Pubs and traditional music in Ireland is like Tarzan and Jane, cheese and onion, or ying and yang. On their own they’re grand, but together…together, they combine to create a magical coupling. Enter the pub playing live trad music and it’s lively banter and foot-tapping entertainment that verges on the iconic.
Dotted around the island are hundreds of traditional pubs with a weekly roster of in-house musicians and guest performers. Drop in, sit back and sip on a creamy pint and enjoy the tunes. And if you’ve got the know-how, pull up a stool and join in… sure, the more the merrier.
Take 3 pubs
If we could, we’d fill this page with hundreds of haunts you could tune into. But space is limited, so here are just three that tick all the boxes for atmosphere, pints and, of course, the seisiún (session)…
An Spailpín Fánac, Cork city
This pub is hard to resist, according to Cork man Jonny Lucey: “Whenever I find myself in Cork city, a pint of the black stuff in An Spailpín Fánac (ID 15951) is, without question, on the cards”. It’s one of Ireland’s oldest pubs with a lineage that stretches back to 1779, and the best (according to the locals).
“Even though it’s surrounded by the buzz of Cork city, a step into Spailpín Fánac feels like you’ve just wandered into a rural country pub in the Fifties. The lighting is slightly low, but once your eyes adjust, the walls (covered in curious old photo frames), wooden furniture, low ceilings and exposed brickwork all come into focus and you know you’re in the right place.”
An Spailpín Fánac, which translates as “The Migrant Worker”, sits across the street from the Beamish & Crawford Brewery. It also serves good, hearty Irish food so you can tick two authentic Irish experiences off your list on the one night.
And as for the music? Well, according to Jonny, “there’s trad music every night of the week. Groups of musicians huddle over candle-lit tables and play furiously against a backdrop of merriment and banter.”
In a nutshell, it offers “great food, great pints and great people”. Where would you find a better recommendation?
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The John Hewitt Bar, Belfast
Journalist and travel writer Paul Clements thinks The John Hewitt Bar is “the best” bar in Belfast: “Although it's relatively new – it opened in 1999 – it’s traditional in style with a marble counter, wooden panelling, high ceilings, an open fire and friendly service”.
Live traditional music sessions are held on Tuesday and Sunday, as well as occasional jazz sessions. The bar being very much traditional in style lent itself to trad music sessions almost without planning.
Paul says good things about the food, too: “They serve excellent pub grub at lunchtime and have a variety of craft beers, ales and ciders from independent brewers, including the local Whitewater brewery. Guest beers are chalked up on the blackboard and come from all parts of the world including Australia, South America and Africa.”
The pub is named after John Hewitt, an Ulster poet who died in 1987. He opened the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre in the 1980s, and they own this fabulous pub. “Although he wasn't a noted drinker himself – a half pint of lager a night was his tipple – what I love about it is that the pub captures his spirit and channels Hewitt's socialist sensibility…”
It is also strategically positioned right in the heart of the happening Cathedral Quarter of Belfast, an area full of pubs and cafés, and quirky venues such as the Black Box and the dazzling new Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC).
Great music, great craft beers and a poet to be proud of… what’s not to love?
Clancy’s of Athy, County Kildare
Owner Emma O’Brien reckons the session at Clancy’s “is unique as it’s the longest running traditional music session in Ireland.” In fact, 2013 sees Clancy’s celebrate its 47th year of trad sessions. The pub has even created a free traditional music festival called TradAthy, which is held during the May bank holiday weekend.
But it’s the Thursday night gatherings of the traditional musicians in Clancy's back room that has given the pub its unique position in Irish music circles. Visitors come away really impressed at the quality of the music played there, according to Emma. Their session is open to everybody – singers and storytellers included.
“Clancy’s is simply about the ceol agus craic (music and fun), meeting new people and playing some tunes,” according to Seamus Byrne, the longest member of Clancy’s session (he’s been going for 40 years).
Visitor Brian Faye says, “Clancy’s music session is like a family to me. I’m from the Isle of Wight and visit the session regularly. The atmosphere and wellbeing of the people make me feel at home.”
The Athy pub has had its fair share of famous performers, too: Francie Conway from The Fureys, musician Mickey Joe Harte, singer Eleanor Shanley, Frankie Lane from the original Fleadh Cowboys, actor John Hurt and former Planxty members and trad superstars – Liam O’Flynn and Donal Lunny.
Flooded with legendary singers and a session that’s still going strong, maybe it’s time to head to Clancy’s?
Or any other trad music pub in Ireland, for that matter…