The resurgent trad scene is being spearheaded by a new generation of musicians who are embracing and redefining its sounds and boundaries.
It’s the first of the numbingly brisk winter evenings. Accompanied by a friend, we flitted between a select few bars purely in the name of research. Our crawl commenced in McNeill’s pub on Capel Street before brief stops in both M. Hughes and The Cobblestone of Smithfield were made. Eventually; we settled down rewarding our hard work with a hot whiskey in Walsh’s, only a few yards away in Stoneybatter. Declan, a dry-witted barman with a thick regional accent asked us, as the kettle boiled, if we had stopped in specifically for the music that was only an hour away from starting. We hadn’t. He informed us that Ye Vagabonds held a session there every Monday evening. The combination of his warm welcome, a plethora of captivating songs sung and an overwhelming atmosphere ignited by the shared experience and appreciation between players and spectators kept us out of the cold night air much later than originally intended. The evening of research had, serendipitously, come full circle.
This triad of pubs and their locations are integral to the long-established traditional music scene, one that has bolstered the economy of our cultural identity for hundreds of years; a lineage continuing to resonate and reach fresh ears. A notable resurgence in the popularity of traditional music, particularly amongst a younger generation of players, has proliferated throughout the capital in recent years. The current calibre of trad musicians in Ireland has yielded global recognition as acts today are more willing to add contemporary flare to the genre.
These musicians are simultaneously preserving the foundation of folk music’s roots and broadening the world of Irish music by incorporating contemporary influences to the arrangements. We’re presently witnessing increasing instances of subdivisions such as ‘neo-trad’ and ‘psychedelic-folk-punk’ trickling into the traditional canon. It’s an exciting and extremely fruitful period for both performers and fans of traditional music in Dublin. For the first time in over half a century, the music industry is paying heed to the wealth of talent and innovation during this timely evolution. The last occurrence of such excitement stemmed from the prominence of The Chieftains, The Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners. The influence of these groups along with Andy Irvine and Dónal Lunny can be traced, still, in the music being performed today.
In 2014, The Gloaming’s self-titled debut garnered mass praise internationally with esteemed publications such as The Guardian, NPR Music and The New Yorker commending the group for reviving Irish traditional music by diversifying it and, subsequently, bringing it into a contemporary context. That year, their album coveted the Choice Music Prize Award, claiming victory over Aphex Twin, U2 and Hozier. It was the first, and remains as the only occasion for a trad album to receive the award. This year trad has a chance to reclaim the accolade. Lankum’s immersive record Between the Earth and Sky has been included in a diversified shortlist counting Fionn Regan, New Jackson and Talos amongst the artists that produced the albums that defined the year in Irish music in 2017.
The quartet have been invaluable to the growth in appreciation for songs, often shunned or forgotten, that are steeped in stories of societal heritage and injustice. Founded by brothers Ian and Darragh Lynch, (later joined by Cormac MacDiarmada and Radie Peat) the band’s debut, Cold Old Fire, lead to an arresting appearance on Jools Holland, sold-out shows in Dublin’s National Concert Hall and multiple nominations at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. This momentum accelerated for Lankum when they signed a contract with Rough Trade, with whom they released their sophomore album in October 2017.
I returned to McNeill’s on a Saturday morning, a week after watching Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn preside in a corner of Walsh’s. There, they had been surrounded by fellow musicians taking turns to singing Black Waterside, House Carpenter, and several other songs passed on from previous generations of singers. Before we begin to discuss the current fixation on trad, Diarmuid is distracted by an old feature suspended from the ceiling of the vacant smoking area. “It looks like a beacon light”, his brother suggests. It’s an appropriate starting point for our conversation as Ye Vagabonds have been lauded recently in their press coverage for shedding light on the folk world and providing what one reviewer of their record had suggested as a “much needed facelift” to the trad and folk world.
However, this sentiment shocked the brothers, who have been touring their debut record in America and across Ireland, at the time. “You read that a lot, especially in reviews of folk music. You constantly see comments like, ‘breathing life into the Irish traditional music scene’, as if it’s dead and in need of resuscitation.” Leaning in to expand upon this, Diarmuid affirms, “I think it’s the most thriving traditional music scene in the world. It’s alive, there are so many young people playing traditional music.” An assertion I hear in my conversations with musicians throughout the afternoon.
With their profile on the rise, Ye Vagabonds are getting used to performing with more of a concentrated infrastructure around them. They were recently featured in one of Nialler9 and Homebeat’s Future Proof gigs held in Bello Bar, which showcase Ireland’s emerging acts. They launched their debut album with a headline gig in The Grand Social. Coming from the intimate setting of a session to the stage is a strange transition that they are getting used to.
Diarmuid commented on how they dismantle the sense of disconnect with a growing fanbase. “Doing shows on a stage, it should feel as natural as possible even though it is, essentially, an unnatural thing. It’s unnatural to put people on a stage in front of an audience. There’s an immediate separation; you’re at a different height-level to the crowd and yet there needs to be a participatory element. This means that everyone has to work together for it to be normal that there are three or more people that get to stand higher than everyone else and speak louder than everyone else. We feel our best when there is no stage or microphones or anything else and it’s just us in a room with people that are equally there with us. What we love about the session situation is that you can turn to someone that you know is a brilliant singer and you can ask them if they want to do a song because you’re all together on one platform whereas you can’t do that from the stage.”
Landless, a quartet comprised of Lily Power, Sinead Lynch, Ruth Clinton and Meabh Meir, are preparing that mindset for the coming months as 2018 is shaping up to be a busy year for the band. The fifth anniversary of their self-titled EP will coincide with the release this month of their forthcoming debut album, Bleaching Bones. Whilst talking to the foursome about the prospect of sharing the material they have recorded for their full-length release, they frequently exchanged excited looks. Their approach to traditional music is considered as one of the lesser explored styles in Dublin, this has worked to their advantage particularly in the infancy of Landless.
When the band formed in 2013, following a slew of events that kept bringing them together, unaccompanied harmonies were unusual amid the steadfast Sean-Nós style favoured on this isle. They were nurtured by established singing circles in the city centre. “[The older generation of singers] have always been so supportive of us. They have always promoted us and they have given us some songs, too. There’s a Dublin singer called Fergus Russell who composes songs, as well. He has one that is based on a riddle which he gave to us to sing called Lord Landless. That’s actually where we got our name.”
As with many of the musicians, the group did not anticipate their arrangements beyond the setting of the session. Sinead explains, “It was more a hobby, initially. We didn’t really feel the need to have a name until lots of great opportunities to perform at various events came our way. Once that started to happen, things kept taking off and we decided it was time to assert our presence as Landless.” Less than a year after their formation, Landless shared their self-titled debut EP online. It featured classic traditional tracks such as Farewell To Fiunary and Rags Upon The Poddle. All the songs they perform and record come from the traditional canon with Landless composing their own melodies; adding and subtracting elements from the arrangements to make them their own.
Presently, this is what works best for the band. The prospect of penning their own lyrics is a daunting one. “We have talked about writing lyrics. Maybe it’s something we’ll do eventually, but it’s hard to sit down and write something that you won’t feel self-conscious singing on a regular basis before an audience. It would be really strange, but I definitely want us to get to that point.” With this, Lily interjects, reminding me why the songs they perform have perpetuated. “When you’re singing traditional songs, you’re always aware of how well written they are. That contributes to their endurance. When you sing something that you’ve written after a song that has been around for a long time there is a definite contrast.”
Killian O’Flanagan, a singer and fiddle player, is one of the few among the younger generation to write his own lyrics which he tells me are warmly received at sessions. Four years ago, in his early twenties, he began singing just as the revival was taking off. Killian noticed that the expansion of the trad circle’s circumference ran concurrently with the recession. “Whenever there’s a recession people tend to go back to their roots. That’s probably the reason why, out of the ashes of the recession, you see people leaning towards the traditions of the past for inspiration instead of consuming new material. This progressed and people became very focused on making their own music. I think that’s intrinsically connected to why we’re seeing a lot of people, especially young musicians, playing folk music at the moment.”
“The communal element that harks back to the very beginning of trad music has also been crucial in keeping the scene alive and prospering. Gathering people through a mutual enjoyment of creating your own entertainment brings a sense of community among musicians. I continued to play trad through adolescence because my friends were involved. That’s typically how you get started, it keeps you involved and then it encourages other people to partake.”
The depth and sincerity throughout trad culture is another appealing aspect to music fans faced with disposable acts churned out by record labels and industry heavyweights. Killian believes that trad’s endurance is owing to the respectful nature of remaining true its roots.
“Nowadays, people are mostly searching for something other than, perhaps, pop or electronic music. I’m not trying to take anything away from those kinds of music, but with acoustic music there’s an innate human quality that effectively characterises the songs. A lot of traditional songs are ballads. The mood and tone of a ballad sets out to tell a story. As a singer and certainly as a spectator, you become invested in both the story as well as the song. You’re putting more emotion or character into the song, which is a really great thing especially compared to a lot of songs written today which are without a story.”
The importance of the story is what differentiates traditional and folk music from the majority of contemporary music riding aimlessly across the airwaves. “When I sing, I’m always focused on recreating the feeling you get when you hear a song and its story for the first time. You put yourself in the singer’s shoes and try to imagine their experience, even if you haven’t lived that situation. You have to try and embody the situation and treat it fairly. So, in that way, singing a traditional song is never really about you. Unless you’re writing your own songs. It’s about treating the spirit of the song fairly before even thinking about yourself.” John Flynn has been a prominent figure in the present generation of promising trad musicians for a number of years.
Flynn picked up the tin whistle aged seven and moved on to the flute before entering adolescence. He spent many afternoons listening attentively to recordings of Harry Bradley and Matt Molloy. When he wasn’t diligently deconstructing their styles, he was playing outside of the Comhaltas with his friends that were also in the scene, including Daragh Lynch and Radie Peat of Lankum. John was invited to play on a song that features on their second album. “I got to record a track for their album. I was delighted because they didn’t need to have me on it but they were like, ‘We want you on it! It would be nice to have our mates play with us’, so they had a good few of us on the album. That, to me, shows that it isn’t just about them, they wanted it to be about all of us.”
Singing is still relatively new to John. “With singing, it always seemed so separate. In Irish traditional music singing is very separate. None of us sung when we were kids which is funny because now there’s a considerable amount of people my age singing around Dublin. It’s a recent thing. It just so happened that; around the time I opened up to the singing aspect of traditional music when it became more popular around the city. It was by chance as well that a lot of people got into it. You’d get people that hadn’t been previously involved in trad or maybe they were playing an instrument before they started singing. My curiosity increased a few years ago when I was in college. I was doing a module in folk music and my lecturer played a track by The Watersons called The Thirty Foot Trailer. I remember thinking that it sounded lovely and I wanted to do something like that. I started getting heavily into English folk music, and then I moved on to exploring Irish folk music on Youtube. I spent hours watching videos of Dick Gaughan and Dolores Keane. It’s all one thing; English folk singing, Irish folk singing, Scottish folk singing and American folk singing. They’re all related. The sentiment comes from the same place within, they’re just set to slightly different styles.”
Talking to some of the figures on the forefront of today’s trad scene, there are several recurring themes that appear in conversations surrounding the ethos of the music. Central to the discussion is the support and sense of community that comes with being part of the scene. And the significance of family as a fundamental foundation. Whether it is parents initiating their child’s involvement, playing alongside family members or adopting a second family through playing; it is a core strand that ultimately strengthens the scene.
Áine Lonergan and her sister Aisling King came from a musical household where both parents were ardent enthusiasts of all types of music. Their dad, now a traditional singer, took up the fiddle in his twenties when he moved to Dublin. His passion for playing was the catalyst to encourage his children to become involved in music, steadily honing in on the folk music of the 1960s and 1970s. Aisling remembers her father teaching Áine, their siblings and her how to play with old cereal boxes as makeshift instruments and utilising the Suzuki method, a way of learning how to play by ear. Over time, they moved on to play the tin whistle, graduating to the fiddle and accordion.
What began as a hobby; shared and enjoyed as a family – their home was often a prime location for impromptu sessions – became a way to sustain a living. In college, Aisling worked in bars playing mainstream trad specifically targeted to tourists. The downside of this was that Aisling wasn’t always able to play the songs that she wanted to. After college, opportunities arose for the sisters to play in Chapelizod, a steady gig they enjoyed for eight years. This gig allowed them to play whatever they wanted with their friends and experiment with the various styles which has kept their love for music invigorated.
A commonality among the musicians is that traditional music becomes an encompassing entity in their lives. Áine recalls how she listens to trad and folk music frequently outside of playing. “I love all types of music but I have a massive black spot of pop music that I didn’t get into at the same time as a lot of my friends did when I was a teenager. I was predominantly listening to trad which progressed then to American folk, so Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. There are loads of well known 90s pop tunes that I would be oblivious to because that was a period when I was listening to trad all of the time.”
Sinead Kennedy is also familiar with performing regularly with her sisters. As well as working as a visual artist (Sinead has, in the past, painted pieces inspired by what she imagined a tune would look like) she teaches fiddle in the Séamus Ennis Centre. Her students range from six-year-olds to retired men and women. I wondered how it is for her to be overseeing the future generations of session musicians in her classes. “It’s really nice to be able to pass it on and to witness the joy they get from playing music and getting a grasp on a tune. I always tell the younger ones that it’s great that they’re playing music now because it’ll be much easier for them to progress onto other instruments, later on. I find that the teens in particular are really enthusiastic. You have a lot more time to dedicate yourself to music at that age and the information seeps in more. They’re also at an age where they’ve decided to do it themselves, so you get the feeling that it’s something they’ll continue to pursue. It’s heartening because they are a really integral part of the trad scene; they’re the future and it’s wonderful to see how the tradition is so alive.”
As I sit at my desk to finish this piece, my fingers have weakened from the cold. Heading out into another winter evening, I think I’ll reward myself with a hot whiskey at the bar in Walsh’s before heading home. As I step inside, I realise there’s a session there every Monday evening. Once again, it all comes full circle.
Words: Zara Hedderman
Portraits: Ruth Medjber
Four Of The Best Bars To Catch Trad Music In The North Inner City
A window of traditional instruments procures the curiosity of the passer-by, leading them into a cosy setting brimming with warmth coming from the many fireplaces and the welcoming staff. Its charm is encapsulated in conversations with the barflies while you wait for a Guinness to settle. McNeill’s host sessions every evening between Thursday and Saturday.
For five generations, the Mulligan family have established The Cobblestone as the quintessential pub to experience live traditional music.
Nestled in the corner of Smithfield square, you can be assured of stumbling upon some of the finest trad musicians playing together in The Cobblestone every night of the week.
Of all of Dublin’s many pubs to experience Irish music, M. Hughes is somewhat of an enigma. From its exterior you may fail to recognise that its interior is snug and intimate. The bar is vast and decorated with an assortment of paraphernalia of the sporting and musical kind.
Known to draw an impressive crowd on Sunday and Monday evenings with their sessions featuring acclaimed musicians such as Lisa O’Neill, Walsh’s hospitality makes you instantly feel as though you are home among family. It’s central seclusion in Stoneybatter makes Walsh’s feel like you have stumbled into the city’s finest hideaway.
Words: Zara Hedderman
Portraits: Ruth Medjber