The Irish pub session

Irish session 2

Debunking another myth: like craic, the fabled archetypal Irish pub session turns out to be a recent invention.

As Reg Hall observes, music wasn’t played in pubs; the first session that we would recognise as such today was at the Devonshire Arms in Kentish Town, London, in 1946 (see also Chris Haigh, under “The origin of the Irish pub session”).

In Ireland the traditional venue for musicking was the family kitchen; even for public social dancing, the “céilí band” only became common after 1918. In 1924 the Bishop of Galway declared:

The dances indulged in are not the clean, healthy national dances but importations from the vilest dens of London, Paris and New York, direct and unmistakable incitements to evil thoughts and evil desires.

Strongly recalling reactions to jazz (cited e.g. by Nicolas Slonimsky), this seems ironic, since céilí bands were themselves formed to counteract the pernicious influence of jazz.

In London, licensing laws forbade musical groups until after World War Two, when many Irish arrived from rural Ireland. Since the cramped living conditions of the workmen hardly made a conducive ambience to make music together, they began to colonise pubs. Reg Hall again:

Until around 1946 there was no Irish music in the English pubs. There was no Irish music in pubs back home in Ireland for that matter. It just wasn’t played in pubs. After the war, the new immigrants in London didn’t expect to play music in the pubs. Some Irish musicians even refused to play in English pubs—they believed it shouldn’t or couldn’t be done. You couldn’t play an Irish tune in a London pub.

Thus the gathering was no longer for family or dancers, but for the musicians themselves, and an audience.

Pub sessions only became common in Ireland from the 1960s. Today we’re used to hearing a rather large ensemble, but curiously the older tradition of one or two instruments (fiddle, flute, and so on), remains popular on stage (see e.g. More Irish fiddlers).

So there.


* Equally, the ancestry of the Irish version seisún seems something of a minefield.

One thought on “The Irish pub session

  1. For an example of kitchen musicking there’s this from Maurice O’Sullivan’s ‘Twenty years a-growing’*:
    “Meanwhile a young man had come in with a melodium under his arm and now he struck up a tune. Two boys and two girls came out on the floor, and it would raise the dead from the grave to watch them dancing the four-handed reel.”
    And this in the long, low and narrow two-roomed house typical of rural Ireland at the time, in this case on the Great Blasket, c1910.
    * well worth a read btw…

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s