Not long after immigrating to Saint Paul from Ireland in 1993, Patrick O’Donnell sensed something special about the city. “I saw a palpable richness and depth of appreciation for Irish history and culture,” he said. “And what I found as an immigrant is what has inspired me as a Minnesotan. I determined to contribute by articulating Ireland’s cultural and educational heritage.”
O’Donnell has accomplished that and more over the past three decades. When he arrived here, he had just earned a master’s degree in Anglo-Irish literature, poetry, drama and fiction at University College in Dublin. “I began putting on plays in the Titanic Lounge at Kieran’s Irish Pub in Minneapolis as part of the Titanic Players,” he said, “a company I founded and ran as artistic director.” That continued for six years.
In 1999, O’Donnell joined the faculty of Normandale Community College as an English professor. Soon after, he affiliated with the Minnesota Irish Fair. “I was a board member in charge of the cultural area at the Irish Fair from 2002-2021,” he said. Then in 2016, O’Donnell founded Irish College of Minnesota as the educational wing of the Celtic Junction Arts Center, 836 N. Prior Ave.
A resident of Ramsey Hill, O’Donnell had been acquainted with the husband-and-wife founders of Celtic Junction, Cormac O’Se and Natalie O’Shea. When their organization became a nonprofit in 2016, he suggested the college.
Nine hundred students and counting
Irish College has enrolled about 900 students over the past six years, offering single- and multi-session classes in Irish history, language and arts. “With COVID over the last two years, we boosted our presence online,” O’Donnell said. “We now register students from across the U.S. and Canada.
“We’re called a college in that we’re rigorous and offer substantial learning, but in a friendly, discussion-based environment,” O’Donnell said. This spring, the college will open a new classroom thanks to a $100,000 donation from Thomas Dillon Redshaw, founding director and honorary editor of the New Hibernia Review at the University of Saint Thomas.
As the director of education at Celtic Junction, “Patrick is extremely dedicated to ensuring that Irish culture thrives in Minnesota and beyond,” said Jane Kennedy, a historian who teaches at Irish College. “He pours his Irish heart into making the college an exemplary center of learning.”
“As COVID changed our lives, my Irish College classes have helped keep me engaged and sane,” said Carol Walsh, a resident of Macalester-Groveland and a member of the Celtic Junction education committee. Walsh has taken classes at the college on Irish theater and playwrights, the Saint Paul stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Napoleon and his Irish connections, among others. “Right now, I’m taking Patrick’s class on the famous poet who comes between William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney—Patrick Kavanagh.”
A larger platform for learning about Ireland
From 2007-2010, O’Donnell returned to Ireland to earn his Ph.D. His doctoral thesis was titled ,“The Irish Roots of the Guthrie.” O’Donnell said he was greatly influenced by Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater and its connections to the late Irish playwright Brian Friel and former artistic director Joe Dowling, who also was the artistic director of Ireland’s Abbey Theatre.
Once back in Saint Paul, O’Donnell resumed teaching full time at Normandale and helping out with the Irish Fair of Minnesota. Eventually, he came to realize that there should be a larger platform for educational and cultural content at the Irish Fair, and that led to his founding of Irish Arts Week.
Part of the summer Irish Fair on Harriet Island from 2016-21, Irish Arts Week will be held at Celtic Junction this year from April 18-May 1. It will include a Language Immersion Weekend on April 22-24 headed by Celtic Junction linguist Lavinia Finnerty.
“Patrick has a way of gently persuading people to become part of the faculty,” Otto Paier said. “And Irish College has great appeal for the variety and depth of its classes.”
O’Donnell has created a community of learners at Celtic Junction, according to Otto Paier, a Hamline-Midway resident who teaches an Irish College class on the architecture of Irish cottages. “Patrick has a way of gently persuading people to become part of the faculty,” Paier said. “And the college has great appeal for the variety and depth of its classes.”
Shelagh Mullen, who has taught classes at the Irish Fair and at Cooks of Crocus Hill, is excited to be joining the faculty of Irish College. “The college provides a deep dive into what is and has been important about Ireland,” Mullen said. This spring she will teach a virtual class on Irish cooking from her Macalester-Groveland home. Among other things, the class will debunk the myth that fish and chips and corned beef are staples of the Irish diet, she said.
For more information on Irish College or Irish Arts Week, visit celticjunction.org.
— Anne Murphy
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