So This Is Irish Music

Companion Chapter

Shannon Heaton’s Irish Music Stories project explores Irish, Scottish, and other Celtic traditions. Each podcast episode explores a different topic (like parenting, immigration, humor) through a traditional music lens.

To accompany these aural collages of music, conversation, and narration, Shannon’s essays and poems offer bite-sized meditations on Irish music and dance.

So This Is Irish Music first appeared in Episode 03-Every Tuesday at Nine, a podcast episode about what Irish music sessions mean to players, and to ‘punters’ who are not there to play music. Episode 53, many episodes later, will dive deeper into all the references in the poem.

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.

The Heaton List