This past October I was fortunate enough to travel to Ireland for a 12 day solo trip around the country. Though I’ve traveled sporadically over the years, particularly when I was younger, this was the first time leaving stateside on my own for any significant period of time.
So why Ireland? Living in Europe as a child, I had been to the island once before, but my memories were few and fleeting, and having been left in hotels while my parents went to pubs and met with friends certainly left some experiences to be desired. In addition to having some ancestral ties to the country, I’ve also always had an affinity for Celtic music and culture, but it wasn’t until I began studying at The Recording Arts Center, and subsequently working at Studio West with Peter Dyson and becoming acquainted with his longtime band Kick Up the Dust that my appreciation for the genre was renewed.
Formed by Peter and studio co-owner Dave Fishwick during their college days in England, the band’s lineup outside the main duo has been something of a revolving door over the years, but in cutting a series of albums over the last decade at Studio West, the cast has slowly gelled into a core group that I was lucky enough to become a small part of.
What I like so much about the band is their mix of modern and traditional Celtic style, as well as their tasteful approach to song structure and production. The instrumentation is fairly traditional, usually including some variation of guitar, mandolin, banjo, tin whistle, fiddle, accordion, upright bass, and of course Peter going at one of his many drum kits. So while the arrangements and lyrics often stay true to the original spirit, there is nothing sleepy or soft about the execution. ‘The Pogues with a more palatable singer’ is how I often think of the sound, and being able to participate in the recording and production of the group’s past couple albums inspired me, and led me down a wellspring of Irish music; from the more traditional Clancy Brothers, Planxty, and Dubliners, to the poppy High Kings, to the energetic, bleary-eyed Pogues, as well as American-based, punk types like Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys.
Ireland Pub Music Scene
All that said, and having planned to take a solo trip for some time, Ireland seemed the logical choice. I didn’t have any goals in particular when setting out, but I did want to make a priority of fully immersing in the pub scene, and more specifically trad (traditional Irish music) culture. The trip as a whole was a wonderful experience, and on this count specifically, I believe I was successful.
As far as the logistics of the trip, I split my time between four areas; Dublin, Killarney, Galway, and Belfast. Located in the east, south, west, and northern regions of the country respectively, I flew in to Dublin, Ireland’s capital and home to some 40% of the island’s population. Along with the standard tourist highlights like Trinity College and the Guinness Storehouse, the music scene here is unsurprisingly both outstanding and prolific. In certain areas of the city center you can’t walk thirty seconds without finding a pub alive with music from around lunchtime till late into the night. As you might expect, Dublin was easily my most tourist heavy destination, and particularly in the main nightlife district, ‘Temple Bar,’ I met as many Americans, Germans, and Brits as I did locals. That being said, I found the musician’s sets in Dublin to be the most familiar on the whole, and subsequently the most accessible to mainstream crowds. More than any of the other towns I visited, many pubs here would feature minimal instrumentation; often just a guitarist, with maybe a banjo, fiddle, or accordion accompanying.
Dublin’s Temple Bar
Upon hearing one such solo artist perform ‘Leaving of Liverpool’ and ‘Galway Girl’ within 10 minutes of entering my first pub, I was immediately heartened that my time with Kick Up the Dust had not been in vain. This pub, which incidentally ended up being one of my favorites of the whole trip, was the districts’ eponymously named ‘Temple Bar.’ It’s a classic tourist spot, renowned for its consistent stream of high caliber of musicians and its stage’s odd, yet impressive distinction as being the site of the world’s longest guitar marathon session; performed by David Brown for a total of 114 hours 6 minutes and 30 seconds. This particular pub would be my first recommendation for anyone visiting Dublin, and the square mile surrounding it has what feels like countless other grand spots. Some of my favorites included the ‘Auld Dubliner,’ ‘Oliver St. John Gogarty,’ and ‘The Hairy Lemon.’
Along with many of the Irish classics, I was also surprised to hear the locals’ affinity for American songs and artists, and a few in particular that kept coming up over and over. Wherever I went in Dublin, the likes of John Denver’s ‘Country Roads,’ Bob Dylan’s ‘Wagon Wheel,’ and anything Johnny Cash were never far from another rendition. In fact, though since adopted as an Irish favorite, the song I probably heard most frequently throughout the trip, ‘Galway Girl,’ was written by Texas native, Steve Earle.
Killarney Music Scene
My next stop was the much smaller, rural town of Killarney near the southwest coast. This area of the country is famous for its gorgeous scenery, particularly the panoramic 110 mile ‘Ring of Kerry’ route, which has its start right in town. While just a fraction the size of Dublin, Killarney still has a thriving music scene, and I had plenty of options the few nights I was there. So though the sheer volume wasn’t on par with the capital, the musicianship certainly was, and the instrumentation happily trended to the more traditional. The troupe in the Killarney Grand on my second night put on a particularly good show here.
County Cork and Kerry
For those especially interested in the natural gifts of the country, county Cork and Kerry in the south are well worth the time, and warrant a rental car to really explore properly. As an American, the four-hour drive from Dublin to Killarney was my first time braving the left side of the road, and though it certainly provided a healthy level of angst at first, ended up being a real thrill, and an exciting way to explore Ireland’s tiny (and I mean tiny) roads and countryside.
Galway: Live Music Everywhere
As you move farther from Dublin and the historical British influence that comes with it, Ireland’s Celtic roots begin to express themselves more noticeably, and Galway, the country’s fourth largest city, and what many have dubbed ‘the most Irish town in Ireland,’ is a striking manifestation of this spirit. Probably my favorite destination on the whole, its densely packed streets and bridges in the mouth of Galway bay lend a small town feel, much more intimate than its population of 80,000 would suggest.
Galway’s venues hosted by far the most consistently traditional Irish instrumentation, and the most live music relative to its size that I witnessed during the trip. You can walk from one end of the city proper to the other in under thirty minutes, but in that time, find dozens of spots to stop and listen to musicians, both in pubs as well as busking on the street (though mileage may vary with the talent of those outdoors).
Aside from a few late-night spots and more modern bars, a vast majority of the music I heard here was heavily instrumental. Long, tempo grinding jigs and reels were the norm, and it was a welcome diversion from what I had started to get used to in Dublin. Right in the center of town is a famous pub, ‘Tig Coili,’ that features nearly continuous trad sets every evening. Another well-known spot is ‘The Crane Bar,’ which typically hosts a bit more of a formal performance, featuring 6+ musicians on a stage (instead of in a pub booth or off to the side). Along with the standard roaring jigs and reels, their performance included, poems, what sounded like freeform speeches, acappella arrangements, and even audience sing-alongs. It was absolutely one of the highlights of the trip. There are performances most evenings here, something I would strongly recommend looking into if you find yourself in town. Interestingly, I only heard ‘Galway Girl’ played once, from a solo guitarist at the end of my last night in town. I imagine if anyone’s sick of it, it would be them…
Music in Belfast
My last stop took me up and across the island’s only international border, into the United Kingdom, specifically Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast. Home to the old shipyards where the Titanic was built as well as the main sets and production headquarters of the HBO show ‘Game of Thrones,’ this city has had a troubled, if all too recent past. Given that, I was pleasantly surprised by how clean and vibrant it was. I stayed in an area known as the Cathedral quarter, known for its nightlife and music scene, and similarly to Galway, I found the town remarkably walkable. Much like Dublin, live music was easy to find, as well as trending to the modern; with plenty of guitarists, occasional accompaniment, and more standard Irish/American set lists. A couple of the pubs I enjoyed most here were ‘The John Hewitt Bar’ and “The Duke of York,” both in the Cathedral quarter. I was pleased to hear one of my favorite Irish songs, ‘The Star of the County Down’ played liberally about town; Belfast being situated right on the border of said county and county Antrim.
After traversing the border once more, I rounded out my final night in Dublin with a last stop at the Temple Bar before an early morning flight back home (See the rendition of a Pogues classic, ‘Sally Maclennane’ above).
This trip was a lot of things for me, and though there’s plenty more to regale than just pubs and songs (natural wonders, lovely people, both local and foreign, and some tremendous luck/timing when it came to sporting events, to name a few), the musical aspect was certainly a cornerstone of my time and experience there, and something that I won’t soon forget.
As something of a postscript, I ended up traveling to England with Peter and a few other band mates only three months later where I played with Kick Up The Dust, contributing some mandolin and vocals. One of Dave’s friends was getting married, and we were given the honorable task of providing the reception’s entertainment. The event couldn’t have gone better, and I attribute much of my recommitment to practicing and immersing myself in the band’s set list, and Celtic music more generally, to the positive experiences I had while in Ireland, which in some sense, felt like bringing everything full circle.
There are many reasons to visit, and while it wasn’t the cheapest thing I’ve ever done, if you have an interest in the Celtic tradition, I couldn’t recommend it more. With any luck you might even find yourself at a spot or two I’ve mentioned in the ramblings above.
Happy travels, musical and otherwise, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day!