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A Wee Bit of Homeland

The Celtic Arts Center holds court at the Raven Playhouse with a Monday night jam session. Brogue is not required.


There is no Little Dublin in Los Angeles. Or Celtictown. The boiling cultural caldron of Southern California has diffused the 2 million people of Irish descent. But every Monday night, a Celtic convergence at the Raven Playhouse in North Hollywood draws a sketch of what such a neighborhood might be like.

The occasion is a weekly seisiun (pronounced say-SHOON)--a jam session of traditional music and dancing--hosted by the Celtic Arts Center. "In the pubs in Ireland, the musicians just sit and play, and people sing and dance. It's an informal party," said Sean Fallon Walsh, the center's executive director.

The evening starts quietly at 7 p.m. when a handful of students arrive for a weekly Irish language class. Things start to pick up around 8:30 when the ceili (KAY-lee) dance lessons start, but it's when the musicians arrive--around 9:30 or so--that the Raven starts kicking. Like any jam session, the seisiun is fairly free-form. People move about among the 36 theater seats, the stage and the sidewalk. The music starts and stops, a melody over the constant percussion of conversation.


For eight years, the Celtic Arts Center had a home on Hollywood Boulevard, where members produced several critically lauded plays by or about Gaelic authors, starting with "Dylan" in 1985. As the neighborhood got seedier, however, participation in other activities started to fall off. A battle with the landlord over back rent had the center scouting for a new location. But the group became homeless after a fire on New Year's Eve 1992.

The Celtic Arts Center dropped almost completely off the cultural radar for a few years, operating out of the basement of a rectory in Los Feliz. It has started to reemerge this year with monthly concerts and holiday events at the Raven Playhouse. The theater is run by Peter Strauss, who controlled the sound and lights for performances at the center in Hollywood. Strauss has opened his theater not only for Celtic Arts Center plays, but also for the seisiuns.

On a recent Monday night, musicians plucked guitars, banjos and mandolins, a dog wandered in and out, and people talked over bottles of beer. It reminded Liam Tuohy, who now lives in Valencia, of what he misses about his native Dublin. "The terrain is different--it's so much closer," he said. "And we tend to socialize in the evening. We don't go out one or two nights a week. We go out every night. We're the ultimate conversationalists."

He was proven right about an hour later. It was all Walsh could manage to get the crowd of about 30 to stop talking long enough for Tuohy to read two poems.

It's "a rip-roaring good time most nights," said Jennifer Mahoney of Glendale, who often teaches ceili, group dances that resemble square dancing. "You can probably learn something," she added, "but you can always have a good chat."

Who knows if it's the music or the dancing or the mystical-sounding language, but something about Celtic culture is infectious. Marta Collier of Panorama City caught it from "The White Goddess," Robert Graves' 1962 book about matriarchal Greek, Celtic and pagan mythology. She came to the center in July 1994 to learn the Irish language. "I felt like I had died and gone to heaven," she said. "From that point on I've missed maybe two Mondays." When she started, Collier didn't know a reel from a jig, but on this particular night she taught ceili to a group of about 10. She continues to study the language, and in August will visit Inis Oirr, an island off the west coast of Ireland.

The evenings are open to anyone interested in Celtic culture, not just those who can trace their roots to Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Frank "Bird" Nickel of Sunland was drawn in by his longtime girlfriend, who wanted to learn Gaelic, eight years ago. "It's kind of insidious," Nickel said. "You come to learn Gaelic or for the dancing . . . and then there's so much to do. The next think you know, you're building props or taking tickets at the door."


For the musicians, a seisiun is sort of like a blues jam, a place to pick up new tunes. But unlike the blues, which is composed of varied chord progressions, traditional Celtic music is strictly melodic. Everyone plays the melody together.

The center has been a gathering point for musicians interested in traditional Celtic music, some of whom have gelled into bands like Buzzworld and Craicmore. Historically, the jigs and reels they play were only for dancing. But these days, said musician Dave Soyars of Sherman Oaks, there are virtuoso players who know upward of 2,000 songs.

Along the western coast of Ireland, there's a seisiun in every town. In Los Angeles, however, the Celtic Arts Center's seisiun provides a rare opportunity for the musicians to play traditional jigs and reels, said banjo player Steve Pribyl of Pasadena. Sure, there are Irish pubs throughout Los Angeles, but their patrons want to hear drinking songs--ballads and rebel music.

"It's no Europe," said Soyars, "but it's as close as we're going to get."


* WHAT: The Celtic Arts Center's seisiun.

* WHERE: The Raven Playhouse, 5233 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: Monday nights; language lessons at 7 p.m., music and dancing after 8 p.m.

* HOW MUCH: Free; donations requested.

* CALL: (213) 462-6844.

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