by John Otis
Laughing out loud with loved ones old and new; sharing stories and songs around a blazing fire; and getting so lost in a swirl of memories and tall tales that time seems to stand still. This scene could be from a relaxing evening at a favorite local pub as much as an evening spent making music with friends. But if you are lucky enough to join in a traditional Irish music session, you’ll get the best of both worlds.
A leisurely afternoon is made more relaxing as Irish session musicians Jonathan Chai (fiddle), Michelle Osborne (whistle), and Pat Kenny (bodhran) play the music of the Emerald Isle at a corner pub. Kenny has his ear close to his drum so he can pick up tonal variations in the beats he’s playing. “It also helps me hold the instrument steady,” he says. “My bodhran has no cross-bar, so I can’t use my left arm to stabilize it. However, my left hand has more freedom to explore tonal variations.”
For years in Ireland, sessions have turned local drinking holes into living museums of folk tradition, where arms are raised to play fiddles as well as to take a swig of stout, and where brogue accents harmonize with whistles and bagpipes.
Today, this centuries-old tradition has been transplanted from the Emerald Isle and takes place in pubs throughout the US. An ever-growing community of musicians of all skill levels is experiencing the infectious joy of one of the world’s most evocative, and energetic, forms of folk music.
Retired carpenter Larry Reynolds, 72, grew up in Ireland and arrived on US shores when he was 20. He recalls the extent to which sessions are an important part of everyday life in Ireland, as integral to the culture as its legends, tales, and history.
Reynolds, a fiddle player, says he remembers hearing music coming from people’s homes almost daily. “In Ireland, you never had to create the atmosphere for session music,” he says. “It was always there.”
Now a resident of Walton, Massachusetts, Reynolds has dedicated himself to recreating and promoting that music-drenched atmosphere. He has been hosting and participating in Irish sessions for more than 30 years at various pubs around Massachusetts, including Monday night session’s at the Green Briar in Brighton.
He characterizes sessions as laboratories for amateur musicians to experiment with their chops. “If you play an instrument and you want to learn how to play better, attend a session,” Reynolds says, adding that sessions are for learning as well as playing. “If you have a question about a song, ask it. If you know a song, join in,” he advises.
There are a few exceptions, but most sessions welcome newcomers; after all, being green is an endearing quality for a musician at one of these spirited gatherings.
Kristina Paris, 48, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, recalls how comfortable she felt when she first starting attending sessions. “Once I became more familiar with my instrument and the songs that are played, it was exhilarating to jump in,” says Paris, who works as an office manager by day.
Paris became fascinated with the sound of Irish music at a local Irish Fest in the summer of 1988. She had been playing the flute since she was a young girl, and following the festival, started learning how to play with a more Irish flavor. “Eventually, after going to a few sessions, I heard the beginning of a certain song and thought: ‘Hey, I know that!’ So I joined in.”
Generally, sessions are held in the evening, a time when taverns are doing their best business. The listeners might be at the pub to sink a few jars of the black stuff, but the musicians are there to honor their music making ancestors with the harmony of familiar folk and traditional Irish instruments. Expect to hear the flute, guitar, concertina, and fiddle along with the bodhran (pronounced “bow rahn”) drum; the tin whistle; and the Uilleann (pronounced “ill in”) bagpipes.
Typical sessions have several musicians, although only two are necessary to get the music rolling, and each session has a host. When he or she starts playing a song, anyone with an appropriate instrument is welcome to join in, as long as they have some idea what they’re doing.
And if you’re a billiards player, dart thrower, stool squatter, or other pub dweller who recognizes the song, you are encouraged to sing, clap, or tap your glass as well!
If you join a session, you might find differences in setup, but the mood will always be the same. “Like rock and roll, Celtic music is lively and energetic, and that’s what you want to feel in a social setting,” says 35-year-old fiddle player Sheila Maguire.
Maguire lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s a world away from the rain and granite hills of Ireland, but at Seamus McCaffrey’s Irish Pub, where she organizes a regular session, Maguire helps to recreate a small corner of the old country. “This music gets people up and moving even if they aren’t Irish,” she laughs.
Irish music has long been a part of Maguire’s life. “I used to be a graphic designer in New York,” she recalls. “I’d work 9 to 5, grab a bite to eat, and then head to a session.” And it’s not uncommon, she says, for an evening session to go all the way to the top o’ the morning. “We would sometimes play until 2 or 3 a.m.”
According to Maguire, sessions are socially charged events that spawn collaborations and friendships outside of the pub environment. Both Maguire and Paris make music with other Celtic musicians in addition to their sessioning. The difference between traditional Irish music and folk music is the presence of lyrics. The latter folk tunes accompany humorous, sometimes bawdy, ballads that speak about the trials and tribulations of life in Ireland. Though sessions feature traditional music—the instrumental tunes that accompany jigs and reels—occasionally a song is belted out.
Kristina Paris loves seeing the effect Irish session music has on the listeners. “It has a special rhythm,” she says. “We’ll be playing and parents walking by with toddlers in strollers stop to listen. The parents start moving to the music, and their kids’ little feet will start swaying or moving up and down. It’s infectious.”
Irish sessions are not a place for critique, but as they are steeped in tradition, even the most informal Irish pub sessions does require proper etiquette. Certain rules apply to the musicians; others are followed by the audience. Still, not every session will impose strict guidelines and every session has its own variations on the basic rules. Experienced session musicians say that, in order to understand what’s going on at a given session, the best thing to do is attend a few as a listener and observe before jumping in.
“Where I play, we have a circle of musicians,” explains Paris. “As more musicians come, that circle expands. Sometimes we even form more than one circle. The rule is that if you are only listening, you must give up your seat to a playing musician.”
Some other basic session rules ask musicians to introduce themselves to the other musicians before playing; to know in advance what instruments are appropriate for the music; and to let the leader choose the songs. If you are unfamiliar with a song, it’s best just to listen, as Irish sessions are not quite the same as jam sessions.
Otherwise, the best advice is to use common sense, be courteous, and steer clear of any shenanigans. “Sessions are a way for people to have fun while respecting the tradition,” explains Paris.
Music of Friends
With Irish music so wide spread and so welcoming to new and curious musicians, people are learning that it’s not such a long way to Tipperary.
Session musicians enjoy their hobby because Irish music has the power to create special bonds. The name of Paris’ band is Ceol Cairde, which is Gaelic for “music of friends.” “It’s an incredibly appropriate name,” she says, explaining that her band has been together for so long that members share many years of life experience. Everything Paris’ band has faced, including grief from tribulations such as divorce and death, has been played out in the haunting melodies of Irish session music.
“The music and continuity of playing together have helped us through those hardships,” Paris concludes. “The name of our band speaks to what it means to be friends.”
The progression of Irish folk music’s notes and chords, in fifths, is an ancient one, found in folk music across the world, from the ragas of India to the blues of Mississippi. Perhaps that is why Irish folk music is such an appropriate expression of human emotion. When these emotions can be shared, so much the better.