One of the most Irish of evening entertainments is the "session". An informal gathering of amateur musicians in a local pub leading to a communal appreciation and celebration of traditional music.
Most sessions start at around 9:30 pm or whenever a few musicians have gathered. Somebody starts beating a rhythm on a bodhran or improvising a tune on a banjo, somebody joins in with another instrument, suddenly the whole pub appears to be filled with music.
The actual choice of music can be description as "pot luck" - depending on the proficiency of the musicians, their ability to actually play together and the general mood. You might be induced to hop up and down by rousing jigs and reels or moved to shed a tear a slow, plaintative airs. On (thankfully very rare) occasions you might finish your drink quickly and head straight for the door. But most of the time you will simply enjoy the variety.
By the way ... most sessions tend to be dominated by the instruments, with singing being relegated to second fiddle. And you will hear more "new" melodies than familiar tunes. Do not expect the "Fields of Athenry" unless the session is specifically geared towards tourists.
The more regular a session is advertised, the more modern or the larger the venue, the more urban the area - the more likely you are to stumble upon a "professional session". Here at least part of the musicians are hired by the landlord to provide traditional entertainment. not necessarily a bad thing as the musicians will be competent and the choice of material popular. Some venues might even throw in Irish dancing, a pocket edition of "Riverdance" or quite good ballad singers. All of which is certainly more entertaining than the piped Europop beloved by most "trendy" pubs!
Should you be lucky enough to chance upon a a "real" session, here are some helpful guidelines regarding acceptable behavior:
- Refrain from asking for your favorite tunes unless invited to do so.
- Even if the low volume and (to your ears) dubious quality of an octagenerian's "sean nos" (old style singing) is not to your liking - do not start a loud conversation while everyone else is trying to listen.
- If you want to take photos, do so without causing too much disturbance - and remember that most participants in a session are there for fun, not as paid cast members.
- Should you have bought a bodhran or a tin whistle the day before and just started to read the instructions ... please refrain from joining in as a "musician" and thus embarrassing yourself.
And finally - where would you find a session on your travels? Here are some venues known to attract musicians on a regular basis, sorted county by county:
- Aghalee - "Moira Clenghan's" - Tuesday
- Ballycastle - "The Central Bar" - Wednesday
- Ballycastle - "House of McDonnell" - Friday
- Ballycastle - "McCarrolls Bar" - Thursday
- Ballintoy - "Carrick a Rede" - Tuesday, Friday and Sunday
- Bushmills - "Distiller's Arms" - Tuesday
- Bushmills - "Smuggler's Inn" - Saturday
- Cairncastle - "The Meeting House" - Saturday
- Cushendall - "Johnny Joe's" - Friday and Sunday
- Keady - "Cassie's Bar" - Wednesday
- Newtowncrumlin - "The Skerry Inn" - Wednesday
- Portrush - "Harbour Bar" - Wednesday
- Portrush - "Springhill Bar" - Thursday
Part 2 - From Clare to Dublin