An Introduction to the Celtic Collection

When you think of a Celtic literature, you might think of some of the most famous Irish writers—Yeats, Wilde, Beckett, or Heaney. But the Celtic Collection at the University of St. Thomas, housed in Special Collections & Archives in the basement of the O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library, is far more varied than one might expect. The collection is made up of over 7,400 titles and 9,600 volumes, making it one of the largest and most significant Celtic archives in the United States.

The collection was established 100 years ago in 1917.  This first donation was provided by The Ancient Order of the Hibernians of Minnesota and consisted of about 500 documents mostly related to Irish politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These documents essentially created the Celtic Collection, which at this point was called the Hibernian Irish Library at St. Thomas. These documents, while not necessarily rare, comprise an important snapshot of Irish history, especially since they include coverage of the then-recent Easter Rebellion of 1916.

The next major donation came in 1963 from Sisters Mary Agnes and Mary Fidelis O’Connor, nuns from the Visitation Convent of St. Paul. This donation included over 2,000 titles once owned by their father, Peter O’Connor, who ran a large chain of grocery stores in the area. He had a liking for rare books; his collection consisted primarily of Irish local histories (of counties, towns, and churches) as well as books related to traditional Irish folklore, music, and art. The majority of these texts date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The final large chunk of the collection came in the mid-1950s and was acquired by President James P. Shannon from a retired professor at Trinity College named Eamonn O’Toole. Like the O’Conner donation, this collection included over 2,000 titles, but was primarily focused on texts printed in Irish Gaelic. This bequeath included a copy of the Bible, which was has been used for many Gaelic Masses.

But the collection continued to grow. The Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Collection of Irish Poetry features 700 titles of rare Irish poetry volumes. The collection includes many first editions from several small art presses of the early twentieth century, including Dun Emer Press (which evolved into Cuala Press) and Dolmen Press. The collection also includes mass-produced volumes from Raven Arts Press and others.

Finally, the Celtic Collection includes the Irish American Cultural Institute Papers, which hold record of the Institute’s programs devoted to bringing Irish arts and culture to the United States. The collection has recently been acquiring materials from the personal collection of Dr. Thomas Dylan Redshaw, who has generously donated his Irish poetry and literary magazines. This growth in the Celtic Collection includes many volumes from poet John Montague. As the collection continues to grow, Ann Kenne, the head of Special Collections & Archives at UST, is continuing to look beyond the biggest names. She is devoted to broadening and diversifying the collection; this commitment includes looking for more female poets and other writers who have not received much critical attention over the years. 

-Rachel Busse