Development Center. University Guests from across the state interested in Ireland Study Abroad programs also attended including St. Olaf’s Director of International and Off-Campus Study, St. Thomas’s Associate Director of Study Abroad, St. Cloud State’s Associate & Assistant Directors of Education Abroad & AVP of Center for International Studies, UMN’s Chief International Officer and Director of International Programs & Services and their Director of Study Abroad Programs.
Our Community gathered together on our new Outdoor Stage as Consul General Kevin Byrne graciously introduced Ambassador Mulhall, with a powerful procession from the Brian Boru Pipe band (it isn’t truly an event unless there is a piper!)
Ambassador Mulhall‘s knowledge and understanding of Irish history, literature, and especially poetry, spoke to our audiences and felt incredibly down to earth. The Ambassador thanked the community and recognized the critical role our Irish Cultural Center is playing in the Irish Governments Diaspora Strategy. His personal expression of Ireland’s global diaspora policy to double Ireland’s cultural footprint by 2025 draws direct connection in our ideas and goals for a vision of Ireland here in St. Paul.
Ambassador Mulhall also presented gifts as we honored three Minnesota treasures: our $100,000 challenge donor for the new Education Classroom, Tom Redshaw; internationally-renowned harpist and recent recipient of two Lifetime achievement awards, Ann Heymann; and the celebration of Celtic Junction’s Honorary Poet Laureate, Ethna McKiernan.
It was long day but an incredible night! We would like to express our deepest thanks to all of the board, staff, and volunteers who made this welcome possible for our special guests!
The following morning, as part of this ambassadorial visit, we were able to connect with the study abroad programs in the U of M’s Campus Club at the Coffman Union. The Director of the Study Abroad programs, Dr. Martha Johnson, shared with us some bold objectives; to increase their study abroad programs to 50% engagement within their student body. If I have my notes right, they have already progressed from 8% to 38% in just ten years and have shown that students who have studied abroad have a 17% higher hire rate. Abroad programs are particularly robust in Ireland, and while they have always been strong in literature, history, and dramatic arts, they have incredible programs in business, STEM, and nursing as well! CJAC looks forward to working with U of M programs to craft experiences for future Ireland study abroad students as well as alumni events.
Following the University visit, we took a driving tour of Minneapolis, the Guthrie Theater, St. Anthony Falls, the Stone Arch Bridge, and the Mississippi River. In the afternoon we had a beautiful welcome and delicious lunch at W.A. Frost with guests Patrick O’Donnell, Education Director, and Norah Rendell, Executive Artistic Director of the Center for Irish Music.
Finally, we visited Rice Park – to see F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Schultz’s creations and for them to bid adieu to our beloved midwest home. Most impressive of all (and completely unplanned) was finishing with a flourish as we listened to the Ambassador’s interview with Tom Crann of MPR’s All Things Considered, pulling up to the airport as he recited the final words of Yeats’s Isle of Innisfree. It was remarkable timing!
We received a delightful note from the Consulate thanking us for the visit. While Ambassador Mulhall is completing his final year in this posting to the US, we are keenly looking forward to his 2022 publication on Joyce’s Ulysses, a topic near and dear to our hearts. We hope to welcome him back for a book release and seminar. Lastly, we would like to express our deepest gratitude in his work for the Irish Diaspora in the US, and particularly in the recent success working to lift the Travel Ban from Ireland. We wish both himself and Greta godspeed in all places their upcoming journeys take them.