Fiddling is most fun in the company of others. Though it’s actually a violin, the fiddle’s virtue, and what often differentiates fiddle playing from violin playing, is that it is usually played by ear. That means fiddlers can often pick up a tune and accompany other musicians. In Irish pubs and festivals across the US you can find informal gatherings of fiddlers carrying on the traditions of their ancestors, and at the same time, teaching the next generation.
In the Irish tradition, the fiddle playing is jaunty, loud, and fast-paced. Ornamentation—rolls, cuts, and flicks of the bow—capture the spirit of Irish music. The music is infectious, and today some of the finest Irish fiddle players in the US claim no Irish blood at all.
Kitty Hoynes, an Irish pub in downtown Syracuse, New York, hosts an annual Fiddle Fest to celebrate the music of Ireland. “It’s nice having it in February, because it’s a time of year that people need to get out of the house,” says David Deacon, a local historian and participant in each of Kitty Hoynes’ Fiddle Fests.
Deacon helped organize this year’s festival, though the nature of the music is very spontaneous and doesn’t truly require an organizer. There isn’t necessarily a “leader.” Deacon’s job was more to keep the music going, and he did this by starting up tunes on the fiddle, the guitar, and the banjo. Others would join in on their instruments—fiddle, keyboard, guitar, banjo, bodhran drum, and even penny whistle. Sometimes, the other musicians started a song, and it was Deacon who joined in.
“Somebody’s got to be the organizer,” Deacon says with a laugh, but no one would know it was him. At Fiddle Fest, he made himself comfortable in a chair and, surrounded by several other seated and standing musicians, tapped his foot to the music. He didn’t once make it apparent that his role was anything more than that of a fiddler and Irish music enthusiast.
“That’s characteristic of Irish music,” explains Deacon. “In an Irish session, you kind of want to leave your ego in the car. And you focus on the music. It’s a little complicated sometimes, but the focus is the music itself, rather than us, individually. We don’t think of playing a session as a real performance. We think of it more as a sort of conversation with music.”
At the pub, several younger fiddlers stood by timidly, clutching instruments and bows. It was unclear whether they were waiting for a tune they recognized, or were working up the nerve to play. With a laugh, Deacon says it was probably both. “Like a lot of hobbies that people pick up, it becomes a real passion,” he says. “Fiddling, especially, seems to really take hold of a musician, and take over.”
Deacon (pictured above), who has played fiddle since he was eight years old, participates in sessions at Kitty Hoynes every other week. Fiddle Fest actually falls on one of the session days, but it’s nothing like the low-key, bi-monthly gatherings. “The fiddle festival sort of takes over one of those sessions,” Deacon says. “It’s more elaborate.” The main difference is that Fiddle Fests are advertised, while the sessions are not.
Another difference is that Fiddle Fest offers a fiddling workshop, led this year by Colleen Searson of the Irish-American music group Searson. The group performed at the pub later that night, culminating the one-day festival.
A large part of these types of fiddle festivals is exposing the musical style and inspiring others to participate. If you are interested in joining in the fun you probably need to look no further than your local Irish pub. If they don’t host a session or festival, they can probably point you in the right direction to find a local session. Most will gladly welcome newcomers.
Here are a few Irish fiddle events:
Los Angeles County Irish Fair (March)
Los Angeles, California
North Texas Irish Festival (March)
Great American Irish Festival (May)
Frankfort, New York
Connecticut Irish Festival (June)
North Haven, Connecticut
Riverfront Irish Festival (June)
Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
The Dublin Irish Festival (August)
Iowa Irish Fest (August)
Kansas City Irish Fest (August-September)
Kansas City, Missouri
Indy’s Irish Fest (September)
Virginia Celtic Gathering (October)