Celtic Junction Arts Review
Issue 11, Beltane 2020
Archiving and Articulating Celtic Heritage
“No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.” Such signs proliferated in the cities of England and even Canada in earlier decades (as our Irish College’s language teacher, Lavinia Finnerty, reminded me) and are an ever-present folk memory for Irish communities of how discrimination impacted their emigrant histories and those of earlier generations and linked them to the egregious racism and injustice experienced by people of color. These historical antecedents can be updated. For example, they inform the lyrics of Irish singer-songwriter, Imelda May whose candid spoken-word poem “You Don’t Get To Be Racist And Irish,” was recently written in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests across the world:
You don’t get to be racist and Irish You don’t get to be proud of your heritage Plights and fights for freedom While kneeling on the neck of another.
It is important to insist that there is no directly comparing the heinous killing of George Floyd and other people of color by police in Minneapolis and other cities with any other ethnic group’s historical experience. It needs to be recognized as unique and tragic and indefensible. Nevertheless, there may be commonalities between groups at the deeper level of abstraction of our common humanity and our common histories. There may be hope-inducing precedents that can be respectfully offered at this time such as how communities in Northern Ireland campaigned against systemic injustice and fought for the reform of a brutalizing police system leading to the transformation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) into the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in 2001 following the Patten Report. To oppose racism, racial injustice, and police brutality on the level of our common humanity is the legitimate response.
The persistent challenge going forward will be to update and reimagine Irish and Celtic identity and heritage to continuously make it relevant to contemporary America and articulate commonalities that enrich dialogue between diverse histories and groups. In America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as the controversial historian Noel Ignatiev argued in How the Irish Became White (1995), the Irish moved from being discriminated against to benefiting from white status and privilege. Irish identity historically has a strange paradoxical duality: it is the history of both discrimination and privilege.
Going forward, the Irish College of Minnesota and this Arts Review will join with others at the Celtic Junction and the wider Irish community in hosting conversations and classes and events to enliven this dialogue and examine this paradoxical – and at times frankly contradictory – heritage. The artists as usual are beginning that process.
The Minnesotan Irish-American artist, Kate O’Donnell offers us her paintings and commentary on coping with the virus COVID-19 and the deeper virus of racism that led to African-Americans being killed by the police. Speaking of her portrait of George Floyd, she stated: “I felt a need to paint a tribute to him. I will continue painting images of the lives that have been lost due to racist cops. They cannot be ignored, and we are responsible for ensuring no more lives like George Floyd’s are taken.”
The Executive Director, Natalie Nugent O’Shea unequivocally states: “Celtic Junction Arts Center stands against racism and the violence that it precipitates. We are committed to equality and justice and will work and evolve toward that goal.” Her article delineates the connections that have been created via moving programs and concerts online via Zoom, and she shares resources and ideas that have been communicated via the Midwest and National Irish Cultural Centers Associations as the Global Irish family responds to these unprecedented times.
Our international conversation continues with a new submission from Réamonn Ó Ciaráin, chairperson of Aonach Mhacha, the new arts center in Armagh city in Northern Ireland who generously facilitated a comprehensive donation of more than a 100 CDs from the Gael Linn archive to our McKiernan Library. He sends us the first in a series of translations into Irish of sections of the ancient Greek poet Homer’s epic The Odyssey. This epic centuries ago had an influence on Irish monks’ transcribing the corpus of Irish mythology and, in more recent times, offered a comedic and ironic template for James Joyce when composing his modernist classic, Ulysses (1922). The Odyssey remains one of the most humane foundational texts of the Western canon of literature and is only renewed in its compassion and dramatic power by this rendering into the Irish language.
My article “A History of Irish Literature 600-1155: A View from the Mississippi” connects the complex weave of identities that characterize Minnesota with the constant reinventions of Irish literature from its beginnings with the infusion of Celtic lore into Latin language scripts. From its origins, Irish literature has been about convergences and renewals as different populations and cultures impacted its constant evolution and progress whether Christian monks, Viking warriors, or Norman knights. The result is a complex literary weave of voices and identities akin to the polyphonic cultural psyche of the diverse state of Minnesota.
The Irish language teacher, Lavinia Finnerty presents a brief meditation on two examples from her class “Beannachtaí agus Mallachtaí na Gaeilge – Irish Blessings and Curses” which demonstrate the subtlety and flexibility of the Irish oral tradition and its ancient and continuing power as a literary language.
Brian Miller, Library Director, gives us an update on the McKiernan Library and how it has moved online with a variety of new courses and programs and donations and, in particular, how 43 television programs narrated by Eoin McKiernan from 1963-1965 will soon be digitized following the receipt of a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society.
Lily O’Donnell, a writer originally from Minnesota, and now based in Winnipeg, continues her engagement with contemporary Irish fiction with a survey and reflection on the first two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People by the award-winning Irish writer, Sally Rooney.
“History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake,” murmured Stephen Dedalus in the second episode of Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether it is through the arts, future events and conversations and classes, partnerships and outreach, or preserving archives and histories, the Global Family of which we are a part will continue to try to awake from these unprecedented times. Please join us as we struggle to move forward and update our collective history.
Patrick O’Donnell – Editor, contributing writer, and founder of the Celtic Junction Arts Review; Director and founder of the annual Irish Arts Week; and, Director of Education and founder of CJAC’s Irish College of Minnesota (and proud father of Lily and Kate O’Donnell.)