The Culture of Irish Music

Temple Bar in Dublin

Temple Bar in Dublin

The Irish are historically famous for a few things, some more well-known than others, some rooted in truth more than others: The land of “Saints & Scholars” speaks to its poets and writers, and its almost ubiquitous Catholic culture.  They’re also known for their hospitality, their cheese, and even their smoked salmon.  Of course, around this time of year, and specifically on March 17th, you’re probably focused on the Irish proclivity for “the drink”, be it whiskey or Guinness, and their music, which fills pubs around the world with artists ranging from the Dubliners to the Chieftains, and even the Dropkick Murphys, depending on the bar. The saying goes that everyone is Irish on St. Paddy’s day, regardless of nationality. In America, many citizens share a habit of breaking down individual heritage on a percentage basis. “Oh I’m 25% Scottish, 25% Welsch, 25% Italian, 21.5% Laotian and 3.5% Romanian on my father’s side. My mother’s side is…”  It’s a unique characteristic of our great “melting pot” country.

For me, the breakdown has always been simple: 100% Irish.  My grandmother, Eilish, came over from County Longford on a merchant ship in 1943. Her family Sundays in Queens, NY in the 40s and 50s usually included a post-mass cèilidh (pronounced KAY-lee), filled with music and dancing, some of her sisters found work as many other female Irish immigrants did, as servants in homes around New York.  One generation removed, I obviously did not have the same experience as my grandmother, but her stories, witticisms, and even soda bread recipes, all contributed to molding my own witticisms and outlook on life.

Early on in my life, I dreamed of living in Ireland, to return to my roots, as cliche as that may sound, and learn as much about the place that my family called home for many more generations than they have in the New World. I had that opportunity for five months in College.  Living and studying in Dublin, I found myself seeking out Irish Trad (traditional) music sessions both in the city and throughout my travels within the Republic.  Dominated by flutes, tin whistles, fiddles, Uilleann pipes (similar to a bagpipe), mandolins, Bodhráns (a type of drum) among others, the music carries tradition of dance, song and poetry suppressed for centuries by British occupation. Whether telling a story of the famine or Finnegan’s Wake, I always felt welcome and inspired by the live music in pubs around the city – a welcomed break from the top 40 that dominated most bars and clubs in my experience to that point.

Oliver St John Gogarty's in Temple Bar, Dublin

Oliver St John Gogarty’s in Temple Bar, Dublin

I made it a mission of mine to scour Dublin, and any other Irish city for that matter, high and low for the most off-the-beaten-path pubs with live trad music that I could find.  From the Temple Bar area, the most “touristy” section of Dublin, to Conradh na Gaeilge, an Irish only club that wouldn’t take my order for a pint unless I asked in Irish, the song may have been the same, but the atmosphere affected the music as much as the artist. My last night in Galway, I found a lone guitarist singing to a room filled with the smell of peat and old men reading the newspaper. It was one of the last nights I would spend in Ireland at the end of my semester.  I ordered a pint of Guinness, sat in the back of the pub at a worn, oak table by myself, watched a peat fire burn and listened to this lone guitarist sing the songs of his ancestors.  In Dublin, where I lived at the time, I would bring visitors to The Oliver St. John Gogarty in Temple Bar.  Surrounded by tourists fulfilling their dream of reconnecting with their Irish roots, we listening to the house band that must have played the same set just about 7 days a week. The energy of new experiences and dreams fulfilled by a room filled with music was unparalleled.  At my first Leinster Rugby match in Dublin, the entire crowd erupted in song at the opening of the match,  15,000 people chanting along to “Molly Malone” in unison.

No matter where I found myself in Ireland, the music was a unifying theme.  The country is markedly a nation in the most literal sense of the word: united by common descent, history, culture, or language.  We don’t find that common thread many places in the United States, perhaps with the exception of professional or collegiate sport. Each of these examples I described above, the music and atmosphere played an integral part in conveying that culture and history, whether to a bunch of old guys at a Galway pub, a bunch of tourists in a crowded Dublin bar, or shared amongst thousands of fans in support of their favorite rugby team. In my own attempt to keep my Irish heritage alive and fresh, I am drawn to traditional Irish music more than anything else.  It tells our stories, immortalizes and brings to life small bits of our history, both happy and sad, and acknowledges sorrows with a fatalistic humor that only the Irish could pull off.

One day during Dublin’s TradFest, a festival showcasing the cream of both Irish and international trad and folk artists while also providing a stage to promote the next generation of Irish musicianship, I crossed the street from the Quays Pub to The Auld Dubliner and sat to listen to a mother, father and son play traditional tunes together. The father played guitar, the mother fiddle, and the son, about 12-years old, the Bodran.  This performance, I imagined, was the culmination of hours of practice in their living room, parents passing the songs and stories to their children the same way their parents did to them.

If you didn’t know already, St. Paddy’s Day is the feast day of St. Patrick, one of the foremost patron saints of Ireland, who is among other things, best known for his Christian conversion efforts in Ireland. This St. Paddy’s day, regardless of the nationality or nationalities with which you identify, or your feelings on historical Christian missionary-indigenous relations, I invite you to think about your own cultural experience, how it has affected your life, or how you plan to pass that culture along to your children or grandchildren.

Now to get in the mood for the Irish festivities, here are some of my favorite Irish traditional tunes, both new and old:

The Wind (I’ll Tell Me Ma) – Gaelic Storm
Whiskey in the Jar – The Dubliners
Black Velvet Band – The Dubliners
The Auld Triangle – Glen Hansard & Damien Dempsey
Molly Malone – The Dubliners & The Leinster Rugby Theme
Float – Flogging Molly
Fields of Athenry – The Dubliners
Dirty Old Town – The Pogues
The Wind That Shakes the Barley / The Reel With The Beryle – The Chieftains (Instrumental tune)
Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Rai (That’s an Irish Lullaby) – Bing Crosby (ok, not traditional Irish, but Irish-American at least)
And then just listen to this guy – Glen Hansard


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