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Living tradition: live music in Ireland

| Tuesday, August 26, 2014

ireland-web-graphicKeri O'Mara
Here at Notre Dame, the image of Ireland is one made primarily of leprechauns, the color green and Guinness. When students think of Irish music, it’s probably the Fight Song that immediately pops into their heads. Sure, they might know the words to the traditionally Irish “Wild Rover,” but Irish music is easily confused with whatever the band is currently playing. Traditional Irish music, however, is a genre far richer than that which is readily available on campus.

Modern music in Ireland can be a funny thing. The country holds the record for most Eurovision wins (seven since the beginning of the competition) but has not won since 1996. There is a strong country western following — 1990s country star Garth Brooks recently sold out (and cancelled) five concerts at the largest stadium in the country, Croke Park. Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl” is played nearly everywhere, as much of a staple in pubs as the more traditional “Fields of Athenry.”

Wandering the streets of Dublin at night, the tradition of almost nightly live music in pubs makes the experience nearly magical. Of course, the talent of these prolific musicians varies and in some cases, the music selection is geared towards tourists to the point where it is no longer authentic. Still, finding good live music in the city isn’t hard.

In more rural places, where the number of people dwindles and with it the number of musicians trying to catch their big break, the live music scene is still surprisingly vibrant.  It is here, in small local pubs, that the musical tradition of Ireland lives on.

One of the most fascinating parts of this culture is the practice of “sessions.” These are nights in pubs where any musician (though preferably those who play a fiddle, flute, guitar or the like) may join in on the performance. Usually, there is a group of two or three people at the core of such an event, but inevitably, others join in.

These sessions provide an opportunity for musically talented people, who may otherwise be relegated to mere audience member, to contribute as much as they feel comfortable. Some will sing a single song while others will end up playing until the bar closes.

Despite the freedom to join in, the sessions are not simply a free-for-all. There are a set of unwritten, important rules that are followed and help the music scene run smoothly. Whoever begins the sessions will usually be in charge, unless a particularly talented musician shows up.

There are important distinctions in Irish traditional music made between songs, tunes, jigs, waltzes, etc. The primary difference between a song and a tune is whether or not there exist words to accompany the melody. The distinctions between various tunes are imbedded in the rhythm and melody of a given tune.

Many of these tunes are rather short and will be played in “sets” of two or three. These sets vary across district lines and it is up to whoever is in charge of the session to determine what songs/tunes will be played in a given set, since many of the musicians may have different versions they usually play.

The coming together of musicians who may have never met before is an interesting part of sessions. Most numbers will begin with a single player, who is then joined by others once the song/tune is determined. Most people in a session will be asked to begin a tune eventually by the person in charge.

There are, of course, more professional ways to work with Irish traditional music. Musicians perform in concert halls, make CDs and create their own versions of the tunes. There are even certain sets of tunes named purely after the person who first made them popular in traditional canon. Still, these professional musicians are known to join into sessions with those who see music as more of a hobby.

Perhaps one of the best fusions of these two cultures is the All-Ireland Fleadh, which is held annually. This year, the celebration took place in Sligo. The festival consists of various competitions (whose competitors come from various places around the world, having taken part in regional Fleadhs to garner entry) and sessions throughout the week-long festivities.

However formal the situation may be, the tradition of live music in Irish pubs is one that continues to live on in various ways. This is perhaps one of the most beautiful things about Irish pub culture. Regardless of where one is in the country, live music is almost always available, and sometimes even a visitor may be expected to join in on the performance.

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About Caelin Miltko

I am a senior English and Irish language major, with a minor in Journalism. I spent the last year abroad in Dublin, Ireland and am currently a Walsh RA living in Pangborn.

Contact Caelin