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by Jasper Wynn
Music has always had a strong hold on Ireland, perhaps because a songline runs through the geography and the history of the country. It would be possible to drive any circuitous route you liked from the north of Donegal to the southernmost tip of Cork and, as you traveled, sing songs and play tunes that named and described every mile of the landscape passed. "The Eniskillen Dragoons," "The Hackler of Cootehall," "The Kesh Jig," "The Mountains of Mourne," "The Fields of Athenry," "The Limerick Rake," "The Bantry Girls lament." Every parish, village, market town, hill, and lake has its own song.
So, for the traveler in Ireland, music is the key to understanding and to feeling the spirit of the Irish. Tracking down that music can take you to some of the remotest and least known corners of the land, as well as into the thick "sham-roguery" and leprechaun cliché.
The reward for this musical safari is being in the right place at the right time to catch a "mighty session." I'm not talking about the Aran sweaters, guitars, and "Danny Boy" stuff, but the real sessions, where musicians, fueled by alcohol, thick smoke and the weather outside, lash into jigs and reels, lifting each other's playing to ever greater heights, and carrying anyone listening along with them.
It's the uncertainty, the randomness of the sessions that are their attraction. Nobody plans the best ones. Or knows exactly where one might start up.
The right musicians meet, a few more people gather around in anticipation, and there's drink and talk to pass the hours until the "right" moment. Then instrument cases are pulled down from shelves and fished from under benches. A fiddle is taken out and tuned. An air started. A concertina is unboxed, then a bouzouki. More players join in. And suddenly the session's on. It's a kind of alchemy that may or may not produce gold-you put the ingredients together and see what happens.
Musicians need an audience, but traditional musicians need a knowledgeable audience, and they'll travel to find one. Here's a paradox: it costs good money to get some mediocre guitar-tickler to sit in a faked-up Irish bar playing "The Rose of Tralee," for guidebook-toting tourists. But the cream of Ireland's musicians, household names with CDs selling across five continents, will drive for hours to perch on rickety vinyl-covered stools in some drafty crossroads pub. And they'll pay for their own drinks as well-just for the opportunity to trade tunes with their peers and play for people who know enough about music to know when it's really good.
To know a little about sessions and Irish music is enough to take any traveler in Ireland beyond the Blarney Stone and lakes of Killarney and "medieval" banquets and into the heart of a living tradition.
A session is any informal gathering of musicians playing together. Usually held in a pub, a session's defining characteristic is the blurred divide between audience and musicians. "Get up and give us a song!" somebody sipping a quiet pint at the back of the room will be encouraged, while musicians will randomly stop playing to talk with friends or roll cigarettes or savor their drink. Nobody is paid to play and the musicians are free to follow their muse as they will. Sessions produce the kind of music you cannot buy.
These are often dauntingly purist, based as they are on 6,000 or so jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, and "slides," which form the canon of Irish instrumental music. Finding a tune that all the musicians are familiar with is part of the ritual of a traditional session, and melding each player's variation into the whole is part of the magic.
These are song-based and relaxed-often guitar-driven and usually with a core of regular musicians. They can also be more tolerant of "incomers" of various abilities playing "foreign" versions of Irish standards. All these are, of course, ingredients that can easily turn a ballad session into leprechaun karaoke. Equally, a bar full of people singing the same song can bring a lump to the throat.
In many ways at the heart of traditional music, "dance bands" can range from a lone man lilting "mouth music" to a bells-and-whistles electric accordion, drums, and bass group pumping out volume and rhythm with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. Dances can be the place to "feel" Irish music-by the time you've stepped and hopped your way through a few evenings, the "changes" will be fixed in your mind forever. A night's dancing might feature "sets" (the complex twirling and swapping of partners among groups of four or eight dancers, and best avoided by the complete beginner), line dances ("They're the ones to start with," according to expert Willie Daly, "there's always someone to pull you along with them and put you in the right place"), and "close" dancing-waltzes, polkas, and other excuses to hold your partner tight.
Although a session will often feature solo pieces and unaccompanied songs, the overall point is for musicians to play together, even if they're meeting for the first time. For this reason Irish traditional music is based on fixed music forms to give a firm foundation for the airy edifices built up from them. Jigs and reels are the staple. The former are in 6/8 time, giving a skipping lift to the music, and the latter are in 4/4 time-straightforward rock-and-roll tempo. The convention is for individual "tunes" to come in two different 8-bar parts, both elements of which are repeated. Tunes are usually joined together in pairs or threes, each running into the other. The choice of which tunes to bundle together and the consequent melodic gymnastics needed to get from one to the other are where musicians prove their genius.
As well as jigs and reels, there are hornpipes, slip jigs, polkas, Scottish tunes, and a growing number of oddities. De Dannan's traditional version of "Hey Jude" opened the floodgates for similar pop borrowings, and Andy Irvine's cross-fertilization of Irish and Balkan music has encouraged many a less able musician to attempt to play in complex Eastern time signatures.
Arguments over what constitutes a traditional Irish instrument have busied many a musician in defending his own chosen noisemaker. Early Irish musicians probably had little more than a simple harp, the Celtic horn, frame drum, and basic whistle to draw on and the "traditional instruments" of modern Irish music were all later imports. The need to play fast, ornamented melody to strict time in an ensemble setting has favored certain instrumentation, leading to the predominance of fiddles, wooden flutes, uillean pipes, and the bodhran, the Irish drum. The acceptance of new instruments-and everything from saxophones to lutes has been tried over the decades-in Irish music has always depended on the skill and sensitivity of the player. For example, the odd jig or reel played on didgeridoo by the brilliant Australian guitarist Steve Cooney is a pleasing novelty because he knows his way around the music, plays well, and doesn't do it very often. But it's not something that's encouraged.
The Uillean Pipe A chanter bagpipe, blown by a bellows pumped under the arm. Often seen as the quintessential Irish instrument. Difficult to play well (or even acceptably), it's said to require seven years learning, seven years practicing, and seven years playing to become a piper. Its "bluesy" crying tone in slow airs, and keening yelps in fast pieces can lift a session high.
The Bodhran A large tambourine-shaped drum, usually played with a single double-headed beater. The bodhran's apparent simplicity and the consequent enthusiastic flailings on it by non-musicians have led to its reputation as a session wrecker. "Ah, the Irish Frisbee," declared one fiddler of my acquaintance, picking up a tourist's bodhran and demonstrating his thesis by spinning it out of an open window.
The Fiddle "The fiddle is a violin played by a man who doesn't wear a bow tie," I was told once. It has become the session instrument par excellence. Portable, capable of carrying the emotion of slow airs and the rush of passion in jigs and reels, the fiddle can be played quietly or loudly depending on ability and confidence, and blends well with other instruments. Fiddlers tend to be the keepers of the flame when it comes to the pure tradition.
Whistles and Flutes. Like the fiddle, the wooden flute is another "serious" instrument, as is the tin whistle if blown by a flute player. Equally, the cheapness of the tin or "penny" whistle tends to make it a bulk buy for tourists, along with tartan caps and shamrock T-shirts, and so should never be pulled out at a session by anybody who cannot really play the thing.
Boxes The collective noun for accordions (which have keys like a piano) and concertinas (which have buttons). Accordions are too loud and inflexible to be good session instruments, though they can motor a ceili dance along (which is why their players are referred to as "drivers"). On the other hand, the delicate sound of the concertina makes it a wonderful tool for sessions.
Guitars, Bouzoukis, Mandolins, and Banjos The ability of fretted instruments to play chords and drive a piece along rhythmically has done much to change the range of sound in Irish music over the past 30 years. Guitars fueled the ballad sessions made popular in the 1960s and 1970s by groups like The Clancys and The Dubliners, but they only made it as proper traditional instruments when they were reconfigured by players such as Arty McGlyn and Paul Brady. Banjos and mandolins are better suited than guitars to carry a tune. A foreign instrument that was elevated into the inner circle (mainly due to the skills of Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny) was the flat-backed bouzouki. It developed into a genuinely innovative Irish instrument, in many ways filling a gap the harp might have occupied in former times.
Odd Instruments There are good spoons players (two spoons held loosely in one hand and rapped against the other hand or knee to give a castanet-like clattering), harmonica suckers, and bongo batterers, among others, who are welcome at sessions, and on the CDs of some of Ireland's best musicians. However, to conclude that any of these is seen as an asset in traditional Irish music would be a mistake.
Voice There are as many singing styles as singers in Ireland, but it is possible to make a distinction between "sean-nos" (old style), which is formalized, usually found in unaccompanied songs in the Irish language, and "folk singing," which can cover everything from Irish ballads and contemporary American country songs to English music hall numbers and locally written humorous skits.
Tolerance at sessions is legendary. Drunken tourists, ballad book in hand, mumbling their way through "Galway Bay," teenage guitarists attempting "Stairway to Heaven," and home-grown eccentrics with 37 verses of self-penned observation on the history of a field. All have been endured, but that doesn't mean they're welcomed. However, abiding by a few simple rules can make the "incomer" into that rarest of all things-a good listener, and perhaps, too, a good performer.
Don't take the musicians' seats. A corner or a particular table in a bar will be reserved for them even if they don't come. That's the way it is. Clapping isn't a great feature of sessions. The knowledgeable are more likely to mutter a low "Good man yourself" in response to an inventive and stunning solo. Listeners who find themselves truly moved have one way of showing true appreciation-buy a round for the musicians (check out how many there are before you commit yourself). No fanfare, a word with the barman, pass over the money and nod when the musicians catch your eye.
If you're looking to play at a session yourself, know what you're getting into. Non-traditional musicians, however brilliant, have no place in a pure traditional session, where they interrupt the flow and stop other people playing together. As a beginner it can be acceptable to sit on the edge of a session with a fiddle or flute and silently finger out new tunes along with the players-this is how the repertoire is passed on. But there is little tolerance for guitarists, bodhran players, or other instrumentalists doing the same-they either come as ready-formed virtuosi, or leave their instruments at home. In looser sessions, it's more acceptable to try out new songs-a non-Irish and entertaining tune is better than a mediocre, clichéd ballad. A good song will always make friends. During a rush of music in Dingle one evening, as we laid down our instruments for a sup and a breather, a piper (invariably the philosophers among musicians) leant across the table to give me his view on sessions: "There's only three things you need when you go out for the night-money for drink, a way of getting home, and a song . and if the song is good and you put your heart into singing it, you probably wouldn't need the other two at all."
Geography of Music
A session can happen anywhere in Ireland, but you can shorten the odds of finding good music by hunting it down in its natural habitat.
The Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry has numerous pubs and home-grown musicians. Dingle town is a good place to start, with more bars on the roads out to Dunquin to investigate. Don't miss ceilis featuring Seamus Begley and Steve Cooney-they're the dance musicians.
The villages of West Clare are a hotbed of music-Ennistymon, Lahinch, and Lisdoonvarna have sessions all through the summer, and doubly so during the month-long September matchmaking festival.
Cork has a reputation for good musicians. Rewarding bars in the city include "The Lobby," and "Se-E." Out in the county, Clonakilty, Baltimore, and Leap form a circuit for rambling players. The "Jolly Roger" on Sherkin Island, a ferry ride from Baltimore, has produced some good nights.
Galway is a traditional music center. During the annual July Arts Festival it becomes a home-away-from-home to many of the country's best musicians.
The Fleadh Cheoil ("an orgy of music") is an August Bank Holiday event in a different venue each year. The Fleadh (pronounced, near enough, "Flar") can be one of the few sure ways of tracking down the best of Irish music in an informal (and how) setting. Horse fairs can be good bets for drink-fueled craic. Ballinasloe Great Fair in County Galway (first and second weekend of October) brings in some of the great traveler musicians, as does Puck Fair in Kilorglin, County Kerry (August).
Rough Guide to Ireland The best guide for getting around the country, and good on Ireland's history, culture and festivals. The old paradox applies. If a music bar is flagged in the guidebook as being a little-known gem, it'll be full of guide-book carrying tourists by the time you get there.
Last Night's Fun: A Book About Music, Food, and Time by Ciaran Carson (Pimlico, 1997). A wonderful evocation of the driving force behind sessions and Irish music by a poet and a flute player. Highly recommended.
The Dance Music of Ireland: 1001 Gems by Francis O'Neill. This is one for musicians-a source for the music of the most popular instrumental pieces played in sessions and a Bible for those feeling their way into playing sessions. Ballad books None is particularly recommended, but they are a good source for the songs that pop up over and over again at sessions.
To understand traditional music, you need to go to sessions. But you can prepare by listening to recorded music. There's no such thing as a definitive list, but there are some names to look out for-naturally, the old rule about avoiding any musical offering with the words "shamrock" or "Irish fireside" in the title applies. Sharon Shannon Box and fiddle player, with a perfect marrying of new and old style traditional music.
Moving Hearts Ireland's lamentably disbanded super-group, featuring Davy Spillane on uillean pipes among other virtuoso players. Patrick Street Tunes and songs featuring some of the best of contemporary traditional playing. Highlights are Andy Irvine's songs and bouzouki playing, and Jacky Daly's box work.
De Danann Built around the nucleus of Frankie Gavin and Alec Finn, the band launched three now-famous-in-their own-right singers along the way (Mary Black, Dolores Keane, and Maura O'Connell).
Willy Clancy Find the LP, "The Minstrel from Clare," and hear the magic of a master piper, fiddler and songster.
Christy Moore Almost any album by Christy Moore yields interesting songs, but track down "Prosperous," note the musicians who are playing with him, then look out for records from any of them. Moore's genius is for songwriting and for attracting the best of Irish musicians into his company.
Bringing It All Back Home The soundtrack to the popular TV documentary showing the range and influence of Irish music.
Ballymaloe Music Holidays runs weekend and week-long holidays based around Irish music. Workshops cover all instruments and introduce players to sessions. Guests will also track down some of the best sessions in County Cork, as well as attend private concerts in country houses. Details are available from Rory Allen, Ballymaloe Hotel, Ballymaloe, Middleton, County Cork.
Sadly, a shadow has passed across these glittering achievements-their mother, Jean Corr, died suddenly last November, an event that has torn at the heart of this close-knit family. A spokesman for the band asked fans and media to allow the family "time and space to grieve in private. This is obviously a very difficult time for Gerry, Andrea, Caroline, Sharon, and Jim.''
Spring 2000 sees The Corrs holed up in the studio, working on their third album, the one that might finally topple the last resistance of the mighty U.S. Whether or not they follow U2 and The Cranberries into the hearts of Americans hardly matters, The Corrs have already succeeded beyond many Irish people's wildest expectations. They've become role models for a new generation of Irish youth, unshackled as they are by the post-colonial inferiority complex that has prevented previous generations from reaching their full potential.
The face of young Ireland is changing-hip, urban twentysomethings are speaking Gaelic again, turning away from excessive drinking and drug-taking, following more healthful lifestyles, and rekindling traditional values of friendship, loyalty, and hard work. They're not emigrating-they're traveling around the world, expanding their horizons, and discovering a sense of their own identity along the way. The Corrs embody the mix of traditional and modern that pulses through Irish life-they are of Ireland, but the world is their oyster.
All the songs on this Site are found on many sites across the internet. They are presumed to be in the public domain because they are so frequently found and they are in formats (such as Wavs and Midis) which are most commonly used for the acceptable Karioke Style of Music used on WEB Sites netwide. To the best of our knowledge, the posting of the songs and lyrics on this site in no way violates any copyright violation.
It is hoped that you enjoy the Lyrics Page. Some of the Midis used on this site will seem to be unfinished. Currently there are people looking for versions of the songs which are complete to replace the bad copies which we are using. A couple others are playing with sound editors to try to fix the Midi Files in order to make a complete song. Neither group is having much success, however who knows what the future will bring.
for hearing the songs used on this site,
I hope you enjoy the site, and thank you for visiting.
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