Thursday, 4 June 2020

Embracing Irish Music, a New York Tradition

Musicians at O’Neill’s, clockwise from left: Morwenna Steinersen, fiddle; Brian Sharkey, bodhran; Cathy Hornberger, flute; Dan Neely, banjo; John Morrow, banjo; Martin O’Connell, accordion; Christy McNamara, concertina; Ivan Goff, flute; and Shane O’Sullivan (back to camera), guitar. O’Neill’s is hopping on SaturdaysCredit...Thomas Donley for The New York Times.

YOU step into the crowded establishment, and it hits you: a rousing set of reels, played by a pickup band in the corner. There’s a fiddle, a guitar, a bodhran, a concertina, maybe a banjo or a flute or a tin whistle. Your foot starts tapping, you order a pint and you settle in for music summoning images of a damp, windswept isle across the Atlantic. But this isn’t St. Patrick’s Day. It’s the Landmark Tavern, on 11th Avenue in Manhattan, on almost any Monday evening.

All year New York abounds in places to hear traditional Irish music; you can find a session (or seisun, in Gaelic) practically every night. Most are instrumental. A regular group — the banjoist and fiddler Don Meade leads the Landmark’s — gathers, and other musicians drop in to learn a new reel, jig, hornpipe or air. At a more rollicking engagement the audience might sing along to, oh, “Whiskey in the Jar.” And sometimes a reverent hush descends as someone sings solo in unaccompanied sean-nos (old-style) songs. But everywhere the Irish tradition of conviviality prevails. And you avoid yahoos who forget their limits every March 17.

A tour of Manhattan’s hot spots (there are too many in Yonkers and the boroughs, especially Queens, to mention here) might begin on a Sunday night with the 11th Street Bar’s session in the East Village. Led by the fiddler Tony DeMarco, it starts at around 9:30 and has long attracted touring professionals seeking a bit of craic (Gaelic for merriment, pronounced “crack”).

The Landmark’s session, on Monday nights, starts around 8. Swift Hibernian Lounge, on Fourth Street in the East Village, hosts one on Tuesdays, as does Dempsey’s, a block or two east. Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar, on Second Avenue in Murray Hill, offers music and step dancing on Thursdays. Glucksman Ireland House, New York University’s center for Irish studies, has monthly Friday performances. On Saturdays, O’Neill’s on Third Avenue in Midtown is hopping.

All this persists years after Ireland’s glorious 1990s cultural moment in America, when “Riverdance” conquered concert halls, “Angela’s Ashes” dominated best-seller lists, “In the Name of the Father” earned Oscar nominations, and the Good Friday Agreement appeared to herald a new era in Northern Ireland. But in the world-changing wake of Sept. 11, Ireland’s ascendancy was somehow dimmed.

Or was it? Vogue is temporary; culture is timeless. And Irish traditional music endures, waxing and waning but never disappearing. In Ireland “traditional music reached a low point in the early ’50s,” said Mr. Meade, who covered the scene for years in a column in The Irish Voice, a weekly newspaper based in New York. Its decline in popularity, he added, could “be explained by people’s desire to turn their backs on rural poverty and embrace the modern world.” Many were “ashamed of this very Irish, very rural tradition.”

Mr. Meade cited Irish groups of the 1960s folk revival, the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners, for reinvigorating the form. The Dubliners’ “combination of traditional dance music and guitar-backed ballads,” he said, “was the template for every popular traditional music band that came after them: Planxty and the Bothy Band in the 1970s, Altan, say, in the 1980s.”

As for whether Ireland’s cultural hegemony has receded substantially in America in recent years — exacerbated by the republic’s economic tailspin — Aidan Connolly is not so sure. He is the executive director of the Irish Arts Center on West 51st Street, a locus of theater, music and Gaelic since 1972.

“I don’t think I’d agree that it’s receded,” he said in a phone interview. He mentioned Terry George, the Belfast native who wrote and directed “Hotel Rwanda” and won an Oscar last month for his live-action short “The Shore,” as an example of Ireland’s continuing influence and “the enduring relevance of bands like U2.”

He acknowledged Ireland’s present economic struggles but said that optimism “could just be in the DNA of Ireland, as a country that has endured difficult times.”

“And, you know,” he added, “we’ve gotten by on poetry before.”

One sign of an Irish resurgence in New York is a new Irish Arts Center, scheduled to open in 2016 with private, city and Irish government financing. Embracing multiple disciplines, it bodes well for the future of Ireland’s place in New York’s cultural life.

But don’t ever count out the humble traditional session at the corner pub. It’s going to be around for a long, long time.

•By Andy Webster

•culled from

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