Traditional Irish Music, Dublin
Irish traditional music has been popularised by The Chieftains, The Dubliners and The Pogues. It's no coincidence that all three bands have a reputation as hard playing party animals. Irish music is a soulful, often raucous expression of feelings and a central piece of The Craic, the art of having a good time.
Traditional music is not a stiff, reverential form of art. It is alive and kicking all over Dublin, played by teenagers in hoodies and withered old-timers in suits alike. To really appreciate the music, you have to hear it live in a Dublin pub. Round off your visit to Dublin with a traditional Irish music session for a good time and some unforgettable memories.
The most likely way you will come across traditional Irish music in Dublin is a pub session. Typically three to five, often more players cram into a corner of the pub and play music throughout the evening. There is no formal programme or set list for a session. The musicians will discuss songs and often one player will suggest a tune and teach it to the others on the spot.
Bear in mind that a session is not a concert. The musicians will only play when they feel like it and the locals in the pub will go about their business as usual. While the pub will fall practically silent during a tune, particularly if well played, the noise goes back up once the song is finished. The breaks between songs can last a good while, with conversations going on and pints being ordered and emptied down thirsty musicians' throats.
Pubs do not typically charge for sessions. But if you like what you hear, follow the local tradition and buy the musicians a round of drinks. There is no obligation, however, and you can just as well enjoy the music without putting your hand in your pocket. Some venues which run a regular session programme or invite big name players may have a cover charge in place.
The session has a special place in the context of traditional Irish music, which developed organically over the centuries. Tunes are seldom written down and largely exist in the heads of the players alone. Tunes then get passed on from one player to the next at sessions. The styles of playing are very personalised and can differ hugely between individuals. Before the arrival of radio and sound recordings, Irish music was very regionalised as players would typically not wander far beyond the borders of their county or even parish so styles would develop in isolation.
That's why a good session is more than a concert. It is a meeting of players where music is created on the spot and - on an exceptionally good night - something new is added to the canon of Irish music for future play.
Traditional Irish Instruments
Traditional Irish music is a largely instrumental affair and vocalists are a rare sighting at sessions. Watch out for a sean-nós session (see below) if you are in the mood to listen to some singing. The instruments used during a session are almost exclusively acoustic. Traditionally, few places would have bothered with microphones and PA systems, so the instruments favoured by session players have a natural ability to cut through the din of a lively pub. You've been warned, so don't stand too close to the potentially ear-piercing tin whistle.
There may the occasional acoustic guitar or even an electric bass, but the mainstay of a traditional Irish music session are the flute and its cheaper cousin, the tin whistle, the fiddle, the uilleann pipes (a style of bagpipe), the bodhran hand drum which looks a bit like an oversized tambourine, the mandolin, the banjo, the accordion and the smaller concertina.
The line-up for a session is pretty loose and you will often find more than one player with the same instrument. They'll either take turns or duet, pending the tune and the mood of the moment. There are some more archaic instruments, like The Bones and The Spoons, which may turn up at a session occasionally.
A céilí is the traditional Irish dance party. This is typically an at least lively and at best fairly raucous affair. A typical céilí band is bigger than the average session group and adds a full drum kit, bass and maybe a piano for a bigger sound that can shake the foundations of a dancehall. The music selection is different to a session, more formalised and with an emphasis on fast dance beats. The backbone of any céilí are the straight four to the floor 4/4 beat of the Reels and the slightly more syncopated 6/8s of the Jigs.
The dancing is typically done in groups, with four couples facing each other in two lines or in a square. This may look like formal set dancing from the outset, but don't worry, the steps are easy and will eventually be ignored by all revellers as the night goes on. The partnering is a pretty light-hearted affair as well and couples exchange partners during the dance.
The most likely way you will come across a céilí in Dublin is as part of a festival or a special event. There are no scheduled, regular céilís in town, as this is more of a country thing. It is definitely worth keeping an eye out for posters or flyers, however, as a good céilí might make your stay in Dublin truly memorable.
Sean-nós: The Blues Of The Irish
The Irish take on the Blues, sean-nós is a dramatic, mournful style of singing. Typically unaccompanied by instruments, a Sean-nós song tells a usually lengthy narrative that can last for five minutes and more. Traditionally the lyrics were in Gaelic, but the style has been adapted to English lyrics as well.
Like the Blues, sean-nós draws its power from blue notes that do not fit regular scales. Sean-nós has many quirks that you won't find in other forms of Western European music. It's scale is modal, closer to a Jazz feeling than what you would typically expect from folk songs.
As with instrumental styles, sean-nós singing differs hugely from one singer to the next. The three main styles of singing you may encounter are the elaborate, ornamental West Coast style, the somewhat plainer Southern Style and the sparse and nasal Northern style.
Traditional Irish Music Pubs
O'Donoghue's pub can be dated back all the way to 1789. The O'Donoghue family acquired the place in 1934 and turned it into a favourite watering hole and concert stage for Dublin's traditional musicians. The pub shot to fame in the 1960s with a new wave of Irish trad bands led by The Dubliners and the Furey Brothers. O'Donoghue's has kept a cool 60's charm, right down to its largely unchanged interior. Sessions here are pretty regular and of high quality. Like all Dublin pubs, O'Donoghue's is strictly non-smoking inside but offers one of the most picturesque smoking areas in town, tucked away in the old courtyard. 15 Merrion Row, Dublin 2
The Cobblestone on Smithfield is an old fashioned, no frills Dublin pub which hosts nightly sessions by traditional Irish music players. On Saturdays, sessions often start during the daytime and run late into the night. At the back of the pub, the 60-seater Back Room avenue stages regular gigs by artists playing other types of Folk as well as US Country music.
Smithfield, Dublin 1
Sessions at this hidden piece of genuine, old style Dublin are not necessarily happening on a regular basis but are pretty brilliant if you catch one. If no session is on, ask at the bar for the next one and order their excellent Guinness while you're at it. Frank Ryan's is located just off Ellis Quay on the Northside of the River Liffey, near the National Museum Of Ireland - Decorative Arts & History. If no music is on at Ryan's you can always stroll over to the Cobblestone or cross the road for an altogether different music experience in the trendy and alternative Dice Bar.
5 Queen Street, Dublin 1
Oliver St John Gogarty
The Oliver St John Gogarty is a lively Temple Bar institution that hosts daily trad sessions on the first floor. Sessions typically kick off in the early afternoon and can run until 2:00 at night. There's a separate, smaller Library Bar which often hosts ballad singers.
57/58 Fleet Street, Dublin 2
The Auld Dubliner on the main Temple Bar thoroughfare hosts daily afternoon sessions from Monday to Friday. At weekends, sessions start at 21:30 and last until 23:30. The Auld Dubliner is not a strict traditional Irish music venue and you may find the odd band belting out Irish drinking songs backed by a keyboard and drum machine instead rather than fiddle and bodhran.
24-25 Temple bar
There has been a pub in this spot since 1772. The present building dates from 1894 and has been a fixture on the Dublin music scene since the 1990s. Whelan's stages rock concerts in a former warehouse at the back of the pub. The list of who plays here reads like an international who-is-who of alternative music. The pub itself stages traditional Irish music sessions and contemporary singer songwriters. Ask at the bar for details of the next session.
25 Wexford Street, Dublin 2