For our honeymoon, we spent three weeks traveling around Ireland in search of traditional music. We sat in with a total of 22 sessions...sometimes more than one per night, and sometimes at the same pub on different nights. Each gathering of musicians had its own special character. Here are our top 5 favorites.
1. Sin É – Cork
From the moment we stepped into Sin É, it was immediately clear that this was one of the places to be for solid trad music. The name translates to "That's it" in English, named for the fact it is located next to a funeral home. Hailed by many as the best pub in Cork for trad music, the sessions we sat in with proved to be one of the most dynamic and fun nights we had the whole trip! There was a heavy amount of Breton tunes from France woven into the session, along with great singers and a very tight-sounding group. We even got to hear some tunes from a visiting Argentinian bagpipe band (which sounded amazing, if a little loud in a pub)!
The venue itself was tightly packed with enthusiastic patrons and it just felt nice to be in. The session was in a small corner that magically seemed to fit everyone, even though it didn't seem possible at first. The session table itself had a bottle with a candle in it, such that the remainder of the candle would fall into the bottle after it burned down far enough. The bottle was almost full of candle stubs that night, and it was wonderful to see the evidence of so many nights of great music and memories encapsulated right there in the middle of all the fun.
2. Tig Cóilí – Galway
A good session is when a bunch of talented musicians sit and play excellent music together. A great session happens when the audience is an active part of the performance. For us, Tig Cóilí provided the best of both worlds, offering an excellent group of musicians and one of the most receptive and engaged crowds we encountered the whole time. Whether it was a tune set or a song, the patrons enthusiastically cheered on the musicians after every piece of music finished. We sat in with two sessions, and they were amazingly talented and consistent in both their quality of music and selection of tunes. The pub itself looks very attractive inside and out, and it is a must-see pub for anyone visiting Galway!
3. Considine's Bar – Ennis
The town of Ennis has multiple sessions going on every day of the week, but one of the main highlights was visiting the session hosted by Blackie O'Connell in Considine's. The session on the night we visited had a lot of concertina players, though there were uilleann pipes, flute, and fiddle there as well. Over the course of the night, we also met guitarist Conal O'Kane from the band Goitse who did an incredible job adding intricate chord progressions and counter-melody into the tunes. There was a good mix of session standards This session had a great driving groove to it, and it was one of the most exciting sessions we visited.
4. The Cobblestone – Dublin
We completed our trip with two consecutive visits to The Cobblestone pub, and what a way to end off! The musicians have a designated area right at the front, so anyone coming through the front door will hear the session in full swing. The session size was a larger one, but the orientation of the alcove made it easy to hear everyone fairly well without losing too much sound to the chatter of the pub. It has a very attractive and classic pub feel, and there is plenty of seating and room at the bar to fit a lot of patrons. The musicians themselves played an excellent blend of reels and jigs, and there was a good blend of different instruments across the four sessions we sat in. That said, each session had a very different feel, some being more rowdy, some more tune-oriented, and others still with a good balance of tunes and songs. We heard everything from an authentic sean-nós song (a slow ballad sung in Irish) to a rockin' version of "The Town of Ballybay," so there was something for every musical taste over the course of the two nights we were there. The Cobblestone is an excellent standard to measure the quality of a session, and we can't say enough good things about it!
5. Sunflower Public House – Belfast
The Sunflower is three-story tall brick building may appear more industrial, but that feeling disappears as soon as you walk in the door to the comfortable coziness you find in most Irish pubs. The session sits around a table in the back corner past the bar and the acoustics are solid. We had minimal trouble hearing the musicians around us, and there was a good balance of instruments at the table that waxed and waned over the course of the session. The musicians themselves were incredibly friendly and welcoming, and everyone at the table was incredibly talented.
This session focused more on some of the modern trad tunes written in the past 20-30 years, but they also played some of the standard session tunes about ten percent of the time. This session is definitely a more advanced one, so if you're newer to playing trad music this is a great session to listen to and get ideas for where trad music is going in the future (spoiler alert: it's only going to get better!). They also serve really good pizza here, so you can have dinner before the music starts!
Neligan's Bar – Dingle
We found this session the good ol'-fashioned way: we were walking the street and heard accordion music wafting out the door, so we rushed inside and joined the circle! The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, which was a big relief from the weather outside.
O'Donoghue's Bar – Dublin
O'Donoghue's was the first pub we visited in Ireland, so it will always have a special place in our hearts! The Dubliners got their start here back in the early 60s, so a lot of the music came from their songbook. Great atmosphere and lots of audience participation.
Knox's Pub – Ennis
Warm, spacious, and fill with kind, talented people. We sat in for two different sessions and wish we could have stayed for more!