Trip Planning and Sessions

Trip Planning and Sessions

My wife, 11 yr old and I are going to Ireland for a month this summer from the US. We’ve traveled a lot, but never to Ireland. Flying in and out of Shannon and staying on the west coast, though still deciding on where to go aside from Willie Clancy our last week (registered and have housing). Two questions if I may…

1. Any advice on finding sessions open to sort-of-competent Americans and/or beginner kids? My wife (fiddle) and I (mandolin) have 25-50 songs between us; daughter (fiddle) 5-10…

Just read the comments in the session listings? (many are 10+ years old though) Contact locations directly one by one? Post trip specifics here? Contact members directly? Ask around once we arrive in town?

Ennis has 3 pages of sessions (hard to narrow down), while Killarney or Kenmare have 3 total between them (have to potentially plan travel around those particular nights). We’re also considering Dingle, Galway and Donegal, but nothing is booked yet.

I’m aware of session etiquette and we lean shy so I’m not worried about overstepping (happy to just listen), but I’d like to up our chances from random that we could play a little too…and don’t want to just show up with our instruments and see what happens.

2. My wife and I are having a disagreement about what to focus on leading up to the trip. I’m working on firming up 25 or 30 of the top 50 songs listed here. She insists that those are globally popular songs, not what the Irish play in Ireland, i.e. that Lark in the Morning or Calliope House aren’t actually popular there…

Thoughts on sorting through what to practice?

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Re: Trip Planning and Sessions

Eoin O’Neill’s sessions at Cruises are very inviting, relaxed and accessible. There are often talented children there and many levels of players. Your kids will be inspired to see some of Ireland’s young talent playing brilliantly there.

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^That’s Cruise’s Pub in Ennis, Co. Clare.

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Don’t forget that songs have words. If someone isn’t singing then you’re playing a tune 😉

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“My wife (fiddle) and I (mandolin) have 25-50 songs between us”

I’m pretty sure that the repertoire you mention doesn’t consist of *songs*, but *tunes*. As Minijackpot says, songs have words and are sung. What’s listed in The Session database are instrumental tunes of various types (although sometimes the words to songs get posted).

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The OP does mention Lark in the Morning and Calliope House [popular enough here in the UK] so I guess they are actually tunes not songs in their repertoire. Perhaps someone could post a short list of what’s likely to be played in Ireland now, when I was in Doolin and Dingle about 10 years ago it was much the same as an English ‘Irish’ session but things may have changed.

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“Globally popular” tunes are also popular in Ireland as everywhere else.
However, they don’t all get played in every session and would generally occupy only one small part of any session. This would be the same everywhere, I’d guess.

Even in beginners’ sessions or the “warm up at the festival bar”, you can’t guarantee that your own particular “popular” tunes will get an airing. There are so many of them.
However, if you choose to start one or two yourself, only the very “snootiest” players would object and I generally found the sessions in Ireland very welcoming to visitors.

Finally, re beginners’ sessions. You don’t necessarily encounter all the popular tunes there either as many tutors deliberately teach more obscure material and encourage students to learn the well known tunes by themselves. The repertoire may also be chosen on the basis that the tunes are fairly simple and straightforward. Many “popular” tunes are actually quite tricky for beginners but sound easy to the rest of us as we’ve been playing them for so long.

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Every session is different.

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You can find more up to date information if you check out Facebook groups for trad music in the places you’re thinking of visiting. Example - The FB page “Galway Traditional Music Scene” shared a post from another FB page called “Galway Slow Trad Sessions”, currently held at The Office Bar in Salthill. You could post there or message them to ask what tunes they’re playing at the moment if you plan on stopping by their session.

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1. At festivals/summer schools, you will find sessions of all levels. It is quite common to find kids’ sessions happening in the afternoons, after morning classes and lunch. If you want to, you can spend the whole summer festival-hopping (although you might also want to take in some scenery, sites of historical interest etc. whilst you are in Ireland – but you can, of course, dip into an event for a day or two en route to somewhere else).

A few events, off the top of my head:
10th-16th July, Tubbercurry, Sligo: South Sligo Summer School https://www.sssschool.org/index.html
16th-23th July, Drumshanbo, Leitrim: Joe Mooney Summer School https://www.joemooneysummerschool.com
31st July-7th August, Mullingar, Westmeath: All Ireland Fleadh
4th-8th August, Feakle, Clare: Feakle Festival http://www.feaklefestival.ie
13th-17th August, Kilrush, Clare: Eigse Mrs. Crotty

I am not very clued up on regular sessions around Ireland. If you spend any time around Milltown Malbay outside Willie Clancy Week – or Galway or Ennis – you will find traditional music (almost?) every night of the week (even in the daytime in Galway). But bear in mind that many of these are of a very high standard and may not be so welcoming to ‘beginners’ and ‘improvers’ – some of them are really gigs in the guise sessions.

2. Don’t overthink it – there is no point trying to second-guess what tunes people will play. Chances are, if your going to a lot of sessions (which it sound like you are planning to do), you will encounter musicians that share at least some of your repertoire, or that can pick up new tunes quickly enough to join in – and if you find yourselves playing a tune that nobody else knows, it’s not a problem (as long as you don’t make it last the whole session). Whatever your expectations, you can be fairly sure things will not be exactly as you expect – enjoy the surprises.

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^“… if *you’re* going to a lot of sessions …“. I do know how to write really.

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The times I’ve been in Ireland it seems like most of the “traditional sessions” are actually performances where visitors aren’t really welcome. How can a tourist tell whether a session will be open to newcomers?

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Lynn, it helps to be there during the off season, say, October through April. Seems like the gig “sessions” are more common during summer.

It also helps to avoid the venues that actively market to tourists. Small, local sessions where the music happens for its own sake still exist. At least they did, pre-pandemic.

That said, even many of the gig sessions will welcome outside players if (1) you politely ask first or, even better, get an invite beforehand through a mutual musician friend or the pub owner, (2) play melody, not backing, and (3) know a zillion tunes and are good enough to blend in or even lead a set or two. It’s tough if you’re a backer or not yet an advanced, experienced player.

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Re: Trip Planning and Sessions

In 2009 my wife and I were fortunate to join in a very nice session at Gus O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin. Christie Barry was there and was very welcoming. You might want to contact the pub to find out if they still have the sessions.
https://gusoconnorsdoolin.com/

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Re: Trip Planning and Sessions

“The times I’ve been in Ireland it seems like most of the “traditional sessions” are actually performances where visitors aren’t really welcome.”

In retrospect, I have naïvely sat in on a few ‘gig-sessions’ in the past, knowing no better. Perhaps the general ethos has changed a bit since then (20-odd years ago) but, whilst the initial welcome might have been slightly hesitant, I actually think they* were quite glad to have a ‘wild card’ in the mix, even if well below their league. Admittedly, I was a pretty well ‘fully fledged’ session player by that time – they would probably not have been so glad of my company a couple of years earlier.

*The musicians, at least. It is usually the publican that dictates how the ‘session’ is run and the musicians may take the rap if they allow unbooked musicians to join them. I am guessing that some publicans take an even more mercenary attitude these days.

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It all depends on what you mean by ‘gig-sessions’ too.

Some are just that but you also find sessions where the core group of musicians are “paid” but, other than that, it is just a normal session. So, visiting musicians may or may not be welcome depending on the circumstances. All sessions are different as Jeff states above.

I’ve been in Ireland a few times and visited quite a few sessions there. It was fairly easy to spot those with the “planted musicians” as opposed to the more natural and spontaneous variety. However, even with the latter, there was usually payment involved for some of the regular musicians although they were generally more welcoming.

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“Some are just that but you also find sessions where the core group of musicians are “paid” but, other than that, it is just a normal session.”

Yes, that phenomenon extends a long way beyond Ireland. Most London sessions operate this way – and, I suspect, in many parts of the world that have a strong Irish music communities.

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When I was last in Ireland many years ago, while in Dublin, I ended up just going to the CCE headquarters in Monkstown where they had both sessions and dances on Friday and Saturday I believe. That was great fun. As my wife and I drove around the country (this was pre-smartphone days), places that we were told there was a “session” on more than one occasion ended up being traditional groups miked up to play for tourists. At a pub in Kilkenny, I asked about if there was a session (as I had been told there was) and after they grilled me a bit about my skills and the tunes I play, I was invited to sit in with them to perform for a bunch of German tourists who arrived on a bus that night. Other places, it was clear that there was zero opportunity for anyone to sit in, that it was essentially a performance that looked like a session. In a pub in Lisdoonvarna, there was a small session, but they had no interest in having anyone else join them, so we just listened for a few hours while we enjoyed some lovely pub food. My best sessions experiences while in Ireland were in Dingle, where I found three different sessions I could play in on the two nights we were there. Now this was probably 20 years ago, so the modern experience may be completely different.

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Note: I’ve been to Ireland twice for Willie Week since the trip I mentioned in my previous post, but that’s a very different set of circumstances than just randomly visiting and seeking sessions while traveling around the country. If I went back, I’d probably make a beeline for Ennis, Limerick, and Dingle to find sessions.

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So, the first thing I’ll say is that the usual session schedule in Ireland has been completely upended due to COVID. If you haven’t seen a very recent (within the past 6 months or so) update on here, you can’t be sure that the listings are accurate. To be honest, the listings aren’t super accurate anyway, but COVID has thrown a massive wrench in the works.

Which goes into my main point: you’re going to have to get comfortable with some ambiguity and uncertainty. You likely will not know for sure whether a session is on or what the nature of it is until you walk in the door. The listings here are suggestions at best, and even if you call ahead to ask if a session is going to happen the likelihood is the barman who picks up will not know much more than “yeah, I think so.” Trad is a minority interest in Ireland, even in hotbeds like Ennis and Galway. Most people, even people working at the bar, will not really see much difference between an open vs closed session, or a “gig-session” vs a “true session.”

I don’t know a lot about your skills, but 25-30 tunes is not a ton. With most sessions you’ll come across, you’ll likely be doing a lot more listening than playing, even if you do sit in. If you’re sitting for a while without playing and the session leader is welcoming/kind, they will usually throw you a bone and ask if you want to start a set. This may be the only bit you play in all night, depending on the relative skill level and repertoire of the session compared to you. This is fine as long as you’re fine with it, and it seems like you are. To be honest, at your level I would definitely try to seek out sessions at a much higher level just to listen. Listening is key, and if all you ever hear are beginners like yourself you won’t progress much.

So, I’d lean heavily on “ask around once you’re there.” Galway and Ennis will almost certainly have *something,* usually multiple sessions, on every night of the week. Cork does as well, as would Belfast and Dublin. Smaller towns that are heavy on tourists like Killarney, Dingle, Westport, and Doolin will likely have music most nights, but many are likely to be gigs and closed sessions. If you get to a session and it’s definitely “out of your league,” just walk up and ask the musicians if they know of a local Comhaltas session or something more suited to beginners. Someone will likely know something.

I’ve found that when in doubt, the best places to ask are music shops and tourism offices, or email the local Comhaltas chapter. If you find yourself in Cork the Lee Sessions website has a good but not exhaustive list of sessions: https://theleesessions.com/ . Another way is simply looking up pubs in the area that are known for trad. Places like Tig Choili in Galway, Matt Molloy’s in Westport, or the Cobblestone in Dublin are can’t miss spots. When all else fails, take a walk up and down the main street looking for pubs that advertise “live Irish music” or something to that effect. Honestly, I tend to go by the seat of my pants when travelling around the country, and usually end up finding *something.* Don’t overthink it!

Speaking of which, you’d be happy to know that the Lark In The Morning is a decently popular tune in Ireland, and just about everyone will know it if you start it. Calliope House a little less so, but I’ve heard it. Again, don’t overthink it!

Re: Trip Planning and Sessions

Thanks for the advice everyone! Very helpful.

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Re: Trip Planning and Sessions

My wife and I are joining our second Inishfree music tour of Ireland in May. I can’t speak highly enough of their tours. You are immersed in Irish music with opportunities to join sessions in welcoming pubs & private concerts in your lodging.
If you go to Dingle, say “hello” to Tommy & Saundra O’Sullivan from Jim & Elaine. They are at the O’Sullivan’s Courthouse pub, and did two house concerts for us here in Virginia.
Also, I suggest that you check out the OAIM.com. It has almost unlimited instruction and virtual sessions by top-notch musicians. It is headquartered in Doolin. You will receive a great base of popular session tunes. They teach all instruments for a very reasonable subscription. You can also get a free trial.

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Before we visited Ireland, I wrote the leaders of several Comhaltas branches and asked if their sessions would be open to American musicians. I am also a member of Comhaltas, the music and dance organization of Ireland. The leaders invited us and we attended a lovely session in a small town well off the main tourist roads. Before the session the leader auditioned us to figure out where to have us sit.
. So contact Comhaltas and also look for smaller festivals. Concentrate on the tunes you know, but also play along with CDs.

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Hi Mokey we have sent a message to you. If you check your profile it is in the message box. Good wishes from Joe and Adele.

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Update: We are traveling through Ireland now. Each place we stay, we look for sessions that overlap the days we are there on the web and by calling around. So far 7 sessions in 2+ weeks in Ennis, Bunbeag, Letterkenny and Donegal. No luck in Clifden or Achill.

Everyone has been nice, we play songs we know and listen when we don’t, and chat between sets. No problems bringing our 11 year old to the pubs even late at night. We never go to bars in the states and now we’re rolling home at midnight regularly drunk on music and Fanta.

Next up Galway and then Willie Clancy!

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