This week’s guest post in honor of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day is from Kerry Dexter, a writer and producer who has written about music from around the world for MTV group’s Sonicnet, MusicRoad,, National Geographic Traveler, and Wandering Educators. For several years she was folk music editor for Barnes and Noble’s online music site and for seventeen years she’s been contributing writer at the folk and world music magazine Dirty Linen.
Around Saint Patrick’s Day, and at other times of year too, it’s common to see lists of the best pubs to get drunk, plastered, ossified and totally steamin’ as a way to mark the day. In Ireland, though, I’ve found the pub to be more the living room of the community rather than the neighborhood bar. So while you’ll run into a few folk who’ve had too much to drink—and on Patrick’s Day or at a sports victory some other celebratory time, perhaps more than a few—you will also find a group of co-workers chatting over the latest events at the shop, a mother setting her teenage kids straight about something or other, a dad playing with his toddler, a couple of elders telling tales with their elbow propped on the bar, a man and woman getting to know each other better over a pair of pints, and a quiet thinker staring into the fire. If luck is falling your way, you’ll also get to hear really good music.
The Cobblestone in Dublin City is one place to do that. It’s a pub for a neighborhood in transition, with a back room performance space that’s just as likely to host rock or pop as Irish trad. There are tables around the long narrow room where you can sit for conversation, too, but it’s in the corner up by the front window that the real action, musically speaking, takes place. Traditional musicians from the city and musical travelers from other parts of the island—and sometimes the world—sit in for some of the hottest trad to be had in city center Dublin. Cobblestone is a short walk away from the bustle of Temple Bar, just across the river in Smithfield. For the music, it’s a walk well worth taking.
Galway is filled with great music pubs, from the mighty Roisin Dubh to the legendary Tigh Neachtain’s. Those are both good places to consider spending a music-filled evening. Another fine place is Tig Coili. There’s a fresh and open atmosphere apparent in both the music and the conversation there. It’s on Mainguard Street, right in the center of town. Tigh Neachtain’s isn’t far away, and Roisin Dubh is a short walk across the River Corrib, so it’s easy to check them all out and see which suits your taste and mood.
The small town of Carlingford sits about half way between Belfast and Dublin, in the brooding land of legend known as the Cooley peninsula. Should you make a day trip one weekend afternoon to try out the area’s famed oysters, you might just happen on a really fine singing session in the old bar at P.J. O’Hare’s on Thosel Street. Sessions (mostly instrumental) happen on some nights during the week, too, especially in summer. On those summer evenings you may sit outside with a view over the bay if you’d like, or try those oysters in the restaurant upstairs, but the music most often takes place in the original no bigger than a match box bar, and it’ll be well worth getting close to your fellow listeners to enjoy.
What you’ll hear at these places is music that’s part of the conversation, tunes and songs which arise out of the substance of daily life and are part of it. It’ll not be Danny Boy or TooRaLoRaLoora. It will be sometimes funny, often sad, always engaging and varied. Just as there’s more to Ireland than shamrocks, leprechauns, and Celtic Tigers, there is more to Irish pubs than drinking in them, and more to be learned about the land its people by going deeper into the conversation, and the music. Stop in to a nearby pub, and take a listen.
– Story and photo by Kerry Dexter
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