Every Tuesday at Nine

What Irish music sessions mean to players and punters
Episode Trailer

What exactly are Irish music sessions? And why do people all around the world head out to these intimate music events?

Big-hearted session hosts Tina Lech, John Williams, Eoin O’Neill, and Brian Conway help host Shannon Heaton decode what their weekly gatherings in Boston, Chicago, Clare, and New York mean to them—and to all the regulars. Boston producer Brian O’Donovan, fiddle teacher Laurel Martin, and flute players Melissa Foster and Scott Boag also weigh in.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Patrick O’Leary, Art Costa, Paul Willson, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Episode 03 – Every Tuesday at Nine:
What Irish music sessions mean to players and punters
This Irish Music Stories episode aired April 11, 2017


Speakers, in order of appearance

>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> John Williams: Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist with All Ireland titles and numerous film credits
>> Eoin O’Neill: Bouzouki player, radio host, and music mentor who grew up in Dublin and lives in Clare
>> Brian O’Donovan: Cork native based in Boston who works in public broadcasting and music production
>> Tina Lech: Providence-born, Boston-based fiddle player 
>> Siobhan McKinney: Sliabh Luachra born, Chicago-based flute player and co-proprietor of Chief O’ Neill’s pub
>> Brendan McKinney: Chicago-based flute player and piper, and co-proprietor of Chief O’ Neill’s pub 
>> Amy Shoemaker: Chicago-based singer-songwriter
>> Laurel Martin: Performer and fiddle teacher in the Boston area who plays sessions, festivals and concerts throughout New England
>> Melissa Foster: Rhode Island-based flute and accordion player and sign-language interpreter
>> Scott Boag:  Irish flute player based in Woburn, MA


>> Shannon:  I’m Shannon Heaton, and this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it. 

[Music: “The Tap Room & Galway Rambler”, from from Rehearsal, c. 2009

Artist: Dan Gurney (accordion), Shannon Heaton (flute), Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

…Like why an accordion player with a percussion habit plays to the back of the house:

>> John: I think it’s important to project out, way out onto the street and across the street, ya know. It creates a better community.

>> Shannon: In this episode I’ll talk to musicians in Chicago, Clare, Boston and New York to decode the story of the weekly Irish session. I’ll ask John Williams, Eoin O’Neill, Tina Lech and Brian Conway how they run their weekly music gatherings. And I’ll explore what these sessions mean to the players and the listeners, like Boston producer, Brian O’Donovan.

>> Brian: There’s a draw in Irish music to… the truth of experience. There’s something about it that when you hear that, it’s authentic. It’s the human authenticity. It’s kind of like, you listen to that and even if you’ve never been exposed to that tradition before, and this happens in other traditions, you listen to it and you say, “Hmm, there’s something going on here that seems to me that’s real and reflects experience.” All the ways from a sad or tragic experience, to exuberance, to the wildness of the session.

>>Shannon: Trust me: whether you already play the accordion—or you’ve never been to an Irish session in your life—the story here… and the wonderful people you’ll meet… well, it all goes way beyond a few tunes in a pub.

[Music fades]

But traditional music often STARTS in the pub. Now, I’m talking traditional Irish music

[Music clips]

—not U2, not the Dropkick Murphys, not rebel ballads on St. Patrick’s Day and not Enya.

 I’m talking mostly instrumental TUNES on fiddles, wood flutes, accordions, concertinas, tenor banjos, and uilleann pipes (the Irish bagpipes). Maybe there’s accompaniment from a guitar or bouzouki, or bodhran (Irish frame drum). Maybe there’s a guest solo singer—or a few singers. Maybe there’s some spontaneous dancing. 

[Music: “Jim Donohue’s & Maud Millar,” from Session at the Druid, circa 2017
Artists: George Keith (fiddle), Tina Lech (fiddle), Shannon Heaton (flute) ]

But the main event of the typical Irish pub session is instrumental music like this. People playing tunes they know, by heart, all in unison together.

… Like these tunes, played at the Druid Pub in Cambridge, Massachusetts, every Tuesday night from about 9 til midnight. Fiddle player Tina Lech usually anchors the session with her husband Ted, who plays guitar, banjo, and flute. 

>>Tina: We have anywhere from, some weeks it’s 2 musicians to 15 musicians come in to play. We really don’t know from week to week who’s coming in. 

>>Shannon: I asked Brian O’Donovan to describe the Druid session—it’s his local pub:

So you walk into the Druid on a Tuesday night, you open up the doors, what do you see, what do you hear?

>>Brian: Well, in the best Tuesday nights that I’ve walked into the Druid, it’s been cold outside. And I’ve opened up the door and suddenly you’re hit with a sense of warmth. There’s something going on in there, there’s a conviviality, there’s a bonhomie. There’s traditional music going on just around the corner to the right, and everybody else there, some people really know the music and the musicians. Many people are there for the first time and are kind of bemused that they’re in this great situation where this music is being played acoustically in the corner. 

[ Music: “Blackhaired Lass,” from Session at the Druid, circa 2016
Artists: George Keith (fiddle), Adam Cole Mullen (fiddle), Shannon Heaton (flute) ]

And,so, that is what really, I see, as a great session is walking into something that suddenly makes you feel a part of it, even if you’re not playing an instrument. It’s enveloping, it doesn’t require you to take any action whatsoever. Just to enjoy the moment, absorb the tunes, and enjoy the company of other people.

[Music ends]

>>Shannon: Irish pub sessions often do envelope the musicians and the people hanging out in the bar. Some come every week for the express purpose of listening and being part of the vibe. They might applaud after a set of tunes, but it’s not a performance. It’s this social, communal experience.

I asked Brian what he makes of all the people in this Boston bar, so many Americans who are playing and listening at these sessions. I mean, it’s Irish music after all:

>>Brian:  I think it really, really relies on the gut. It relies on those tingling moments that come across for no real reason except they’ve touched on an emotion that you perhaps didn’t know that you had, or a memory, or… and you don’t have to be ethnically connected with the music. But the music and the situation itself is what brings us joy or shared sorrow, shared experience. And I think that runs across humanity. 

[Music: “Hometown Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton

>>Shannon: Talk about humanity and shared experience. When I go to the Druid with my flute to play tunes with Ted and Tina, or George Keith on fiddle, it’s familiar for me. There’s a personal STORY there. Ted, Tina, and George were the first players my husband and I met when we came to Boston in 2001. Since then we’ve acquired some amazing memories of trips we’ve taken, of weddings we’ve attended, of colorful banjo and accordion players that we’ve known. That’s there, too, even when we just play tunes.

I asked Tina what the session means to her. She talked about how it feels like a collective:

>>Tina: I sort of see the Druid as a place where, um, people who have been playing music for a long time really come together there and see it as a great opportunity to share with each other. And if somebody comes in and they’re just rarin’ to go and play a lot of tunes, it’s very much up to any musician who’s feeling that to just start tunes. I feel like it’s a very different vibe—and I think we’ve tried to create that, in some ways, that it’s not just about the people “running the session”. But it’s more about, you know, everyone feels comfortable being able to start tunes. You know, but at the same time it really requires, I think, this understanding that a lot of work goes into learning the tunes that we’re sitting and playing. So, if somebody came into the session and obviously didn’t know a tune and was trying to play along with it, um, that wouldn’t be really acceptable. Especially on a louder instrument. We’ve had that happen at times, it ends up being a challenging situation.

[Music ends

>>Shannon: So it’s a tight bunch of players—of friends. But there’s room for newer players, too.

>>Tina: If it’s a night where there’s 2 or 3 musicians and somebody, you know, I guess, with less experience playing—that might be the perfect opportunity to sit in and at least have conversation. Because I believe that everybody has something to offer. It might not be, you know, that you can play all the tunes, but that you might have a good story, or a song, and, you know, we do have quite a few singers who come in. 

There’s a time and place for everything. It’s just, it’s just you have to go with the flow of the night; what’s going on, you know, that particular night. So, we oftentimes encourage somebody who’s got really a lot of interest in playing the music but probably not enough experience to really sit in on the session to bring a tape recorder. I think that’s the way we all learned. And hope that a newer person would get a lot out of that.

>>Shannon:The Druid session is a warm, friendly place. It’s small, and photos of the musicians line the walls. Owner Mikey Crawford and the rest of the bar staff are usually the first to applaud after a great set of tunes.

[Music: “Rainy Day,” from Session at the Druid, circa 2017
Artists: Kathleen Conneely (whistle), Dylan Foley (fiddle) ]

>>Tina: Because Mikey is who he is, and how much he values the music, that pub has really become the place to go. And, you know, there’s all that other stuffI that goes along with it too, it’s a great pub atmosphere, not just for the music. I don’t think he really went out of his way to try to create this, it just is a big piece of who he is. On Tuesday nights, uh, a lot of the people who go to the Druid know that there is music there, um, so they’re kind of the, you know, the locals. And they go there because the music is happening.


>>Shannon: One of the regulars at the session is an older Irish gentleman named Mike Mulcahy. I asked Tina if folks like Mike play a role in the session:

>>Tina: Definitely, just knowing that they’re there, and especially Mike. He came in in the last session, and he’s so dedicated. He couldn’t find a chair. He went out to his car and got one of his, he has a portable chair, one of those, like, folding, like beach chair. And brought it into the pub and sat down in it, right, right  next to the session, no bother at all. It’s great! It’s great when Mikey is around or folks like Mike who, you know, really are there just expressly to hear the music. It means something. It means a lot. Especially not being Irish myself. When Mikey who’s Irish or Mike who’s Irish are really into the music, that means the world to me, that it means something to them. 

[Music fades]

>>Shannon: The music and the situation at the Druid is looser and less predictable than at John Williams’ Sunday session in Evanston, Illinois. John plays accordion, he’s a more demonstrative session leader, and his afternoon of music has a consistent arc and order to it. But it also packs a huge emotional punch—for me… and for the players who have followed John for years. This session is where I had my start in Irish music, back when flute players Brendan and Siobhan McKinney also lead the session. Back before Brendan and Siobhan opened their own music pub, Chief O’Neill’s on the North Side of Chicago. You’ll hear lots more from the McKinney’s in next month’s Cuppa Tea  episode. 

Now when I was going to the Sunday Evanston session, it was at Tommy Nevins Pub. It’s since moved, and players and listeners who love John’s music—from his solo recordings, and his innovative work with the band Solas,  they’ve all followed John a few blocks away to a place called the Celtic Knot. I moved to Boston in 2001. But when I’m back in Chicago-land, I head to the Sunday Evanston session. 

[Music: “Out on the Ocean,” from Session at Celtic Knot, October 2016
Artists: John Williams and friends ]

During my last visit, I asked John to reflect on the long-running session. As always, he made me laugh—and reflect deeply on Irish music:

Let’s talk about this community,  this session community that you established quite a while ago. And, uh, have kept going- the Sunday Evanston session.

>> John: I suppose when you look at it in historic terms and you use the term establish, it automatically starts sounding like something greater than it actually was. Or there was some establishment, you know? Peter, you are the rock on which the church is established. But it wasn’t like that at all. Like a lot of great things, you just kind of find a need and fill it… and then 25 years later it’s still going. So, that’s what it is.

[ Music: “John’s Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>>Shannon: Nowadays I’d say the session has sort of a defined, almost performative quality. Pulling together a bunch of players who may come back every week.

>>John: At times performative, at other times reformative. It is three hours. So , I mean you have to, I think of it as a, it goes in phases. You know, people kind of warm up and then they cool down and it crescendos. Then you actually let some chaos ensue so people can talk and order drinks. That’s important, you know, a lot of it is just reading the crowd. And you can spot with certain crowds where they don’t want to be ignored, they want to be part of it. And they find that they are part of the session, they are feeling some magnetism or some sense of inclusion. So, it’s good to keep that going. I think it’s always, uh, important to play to the back of the house.

I think it’s important to project out, way out onto the street and across the street.

It creates a better community and you’ll draw more people in if you exert more magnetism. It’s my atomic theory. You have a charged nucleus in a session and the electrons stay in their orbits if the nucleus exhibits a charge.

>>Shannon: Clear leadership can pull people together. And a lot of people are drawn to John’s atomic style. Here’s songwriter, Amy Shoemaker, she’s married to John and often joins him at the Sunday session.

>>Amy: I like a lot of the fun things that John does. He doesn’t do it all the time but we’ve had times when he’ll have, like, a drum off. And he’ll start a set of tunes and he’ll start a beat and  then kind of go around the different, you know, if there’s two or three bodhran players or percussion players they’ll have a chance to kind of do their thing. So that’s a fun thing. Or he’ll have like the violin section, fiddle section play something, um, so he keeps it kind of fun.

>>Shannon: So with the Sunday Evanston session, why do you think musicians keep coming out to play?

>>John: They’re probably coming out because they get something out of it. Or they have time on their hands. It’s a nice time, you know, sometimes it’s better than watching TV.

>> Shannon: Haha!

Tune: “Bucks of Oranmore,” from Session at Celtic Knot, October 2016
Artists: John Williams and friends

>> John: In fact, a lot of my musical exploits in print have been described as better than TV. You know, more live mano a mano forms of musical community contact, that’s what Nevins is. It’s better than sitting around! I mean, there’s that Sunday existential malaise where people are like, “what are you going to do, done reading the paper, done with this, what do we do now?” Hell, go to the pub! That’s what we do. The pub has become our weekly observation of community involvement.

>>Shannon: So you think people show up every week to connect with each other? To have something to do?

[Music fades]

>>John: Well, yeah. I mean there’s a lot of reasons, they come up just to connect or to chat or to have a beer. Some of them have needs way beyond that. They want to learn a new tune. That can happen too.

[Music: “It Goes As Follies & Eddie Duffy’s,” from Blue Dress
Artists: Shannon Heaton & Friends ]

In fact, we played a great tune there yesterday I haven’t played in years. And you told me I taught it to you. So, I was, like, transfixed and kind of chuffed, so to speak, that it’s gone full circle to where I’m learning this tune from you again. I honestly haven’t played that tune with anyone in a long time. And I’m so glad we played that tune.

>>Shannon: Mick Tubridy recorded it. It’s called It Goes As Follies.

>>John: Yes!!!! Awesome! So happy that you put the name and the origin on it for me.

>>Shannon: That generosity and humility—valuing contributions from other players. Those are big things for bouzouki player Eoin O’Neill too. Eoin met John Williams in Clare, back when John would spend summers  helping his Aunt Agnes and Uncle Paddy on their farm. Well, he’d help with the farming and the hay reeking when he wasn’t busy playing tunes in Doolin, Lisdoonvarna, and festivals all over the West of Ireland. Years later, Eoin stayed with John in Evanston.

[Music fades]

Eoin and I met up at the Rowan Tree in Ennis. The guys at the cafe opened up a back room for us, so we could chat without a lot of crowd noise. But they started playing this weird mix of Irish and new age music, so it ends up being kind of a hilarious—and  super loud—underscore. I hope you love it. Eoin talked about playing sessions with John in Chicago:

>>Eoin: There was always kindness on John’s behalf toward every musician. Even much more than me, because I’m a little bit more, you know, I’d only be kinda nice to people sitting in and not going against the groove, you know. But John was nice to all. And he taught me how to find value, very much so, John thought he had to find value in musicians that I mightn’t have valued, you know. That they, because they had a different approach than me didn’t mean there was anything wrong with them. But John was inclusive. And once you’re inclusive, you’re okay with me.

>>Shannon: You know, he’s very inclusive of the crowd who’s there.

>>Eoin: That’s vital. We’re very similar, myself and John. For me, the crowd, whoever’s in the room, is just as important as who’s playing the tunes. In a different way but equally important. It’s no good if you don’t include the people in the room. It’s no good to me at all.

>>Shannon: Eoin plays sessions all around County Clare—in Ennis, Lahinch, and Doolin. And he takes the job seriously.

>>Eoin: If I don’t include people in the session, well who’s going to ask me to do a session? You know? I include the barman, you know? And John does, too. I remember playing out in a place called Tom Nevins, where’s he from?

>>Shannon: Evanston.

>>Eoin: Evanston, yeah. We played, I played there every Sunday for about seven months with John.  The barman used to be dancing, at seven o’clock on a Sunday evening, the barman would be up dancing on the counter. So like, and that’s fun. That’s good fun.

>>Shannon: But if there’s playing to the barman and the back of the room, there’s also the heart of the circle. 

>>Eoin: What I do love and I’ve always loved and I’m fascinated by, and you know this too, is that somebody is across from me and I’ve never met them before. And you spend 3 hours playing music together. And you know them intimately, every now and then, you know them intimately without speaking a word to them. You know their manners, you know what excites them, you know how pushy they are, how modest they are, how humble they are, and how talented they are, what kind of tunes they love. And that says, when you’re a musician, you get to tell an awful lot about a person by, say, if they like G Minor tunes. And that will tell something about them, you know it seems like that, ya know? It kind of defines people. So, I love that, it’s great, it’s fascinating. 

[Music: : “After Hours Theme,” from Production music made for this episode
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

>>Shannon: Nowadays, Irish music sessions take place all over the world. There are sessions in Frankfurt, Germany; Cape Town; and Tokyo. Sessions can take place in kitchens, in stairwells at festivals, in hotel lobbies- anywhere. But pub sessions are a mainstay. And with the weekly pub session, there’s an element of chance:

>>Eoin: Well if I go to your house tomorrow night for a tune, and you’ve invited four people—I kind of know what’s going to happen, you know?

>>Shannon: Yeah. You take those same musicians and put them in a pub, and the whole thing might take a different turn.

>>Eoin: You never know who’s going to walk in the door. And it’s a challenge. You know you could have a dodgy character walk in, you could have a fellow asking you for the Sally Gardens 6 times in the night. You have to deal with all these situations. But they can be great fun, you know? Right.

>>Shannon: Sessions can be really fun. And they’re also where players learn tunes, develop style, and learn about Irish customs like buying rounds of drinks, and ribbing each other in a particular way, and referring to the ‘craic,’ that’s spelled C-R-A-I-C, it means having a good time. And even though some of us Americans might use these terms a little more self-consciously, to avoid feeling too affected. I do think the cultural practices are bundled into the experience. So, using the vocabulary, using the word craic, whether you’re doing it self consciously or not, and the etiquette- well, they’re all part of playing Irish music. The etiquette IS the music, in a way. The culture of the session, and the shared social aspects; maybe that’s what makes it Irish traditional music, not just the tunes themselves. 

And maybe there is something essential about the moments between the tunes. I asked Boston fiddle player and teacher, Laurel Martin, to speak to that.

So, what about those pauses, in a session? What’s goin’ on?

>>Laurel: I always think that having a bit of a pause between tunes, or between sets of tunes gives people a chance to, kind of, settle into what they mean to them. 

You know, sometimes tunes will come up in a session and somebody will start playing something; and I’ll think, 


“My gosh, I don’t know what, can’t even think of the name of that tune.”

And as that happens during the session I love that pause in between because people then say, “I remember the first time I learned that. I learned it from so and so,” or, “I love the arrangement of that tune on such and such a CD.” Or whatever, you know, it just gives people a chance to process it all rather than just having it be, kind of, a factory of producing sound. Hahaha!

>>Shannon: And perhaps it gives the people listening a chance to process it too. Listeners like Mike at the Druid or maybe fellow musicians who just haven’t taken their instruments out of the box that night.

>>Laurel: When I’m teaching people and they’re still fairly new at it, I’ll suggest they go to a session. And they’ll say, “ Ah, but I can’t do anything.” You know? 

>>Shannon: Like, “I don’t know enough tunes yet?

>>Laurel: “I don’t know enough tunes. I can’t play along, I can’t play fast enough.” And I feel as though what’s being forgotten there, and that’s maybe also just like an American cultural thing, that we don’t feel that listening is a thing to do. You know, like, we listen while we are doing something else. or, like, we listen while we’re driving, to the radio, or whatever. Or we listen to a podcast while we’re cooking. Or we… but to just sit and listen and be in a pub and kind of watch the people and just absorb what’s happening. We don’t tend to think of that as a thing to do. And yet it is and I think if you’re learning to play this kind of music it’s a really important thing to do. 

>>Shannon: Yeah.

>>Laurel: Just to see the interaction and the sort of social aspect of it and the humanity of it, the generosity of it. Some of those things that you can watch people in a session being, kind of helping each other, or reminding each other or whatever. And that, I think that’s all part of it. It’s such a human… it’s a thing, I think,  that’s really about, you know, kindness and good spiritedness and generosity as much as it is about the music itself.

>>Shannon: In order for musicians to be part of a session in the first place they have to know a lot of tunes from memory to play them in unison with other players. Even the players adding chords are expected to know the tunes. It’s not a free jam. I asked Laurel about learning the session repertoire:

So, what about the music itself? I mean there’re a lot of tunes that you kind of need to have under your belt even just to sit in that circle and participate, right?

>>Laurel: Yeah, yeah. For me that just happened gradually over time. Um, but I remember when I was first learning, and I was taking lessons from Seamus Connolly. And he, and he would always answer me with this, “It takes years. Years of listening. Years of playing. Years.” 

And I, of course at the time, I just felt like, come on! Give me a little hope that I can get at this more quickly. Um, but now for me, years have gone by. And I realize, yeah, there’s wisdom in that. Some of it is just time. You keep at it, you just keep learning, you keep listening, you keep playing. And eventually you know a lot more than you thought you ever would, and you know a lot of tunes you don’t even know you know. 

>>Shannon: The project of learning all these tunes has prompted some communities to organize “slow sessions” for newer players. I’m not sure how slow sessions relate to typical pub sessions—whether participants eventually filter into the regular sessions, or if the slow sessions just become their own ultimate experience. It’s an interesting situation.

[Music ends]

But fast or slow, sessions are such a cornerstone of playing Irish music today that I was surprised to learn that group sessions didn’t get going until the 1960s (first with Irish immigrants in America, and eventually back in Ireland). Before that, playing tunes was more of a solo venture. People would play for dancing, or play a tune to break up an evening of singing and story-telling in a neighbor’s home…  Then the church raised a stink. Here’s Eoin O’Neill’s take on it:

And sessions aren’t like hundreds of years old, as a tradition, the pub session…

>>Eoin: Not at all…they’re only the 60’s, late 60’s I’d say.

>>Shannon: Why do you think they started up?

>>Eoin: The church. They used to be in houses, house dances. The priests thought there was too much intimacy going on, or something like that, too much drinking going on. So there had to be a place for people to play and the pubs took over, which is good.

>>Shannon: Too much drinking in the house, so you have to go to the pub?

>>Eoin: Yeah. Yeah, drinking was in the house, like, jeez, there was nobody to tell you to go home then, you know?

>>Shannon: So now in the States and in Ireland—and around the world-

>> Shannon: Many of us head to the pub. Where, I guess it’s more virtuous. And where anything can happen. Where strangers can meet and connect with a G minor reel. Where a newer player can walk in and create a faux pas. Where things can get awkward.

Having a clear leader can help smooth over uncomfortable moments. Brian Conway has run a weekly session at Dunne’s Pub in White Plains, NY since 1997. I asked him what he does when someone comes in who’s not blending with the group.

>>Shannon: If they come in and just stylistically they aren’t hitting the mark. What do you do? Do you have a strategy?

>>Brian: Yeah. It’s almost as if at this point my reputation precedes me, because I don’t have that problem that much. One guy came in with a tabla drum, I think, or a conga drum, I’m not sure.


[ Music: Conga example ]

And I told him he couldn’t play and he was very offended. And I said, you know, have you been to any other session? He said yes. And I said and they let you play, that? And he said yes. I don’t believe him. No self respecting session would let him do that loud…and it was really loud. It wasn’t just background, you know. 

>>Shannon: That’s not working with the creative constraints that we were talking about earlier.

 >>Brian: Right, right, exactly. It’s having no understanding of any creative constraints. So… 

>>Shannon: OK, so if you nip problems in the bud… AND you have a sense of humor and kindness… you can look out for yourself and your gang.

Brian really looks out for his gang. 

He’s mindful of creating a positive experience for his listeners, and for many of his own students who attend weekly.

>>Brian: Many of the people who come are students of mine, so I know their repertoire. So I’m very much driven by trying to keep everybody feeling like they’re playing. So I pick tunes that I’ve taught them.  


So, when the students, the young students are there I try to get all their tunes in. Or a lot of them. And then when they leave I start going to the guest and I prompt them to lead tunes. The other thing I started doing a few years ago is I would do these jig and reel circles, sometimes a  hornpipe circle. So I’d start a tune, and everybody would start a tune. 

[Music:  “Fasten the Leg on Her & Wandering Minstrel,” from Session at Dunne’s, circa 2016
Artist: Brian Conway (fiddle) ]

So that gave, everybody would feel like when they came, they got to pick a tune.

>>Shannon: Another way Brian keeps things moving is to have a different co-host each week:

>>Brian: One thing I learned is not to have the same guest every week. That was a big lesson. Every week I have a different guest. And, um, that keeps it fresh, I learned more than anything. You know, uh, I just keep it going. I’ve always just been motivated by that. First of all, if you’re getting compensated by the owner to be there, I feel, like, a certain obligation to keep the audience entertained too. It’s not a performance, though there are some performances in it. But I always just try to keep it moving. And I do that for the benefit of the people who come and play. Because I’ve gotten lots of feedback from students about other sessions- how they come down and their instruments just sit on their lap for an hour while the guest and the leader sit and have a private conversation. Look to the people who come who are supporting your session and try to keep them happy, if you can. Some people you can’t make happy! The key to the success of that session is having an owner who not only, well, just respects the music. We’ve almost never had a cancellation. We cancelled once last year because of the snow storm. That’s unheard of. We actually had a session going on during a blackout that lasted for several days in the whole area. We had candles and played. So.Yeah.

>>Shannon: That’s great!

>>Brian: Yeah.

>>Shannon: And so, how’s it been having this, um, as part of your life for 18 years, 19?

[Music fades]

>>Brian: There are nights when I, because I work,  I’ll come home for a while and I’ll say, “ I’m tired.” But I’m always happy when I go. I can’t imagine my life not having my Wednesday night session. 

>>Shannon: The routine. The community. The friendships. The craic. That’s what Dunne’s is. And that’s what lures flute player Melissa Foster to her regular session in Rhode Island:

So you’ve invested a lot of time in learning this music. And you go to a regular session. Do you go there for the music, to play these tunes? Is that why you go?

>>Melissa: Well, sure. Obviously, that’s part of it, that’s an important part of it. But sometimes, really, all I just want to do is go there and be in the presence of these people who have come to mean so much to me. When I need to recover from a tough work week, I don’t care if I just go there and sit there and drink tea and listen. Just to be in their presence is enough. 

>>Shannon: And do you think these friendships have been forged by playing music together?

>>Melissa: I think so, yeah. I think that’s a crucial component, because I think that’s the thing that opened the door. I think if suddenly I stopped playing music that probably the friendships would continue, but I sure would be sorry because it’s, it’s that important to me.

>>Shannon: And do you think these same sorts of things could happen in any style of music, or do you think there is something about Irish music?

>>Melissa: I can tell you for sure they DON’T happen in other styles of music. Because I played Baroque and classical music for years; and while there are some lovely people in those communities there was never this sense of almost a… almost a shared religion, in a way. Where you really… there’s a core energy or core sense that everyone brings to this space, no matter what level they’re at. And that’s the thing that matters.

>>Shannon: Now, maybe one reason that the group experience can be so deep, is all of the time that players spend practicing at home. For flute player Scott Boag the solo practice is the central part of his Irish music experience. Scott mostly sidesteps sessions, preferring to keep Irish music as an independent venture: 

>>Scott: I mean, for me it’s, you know, kind of what I call tune yoga, which is, how do you discipline your own mind? How do you sit down and do the practice almost for the practice sake? For memory. For thought control. For really trying to enrich yourself. So it’s not, you know, it’s partly an artistic thing, but it’s partly like exercising, going to the gym, lifting weights and building, like it’s a way to build up your mind, rather than just build up your muscles. 

>>Shannon: So where does the social component and the community component of this fit in?

>>Scott: When it comes off well, I like it. Um, I like, I really think it’s cool sitting with, you know, people playing music, and hearing the music. Um, but not on all occasions. Because when you are going into playing with strangers, you’re not really playing with community. You’re playing with people you’re meeting. You’re not playing with a smaller community that you really know and you have, you have tuned in on.

>>Shannon: OK. It’s not always music with close pals. But even though strangers CAN eventually become friends, the session setting is just not for everyone. I’ve heard from a lot of people over the years who have echoed Scott’s discomfort and frustration about sessions:

>>Scott: I have, I come into a session, and for one thing, if I can’t play then it’s, it’s really rough on me sometimes. Because I’m just sitting there, um, and…

>>Shannon: Wanting to play?

>>Scott: Well, wanting to play, and irritated that somebody else is, they’re either playing something that I can’t even try to learn and they’re just playing really fast and rattling on and they’re just, you know, ignoring…I mean, people are a problem, right? You…

>>Shannon: Hahaha! They are! And they’re messy!

>>Scott:  It’s almost like there’s too many tunes now. There’s too much information. Not enough time. And that’s why, like, in some ways, my practice room is my controlled space where I can just take all that out and do it. 

>>Shannon: Laurel Martin speaks to that overwhelm, too—to that sheer number of tunes in circulation. 

>>Laurel: There’s so much material out there. It’s hard to, it’s hard to focus. It’s hard to figure out where you want to go with it. What path you want to take in your learning. If you want to learn traditional Irish music to be, um, a professional performer, then there’s some sense of urgency. I also get students who start as an adult and who sometimes lament that they didn’t start when they were younger. But one of the things that I think about it is it’s a journey. Music is a journey and wherever you step onto that road, you just, you just keep going and you take one step after another, and eventually it enriches your life in ways that you might not have expected. You wake up after a couple of years and you realize you’re able to do something you weren’t before. Or you have a perspective about something you didn’t have before. 

>>Shannon: So Irish traditional music is about learning a lot of tunes. And maybe players can tap into the social DNA that’s etched into these tunes… whether they’re playing at sessions, or alone in the woodshed. 

>>Laurel: One of the things I just love about traditional Irish music, that it’s music that has absorbed something from a culture that had real trials. And for periods of time, I think it was one of the few things that people in Ireland had to express themselves. And there are some moments when I’m listening to somebody that really, kind of, calls forth that old traditional sound; I feel as if the tune is almost like an expression from someone long ago who’s reaching out through the tune and saying, “You wouldn’t believe what sadness I’m experiencing. You wouldn’t believe what joy I’m experiencing. I’m reaching out to you to say that this is something that we have in common, you and I.” I really feel that. Like it’s, it’s carrying something with it that somebody felt long ago. That somebody said long ago or somebody wanted to say and did it through making up this melody or playing this melody or passing it on to another musician. And there is something really compelling and inexplicable about it. I was thinking about this quote that I read, and I don’t have it right. It’s from Victor Hugo about the definition of music.

[Ce qu’on ne peut dire et ce qu’on ne peut taire, la musique l’exprime.


>>Shannon: What cannot be said and what demands to be heard, music expresses.

The weekly session is where music gets passed on. It’s where friendships and local traditions are established. Where people come to play, and listen, and chat. Whether it’s the Sunday afternoon circle centered around John’s accordion, or the fireside tunes at Cruise’s pub in Ennis, or the jig circle at Dunne’s pub with Brian and his students, or the Tuesday night tunes at the Druid.

>>Eoin: I love the people that discovered the music or somehow have come into the music and are so excited by it they can hardly sleep at night. They’re the people I can hang out with.

>>Lisa: There’s just something about this bond that you have. Just from, you know, this love of the traditional music. Uh, that I think even if we weren’t playing music, I feel like that bond, you know, that bond always, sort of, exists.

>>Brian: Well it’s certainly about community, and it’s about, uh, making lifelong friendships that you would not of otherwise had. I remember Martin Mulhaire saying this to me years ago. He and I were good friends, still are. There’s absolutely nothing about us at all that would have brought us together as friends except the music. I mean, I would never have known you and Matt if it wasn’t for the music

>>Shannon: Oh, Brian come on, we were meant to be together!

[ Music: “Rakes Of Clonmel, The Kiltimagh Jig, Ned Coleman’s Jig,” from Steam
Artist: John Williams (accordion, concertina), Eoin O’Neill (bouzouki) ]

>>John: In its own, uh, primal, functional state within community usefulness, perhaps it never reaches a better level. I mean, you can dress it up and put all sorts of outfits and jewelry and make-up on it, but sometimes how it looks in the morning is the best it’ll look all day. You know? I don’t know… you know? Hahaha.

>>Shannon: Hahaha! I love it! Irish music: best in the morning. Um….hahaha!

So, beyond the welcoming (or serious looking) flute players… beyond any bucolic scene of pints and fiddle bows on the table… beyond any flashy or dead simple tune… there’s a bigger story inside that circle of musicians. 

For me, the weekly Irish session reflects human creativity, and fragility, generosity, and diversity. It can be a forum for social harmony and dissonance… and there’s always the search for common ground, so you can play tunes together. Amusement, confusion, connection, joy, and maybe loneliness, too—it’s all there. 

>Brian:  Honestly it’s just such a … it’s the power of the local pub, with musicians playing in the corner. I can’t think of anything better.


>>Shannon: And I can’t think of anything better than talking to such big-hearted musicians, and sharing some of their session stories with you. 

Thank you from Tina, JW, Eoin, Brian, Laurel episodes

And thank you, dear listener, for tuning in to this episode of Irish Music Stories, which was produced by me, Shannon Heaton.

A special thanks to the people who have donated to help defray travel and production costs. To Patrick O’Leary, Art Costa, Paul Willson, and my generous anonymous donor, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council: thank you for helping me build the show. And thank you, Jessie Voigts, for helping me build my web-site! Thank you, my friend. 

If you’d like to kick in—or just learn more—please head to IrishMusicStories.org. There’s a donate button there… and there’s more information about this episode, and a list of all the music on this show. 

>>Shannon: I do like A Boundary Crossed Before Time. It is a good science fiction title.

>>John: Yeah. Before time, I like that. 

[Shannon and John laughing together]

[Music: tabla drum


Shannon Heaton, 2016

So this is Irish music…

Songs about loss and exile, sung by two Galway girls and their niece.

East Clare jigs, played on fiddle and pipes in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Tokyo, and Berlin.

Dance steps on a Boston tabletop, as a session gets its second wind.

Streams of slides and polkas cascading from the barefoot accordion player with dirty fingernails.

Hornpipes from the banjo player, resting his feet on his dad’s guitar case–because the floor is still too far away.

Sligo reels from a gruff, tattooed Italian-American fiddler, “played in the key of F… fuh LOVE!”

 * * *

The tunes and songs and steps and stories–these are the units of currency in the Irish tradition, what players collect to play and pass on, to teach in kitchens, to perform in folk clubs, to present at the White House.

There’s the reel that the fiddle player (who just bought the round of drinks) knows by one name, and the flute player (who calls it something else) are playing with the box player leading the session (who’s never had a title for the tune, though he’s known it forever).

There’s the E minor jig that the fiddler in the wedding gown starts with her guitar-strumming groom.

There’s the old “Irish Washerwoman,” played by ancient hands that stopped trembling as soon as they grasped the concertina.


There’s the lullaby the flute player sings, just as the baby in her lap begins to squirm.

There’s the “Whistling Postman,” the reel that one of us started, followed by the tune we all knew would follow it, as our friend’s coffin was lowered into the ground beside us. And we played it like we meant it, since it was for Sean, and that’s what he always called out to do.

  * * *

At the end of the day, it’s the table of musicians, looking at the floor or into the Guinness after a satisfying set of tunes, not daring to dilute the moment of shared contentment with unnecessary congratulations. All the nods and encouraging utterances of “Hup!!” while playing, led to this deeper, subtler moment, while the tunes settle, before new ones get called up.

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Bonus Content

Related videos

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

John Williams


Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist with All Ireland titles and numerous film credits

Eoin O’Neill


Bouzouki player, radio host, and music mentor who grew up in Dublin and lives in Clare

Cork native based in Boston who works in public broadcasting and music production

Tina Lech


Providence-born, Boston-based fiddle player 

Sliabh Luachra born, Chicago-based flute player and co-proprietor of Chief O’ Neill’s pub

Brendan McKinney


Chicago-based flute player, piper, and co-proprietor of Chief O’ Neill’s pub

Amy Shoemaker


Chicago-based singer-songwriter

Performer and fiddle teacher in the Boston area who plays sessions, festivals and concerts throughout New England

Melissa Foster


Rhode Island-based flute and accordion player and sign-language interpreter

Scott Boag


Boston-based singer/songwriter, bassist, engineer who has run a music series at the Burren Pub in Somerville, Massachusetts 

The Heaton List