From emerald green fields to lively pubs and shamrocks to leprechauns, Ireland certainly inspires a wide range of unique and indelible images in the imagination. But for me it has always been traditional folk music – that collective Celtic carnival of sound comprised of tin whistles, banjos, fiddles, accordions, uilleann pipes and bodhran drums and best experienced in a tavern or pub.
My love of the irrepressible musical style goes all the way back to age four when my mother spun a tune called “Off to Dublin in the Green” on something called a turntable. That 1966 hit (it reached No. 2 in Canada) by obscure Irish folk group The Abbey Tavern Singers opened the door to an album’s worth of lively songs, though it was the classic “The Orange and the Green,” with its hilarious lyrics – Oh it is the biggest mix-up that you had ever seen, my father he was orange and me mother she was green – that hooked me and set me on a life-long course to find and follow Irish music, revealing legends like The Dubliners, Clancy Brothers and The Chieftains along the way, as well as younger treasures like The Pogues and even Canadian bands like Spirit of the West and Great Big Sea.
Such was my quest then on a recent trip to Dublin: to not only see the sites of the Irish capital, but to experience its culture through my adored jigs and reels, and maybe even an old IRA song, which has the unique capacity to make one want to dance, laugh and recoil at the horror of the historic British-Irish conflict at the same time.
And of course to sip a frothy Guinness or smooth Irish whisky while doing so.
With this in mind, my visit was timed to coincide with the Dublin’s annual TradFest musical festival, an event held each January with the express purpose of showcasing “the cream of both Irish and international traditional and folk artists while also providing a stage to promote the next generation of Irish musicianship.”
Having launched in 2006, the festival has grown from modest beginnings to become Ireland’s largest festival of traditional music, though it clings to its roots as a “boutique winter festival.” This is not to say that performances take place in dark, dingy clubs (which would be fine!); in fact, artists take the stage at venues as venerable as City Hall and the knave of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, befitting a style of music that can be light and ethereal, as well as raucous and ribald.
That a cultural festival like TradFest – trad being Irish slang for traditional – is thriving in 2018 and attracting thousands of locals and visitors alike is testament to the explosion of traditional Irish culture in recent years, including a revival of the Gaelic language. Indeed, I had tried such a musical pilgrimage in the mid 1980s with a considerably different and disappointing outcome.
But today, in addition to festivals like TradFest, music is omnipresent, with dozens of pubs declaring their musical intentions on placards, or signs in the window: Live Music 7 Nights a Week! There’s even Mary’s Bar & Hardware on Wicklow Street, which, as the names suggests, allows patrons to have a pint or two while buying nails and screws. The venue is an homage to Ireland’s famous creative dual-purpose establishments which evolved from a one-time British ban on public houses.
And with an army of street musicians throughout the city, especially on the Grafton Street pedestrian thoroughfare, music never seems out of earshot.
Dutch journalist Harry de Jong, who has been covering Irish music since the 1960s, when a first wave of Irish folk music artists appeared (only to eventually dissipate as most eyes turned to the rock arena with U2 emerging as arguably the world’s biggest band), says the current traditional music scene in Dublin (and elsewhere across the Emerald Isle) really began to take root again about a decade ago. “People, tourists, used to come here and have no idea what was going on musically,” he told me.
Geraldine Byrne, the fourth generation of Byrnes operating the Charles Byrne music shop on Lower Stephen Street in Dublin, like many others I met, attributes Ireland’s overall cultural revival to a steadily growing confidence of its people as it emerges from hundreds of years of British political and cultural dominance.
But she’s agrees with a commonly held notion that the Irish were held back in part by themselves – “strangled by our own culture.” She recalls the furor by some members of public when River Dance bucked tradition by allowing performers to mover their hands – a no-no to traditionalists.
Today, most Irish have “lightened up,” she admits and that the “new blood” of immigrants who began to arrive and acclimate after Ireland joined the European Union in 1973 “was the best thing that happened to Ireland” by helping the previously isolated culture begin to evolve.
Similarly, the “Celtic Tiger” economic boom of the mid ‘90s to mid ‘2000s was also pivotal to the music scene, Bryne believes, but not for the reasons one might expect. When the boom went bust after a decade and the recession kicked in 2008, people were left to “invest in themselves,” which included returning to a family-oriented musical culture that was always a part of Irish heritage. “They played music again, the went to people’s music for music,” she says. And today, her shop is flooded with youth coming into by their first traditional instruments.
“You wait and see,” she tells me, “in 10 years there is going to be some incredible [Irish bands].”
For my part, I was grateful to be able to tune into a host of incredible performers in the present at TradFest, ranging from the angelic Donegal balladry of sisters Maighread and Triona Dhomhnaill, legendary singer-songwriters Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny (and the four of them together!), and the aptly named Blazing Fiddles.
But for all the festival’s staged beauty, I still longed for heartbeat of my passion: the traditional music pub.
Locally renowned O’Donaghues at Merrion Row, emerged as the top recommendation amongst Dubliners I canvassed, but, alas, on a Friday night it proved too crowded for me to actually appreciate either of the bands, squished as they were into corners in both the front and back of the house. Fortunately, my cheek to jowl experience prompted another recommendation from a new-found friend for “the best place in town” for music – downstairs at the Stag’s Head pub on Dame Court, around the corner from the Castle.
As it inevitably does, Saturday night in the bustling Temple Bar-Creative Quarter of the city unfolds with dinner at one of the area’s plethora of restaurants, before getting down the serious business of having fun at one of the even more numerous Irish pubs in the area.
There are reportedly 751 pubs in the city, but our aim was true: The Stag’s Head, and it didn’t disappoint.
It was hot and noisy and packed and utterly brilliant, the four-piece band knocking out song after song that everyone seemed to know. A server spills Guinness wading through the crowd, a spontaneous jig erupts in the corner and intimate friends are made through proximity and drink; some “yanks” want to hear a Bob Dylan song and “House of the Rising Sun,” someone else The Beatles, but they all sound every bit as Irish as “Whisky in a Jar” and “The Rocky Road to Dublin” when they’re done. The drinks continue to flow, not least for the band, and the banjo player leaves his post to take a whirl with a pretty “Galway Girl” – because I ask you friend, what’s a man to do, when the music is magic, and her hair is black and her eyes are blue?
Music in Ireland is never very far out of earshot.