How to Celebrate Irish Culture in the Twin Cities

Trad sessions, Gaelic lessons, and all the step-dancing

St. Patrick’s Day always falls on March 17. But this year, just like 2020, many local events have been cancelled (LuckyPalooza), made virtual (the Irish Music & Dance Association’s Irish Celebrations at Landmark Center), or just totally reimagined as masked drive-thru events (St. Paul’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade). While this may be a bummer for anyone who already laid out their best green outfit, the good news is that Irish culture is something you can experience year-round in the Twin Cities.

Just ask Georgia Nesbitt, a personal stylist who was born in Jackson, Mississippi but met her husband, a Twin Cities native from the southwest suburbs, in Ireland; she has been involved with St. Paul’s Irish music-and-dance scene since moving to the capitol in 2011. “It’s easy to see just one aspect of the community,” she says, “and forget that there’s a whole constellation. People may know about the Irish Fair or a child who does Irish dancing, but there’s so much more happening around here.”

What follows are Nesbitt’s top picks (with a little fact-checking help from Chad McAnally and Danielle Enblom) for channeling your inner Hibernophile — no passport required.

1. Irish Fair of Minnesota
“This is the nation’s largest, free Irish festival, next scheduled for August 13-15, 2021. It’s gigantic. Eighty thousand people attended in 2019, and those numbers were down because it was super rainy. Since it has a bit of everything, you can tailor your visit to suit your interests. There is a good bit of food, too — fish and chips, obviously, but also fair food. And lots of beer.

World-class musicians play the main stage, but there are smaller stages as well. The Fitzgeralds were fantastic last year. They’re sisters who do Ottawa Valley-style fiddling and step-dancing.

The fair is family-friendly, especially during the day. Some of my favorite, lesser-known things to see and do include:

  • Meet the native dogs of the British Isles, a bunch of friendly beasts and their owners hanging out under tents, representing their breeds. If you love doggos, this is a must.
  • Sheep herding! They didn’t have it for a few years, but it came back in 2019. There’s a shepherd and a sheep dog and a sheep in a field. It’s amazing! (More doggo love.)
  • Gaelic football and hurling/camogie are entertaining sports to watch. I know next to nothing about either, but there are leagues (Twin Cities Robert Emmets Hurling Club, Twin Cities Lakelanders Gaelic Football Club) around town if you’re interested.

It’s truly incredible that the whole thing is free. Parking is pretty expensive, though — around $20 for the closest lots. Or you can volunteer to work a shift and get free parking that day. The Union Depot runs shuttles from St. Paul’s Lowertown to Harriet Island’s main entrance every 30 minutes.”

2. Celtic Junction Arts Center 
“This cultural complex is the hub for all things Celtic in the Twin Cities. It’s in good company now — across from Can Can Wonderland and BlackStack Brewing — but for a long time was the only thing in the area that wasn’t industrial. Housed within it is The Center for Irish Music, headed up by Norah Rendell. She’s a very talented singer and flute player who’s married to Brian Miller, another super-talented musician. (More below on one of his projects.)

Celtic Junction also has music rooms, dance studios, and a new library, and hosts lectures and workshops on everything from genealogy to literature to the Irish language. There’s lots of dance and music lessons for adults and kids. [Editor’s note: Many of these events are virtual now; check the calendar of online programming here.] I’ve taken several, including a flute class by a teacher from The Center for Irish Music and a sean-nós dance class on Saturday mornings. Sean-nós is a percussive style of dance, more similar looking to Appalachian clogging than Riverdance.

Cormac O’Sé and his wife Natalie run the O’Shea Irish Dance school here, too. They both toured with Riverdance, so they kind of know what they’re doing! Cormac plays accordion and Natalie is the artistic director of Kickin’ It Irish. It’s quite the production — a beautiful show.

The center’s Minnesota Irish Music Weekend (June 10-13, 2021) is always great, and this year it’s virtual. There are loads of workshops and lectures, and if that’s not your thing, there’s also the Great Session Experience, which is free and a sure bet for good music.”

3. Gaeltacht Minnesota
“This organization is the best way to keep abreast of anything related to the Irish language. I know people who take classes with them. But Gaelic is very different from English; it’s not Germanic or Romantic like many of us are used to. That said, the language makes sense once you learn the rules…. there are just a lot of rules to learn!”

4. Traditional Music Sessions
“Sessions are all over the place, just like in Ireland. Anyone is welcome, but a common misconception is that the music is improvised, even though there’s a really intricate and subtle thing happening. The tradition runs deep; it takes a lot of studying to know how to participate in a session. The shared framework that people gain from years of immersion allows for a cool interplay and expression between musicians. People at all levels can come together and play. Those who are learning can participate while those who are elders lead the way.

One of the biggest mistakes someone can make is to assume an Irish session is just a jam session and anything goes. My best advice for someone interested in participating would be to spend time listening, observing, and asking questions.

I recommend Friday nights at The Dubliner Pub and Merlins Rest. These are informal gatherings of musicians; whoever shows, shows, and they all just play. It’s fun, free entertainment. I’m pretty sure there is a ‘slow session’ weekly, too, for beginners to jump in and learn the ropes.”

5. A Day of Irish Dance
“This takes place every year at the Landmark Center, either the weekend before or after St. Patrick’s Day. It’s not free, but there are several stages with many performances. It’s a fun time and very kid-friendly. The Giggin Siles is a group of women who sing traditional songs — always lovely. The Center for Irish Music ensemble never disappoints either.

For those with kiddos, there’s an Irish instrument ‘petting zoo’ where little ones can test out traditional instruments. There’s also a children’s stage with an introduction to dancing and singing, plus a few events for those with sensory issues, which is really cool.” [Editor’s note: The Day of Irish Dance, scheduled for March 14, 2021, has also gone virtual this year.]

6. Local Music
“It’s hard to make a list, as we have so many good bands playing both traditional Irish music and contemporary Irish rock. Brass Lassie puts on a great show, as do The Northerly Gales. Two Tap Trio is awesome. It’s Norah Rendell, Mary Vanorny, and Brian Miller. Each member is an extraordinary musician in their own right and they play traditional tunes and songs really well together. I also really enjoy Danielle Enblom. She’s so vibrant — an incredible dancer and musician. If you get a chance to see her in any of her capacities, it’ll be well worth it. Danielle has so much energy, you can tell she loves what she’s doing.”

7. Social Dancing
“The Dubliner Pub hosted free céilí dancing every Wednesday before the pandemic and set dancing every fourth Tuesday. There are monthly céilís at the Celtic Junction as well — Scottish and Irish. [Editor’s note: Keep a watch on the pub calendar to see when they return.]

Céilí is done in lines and circles, whereas sets are done in squares of four couples. Céilí dances were made popular in the 1900s because of the Gaelic revival. They were promoted as Ireland’s national dance. Sets were just as traditional, but left out of the fold because they had a relationship to colonialism. They’re related to American square dancing.

Céilí dances are more user-friendly and great for beginners. They’re easier than sets because they’re more repetitive. You learn a series of moves, then repeat them as you progress to a new partner or couple. Sets can be more challenging because they are like a song with a chorus. Every verse has different words that aren’t repeated, so there’s more to remember!”

8. The Lost Forty
“This is Brian Miller’s music project. It’s very, very cool. He has gotten grants from the state and the Library of Congress to collect songs from the Great Lakes region. Many of the traditional logging songs have Celtic origins.”

9. Irish Dance Schools
“There are lots of them! Most with certified teachers, so kids can compete. One worth a special mention is North Star Irish Dance School in Eden Prairie. My friend Beth Pitchford runs it. They have classes for both kids and adults. Beth isn’t certified for competition, so if she gets a particularly talented or devoted student, she sends them off to a dance school like O’Shea. What’s awesome about Beth is that she’s a therapist who works with people on the autism spectrum and has made it her mission — and grad school project — to use dance as a medium to work with folks with sensory issues. North Star is open to all students, neurodiverse and neurotypical. So, so cool.”

10. Pub Grub
“I would never be mad at The Anchor Fish and Chips in Minneapolis. They have a full Irish breakfast and even mushy peas. The Dubliner Pub in St. Paul is probably the oldest active mainstay of the Irish cultural community. They’ve been at it since 1983 and hosted music and dance performances, wakes, the occasional fist fight, and other rough-and-tumble Irish-ness. The more raucous element has calmed down for the better, but you will not find anything more authentic.”

For more insight into Irish culture in the Twin Cities, follow Georgia Nesbitt on Instagram at @houseofcolour_georgianesbitt