Irish traditional music, also known as Irish Trad, started as songs that would be passed down orally through generations, originating as early as when the Celts arrived in Ireland around 500 BC. During the 18th century, these songs were finally written down and thus started a collection of music that is played to this day. With the use of a plethora of instruments, Irish Trad musicians create a rich and wholesome sound that can resonate with everyone.
I spoke to Niamh Cassidy, a physics student by day and a bodhrán player by night. When detailing what Irish Trad sessions consist of, she said, “In a lot of countries, especially Ireland of course, musicians gather in a pub and play together. The songs are passed down through generations, so lots of people learn the same songs. Since it’s the same melody, you can just join in together. In Manchester, some Irish pubs pay a few main musicians to run the sessions every time, and then other musicians, like me, can join in.”
She went on to describe what drew her to Irish music and which instruments she has learned to play, “Lots of people in my family played. And growing up, my parents would always have Irish music on. I liked listening to it and then decided to play it myself. I first started on the tin whistle. Then I progressed to the wooden flute before I started playing the bodhrán, which is a traditional Irish drum. When playing it, you use a stick in one hand, and you put the other hand on the skin to change the tempo.”
In terms of the learning process, Niamh took a pragmatic approach, which she mentioned was quite common for Irish Trad, “In Irish music, the traditional way to learn is by ear. So, you listen to the song and figure out how to play it. And there are different types of songs, which differ according to the timing. For example, you have jigs and reels which have a different number of beats in each bar.”
Despite already being well-experienced, she endeavours to learn more, “There’s always room for improvement. I’m always learning new rhythms and techniques. There’s also something called ornamentation, which is a massive part of Irish music. You’ve got the basic notes of the melody that are standard. And then you can add on ornamentation to enhance the sound, so you can add in rolls or cuts, where you put in an extra half beat or a couple of extra notes.”
Whilst in Manchester, Niamh participates in sessions at various venues, “There’s The Station in Didsbury at 9pm on Wednesdays, Peveril of the peak in town on Tuesdays 8pm, The Bowling Green in Chorlton on Sundays at 7.30pm and Mulligans in town on Wednesday at 6pm.”
She mentioned that information about the sessions and venues can be found at thesession.org.
Since I was going to be seeing her perform on St Patrick’s Day at The Bowling Green, I asked her what I should expect, “There’ll be a lot of Irish musicians. Sometimes you also get people who will sing the traditional songs. There’s usually some old man in the back of the pub that starts singing.”
When entering The Bowling Green, I saw the present day yet heard an 18th century tavern. Sat in the corner were the musicians of the Irish diaspora, like knights of the round table brandishing their weapons of harmony.
Once I had got passed the queue to the bar, I found myself with a Guinness in hand and sat on the edge of the musical circle. That first sip, led to a few more and before I knew it, I was stomping along to the thundering rhythm of the bodhráns. The controlled chaos of the intertwining notes and the emanating passion was irresistible, drawing the gaze of many, regardless of however many green, white and orange balloons were invading the view.
At one point, above the crowd came a hovering saucer of fish and chips that gently glided over to the musicians. Of course, the fishy UFO needed somewhere to land, and what better place than a flipped over bodhrán. Fuelled by Guinness and pub grub, the musicians were able to play for a lengthy 3 hours. As the venue got busier, it was getting warmer, yet they powered through, with one fiddle player using a coaster as a makeshift fan in between songs.
“You having a good time mate?”, I hear from behind me when getting another drink. It was a man tipsy not just on Guinness but also on life. His name was Tom and he had come up from London for his friend’s birthday. When I asked him what he thought of the music, he told me how he believed it was a vital part of St Paddy’s Day. “It’s hard not to stomp along, especially after a few of those.”, I said pointing to the glass of Guinness on the side. “It’s against the laws of nature to not stomp along after a few pints.”, he grinned.
When I went back over to the coasts of the melodic island, I found my chair sandwiched between two guitarists who had just arrived. One of them was called Ritchie and told me how his dad was a great musician, and that he’d be joining them shortly. He hadn’t played in many sessions, but he said that his dad played the uillean pipes regularly. Now that he was older, Ritchie had decided that he’d jam more often with his dad as a way of bonding.
“My dad always has a bit too much fun on St Patrick’s Day, and I end up having to look after him”, he laughed. “It’s as if he’s my child now.”
“You might as well act like a child again after 60”, I said.
In between our chats, the two guitarists would listen closely, trying to figure out the chords to play, “Start with a D. Oh no, I think it’s a G.” It was almost trial and error as they’d switch between different chord progressions until they found the right one. Once they had struck gold, they’d hammer out a rhythm to match the other instruments. And as more musicians arrived and joined in, the atmosphere grew like a rising wave, the crest of which was held on to by the rest us.
Nearby was a kind-hearted lady playing her bodhrán. Her name was Barbara, and her small dog, Tiggy, sat on her lap as she tapped away on the drum. She told me about her experience with other instruments that she had been playing from a young age and how she started playing the bodhrán after her husband, who also played the drum, had passed away.
Barbara said that her husband was a brilliant musician and played a lot of Irish Trad. She went on to tell me more about the sessions and how some of the notable musicians that join them now and then have performed for the BBC. Her friendship with Tiggy was wholesome and she was looking after her for her daughter. “I have Tiggy until my daughter comes back to Manchester. She always comes and sits on my lap whenever I’m typing at the computer.”
Next to Barbara was sat a man with long, grey hair and a beard that flowed down his chest. He was wearing an assortment of Guinness memorabilia, including a t-shirt and top hat. It was as though Gandalf the Green had graced us with his presence. His name was Dave, and he was a lovely fellow. “There’s nothing better than a Guinness.”, he grinned.
Although he didn’t play any instruments, he was an avid listener of Irish Trad, attending sessions every week. And every few minutes, someone who knew him would come and say hello. “I only got into Irish music a few years ago, since I’ve been retired.” I wanted to offer this local hero a pint, but he politely declined, “Oh no don’t worry, I’ve already had five! I’ll wait a little while.”
The three hours passed swiftly in good company and ambience. Leaving the pub and the crowd, and walking along the empty roads, left me wanting to go back, as though I had left something behind.