Friday, 30 March 2012

How to join a traditional Irish music session

As with many things in life, the clue's in the name. And in this instance the name's in Irish.

I'm talking pubs here, and names over pub doorways. In Corca Dhuibne you won't find The Frog and Ferret or The Old Anchor. Instead you'll see names like Tigh Uí Mhurchú, Tigh Uí Chatháin or Tigh an tSaorsigh. The word tigh in Irish means house. So those names mean Murphy's house, Kane's house and Sayer's.

The reason's simple. Round here that's what pubs were till quite recently. Ordinary houses where people came together to share each other's company after a day in the fields or out fishing. 

I don't know why particular houses were chosen. The house where I'm writing this was one. It's a low stone house, built over a hundred years ago in the foothills of the mountain. People say the room was always warm; that its high, boarded ceiling made a great acoustic for music; and that the couple who lived here had no children, so there was no fear of waking the baby. Maybe those were some of the reasons. I know that the couple were called Neillí Mhuiris and Paddy Martin and that their names are still a byword for hospitality.

In the past when the neighbours gathered in the evenings, there'd sometimes be a bottle or even a barrel to share as well. Other times there wouldn't. But there'd always be stories, dancing and music. The custom's called bothántaíocht. It's the reason why music's still an intrinsic part of Irish pub culture today.

Houses where neighbours gathered for nights of bothántaíocht were known as 'rambling houses' in English. Many pubs started life as rambling houses and went on to get a license to sell drink. Which explains the names. To the locals they're still Kane's house or Murphy's, or Sayers's - gathering places for neighbours and extensions of the owner's homes. 

And this is something you need to keep in mind when you decide to join a pub session. 

Sessions are organic gatherings, relaxed, friendly and convivial: you never know what combination of instruments will arrive on any occasion. People ramble in, order drinks at the bar and wander over to join the musicians, who gather round the fire or at a table. There might be fiddles, accordians, concertinas or whistles. Sometime there'll be pipes or a flute. Sometimes there's a bodhrán, the traditional Irish skin drum. People often bring several instruments and swap from one to another for different tunes. Conventionally Irish traditional music's played in unison, not harmonized, and new arrivals appear just to pick up the tune and join in whenever they feel like it.

But like everything else in Corca Dhuibhne, pub music-making involves courtesy and ettiquette that's easy for outsiders to miss. 

Everything's understated. Decisions are made with a nod or a glance but the sequence of tunes is always led by the senior member in the group, who also calls for people to sing or to play solo. New tunes and their sources are valued. People will want to know where you learnt a particular variation, where it came from and who taught it to you. Joining a pub session's a wonderful experience. You'll be welcomed and, if the musicians are local, you'll be drawn into a dynamic living tradition that stretches back across centuries.

But you might want to sip your drink at the bar for a while before you sit down with your tin whistle. And if you haven't joined that group before, you might want to wait to be asked before you start playing.

Basically, what you need to remember is that you're a guest in somebody's house.

9 comments:

  1. I remember a wonderful night at An Droichead Beag in Dingle. There was a group of locals playing and a band from North Carolina was in town and they sat in. I had the feeling, like a true session, that anyone who could play an instrument would be welcome. Thanks for taking me back.

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  2. An Droiched Beag's a great Dingle venue. MacCarthy's and Flaherty's too. And in the last couple of years there's been great music in the Court House. All revving up now for Easter :)

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  3. A lovely post - you write so beautifully - so easy to read!

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  5. You have brought to life this wonderful Irish tradition & one I experienced for the first time in your much loved Dingle at O'Sullivan's Court House.
    I spent the whole month of March this year, travelling the length & breadth of Ireland, a trip I won courtesy of Tourism Ireland NZ [yes, I have the luck of the Irish!].
    I'm already planning my next trip back to Ireland & this time plan to spend longer in those places I loved the most. Dingle of course, is one of those places.
    We had only two fulls days of rain, the whole month we were in Ireland [yes, I have the luck of the Irish!] & rain it did in Dingle. Did this dampen my spirits?.... absolutely not, in fact it probably enhanced it. My photos of our drive around the Peninsula are stunning shades of grey, blue & green.

    I've just read the reviews of your book "The House on an Irish Hillside" & was so intrigued that I have a copy winging its way to me in NZ via http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/ as we speak.

    A chance spotting of your comment on a Discover Ireland NZ twitter post has lead me your way & I'm happy to have found you.

    Paddy

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    1. Paddy, it's so lovely to read your comment and I'm delighted you're getting The House on an Irish Hillside. Give me a shout on the book's Facebook page when you've read it and let me know what you think. Delighted too that you'll be coming back to explore more of Dingle. It's well worth taking the time to enjoy the town and to drive out back west. Hope you'll have a wonderful trip. (As for winning your last trip courtesy of Tourism Ireland NZ, I'm in awe! Hope you bring some of that luck back with you when you revisit Ireland!)

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  6. It's funny how particular houses were chosen isn't it - our own home was for 'cards' when there was a power cut - but my grandfathers was the place for a session - and then it was in the local - and I know what you mean about the whole joining in ... a person has to be invited. You turn up with your instrument, in a case, and you leave it there untouched until you're invited ... I'd forgotten that!

    Thanks for all your work.
    It is most appreciated, enlightening, provoking old memories that are just under the surface.

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    1. Glad you like the post :) I love that willingness to wait until you're invited - and how it's often the best musicians who push themselves forward the least.

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  7. Captured! Well done Felicity.
    I was at a session last night and was just thinking about a lot of the things you mentioned - it's like some kind of 'secret society' being part of the musicians' fraternity.
    But a must if you happen to be visiting Ireland.

    Hoping to get down to your part of the world for a wee break soon.
    Keep up the great work.
    Brendan

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