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8 of the greatest pubs around Ireland for a musical session... according to musicians

We asked some Irish artists to share their personal picks. Here’s the list.

THERE ARE CERTAIN things that come to mind when you think of Ireland and indisputably, one of these is the venerated musical session.

We don’t mean the music sets that are put on to lure tourists into buying over-priced pints of stout in Temple Bar; we mean the real Irish session, where someone quietly picks up a guitar in the corner of a pub, someone else locates a fiddle out of nowhere and all of a sudden, the whole place erupts into song.

We asked 5 Irish musicians where their favourite spots around the country are to encounter that elusive, organic and always wonderful music session.

Paddy Hanna – Connolly’s, De Barra’s and Levis’ Corner House, West Cork

Paddy Hanna has been described as “one of the most promising young songwriters in Ireland” with his recent album Frankly, I Mutant receiving critical acclaim. His vote goes to three pubs in west Cork.

“Connolly’s of Leap, De Barra’s in Clonakilty and Levis’ Corner House in Ballydehob are inseparable for me when it comes to thinking about music sessions.”

“To focus on just one would do the others a disservice. I have sessioned, danced, sang and stumbled in this glorious musical triangle. I have laughed along with the owners and staff as though they were old friends, and seen the sun rise in all three with a glass in hand.”

Hanna says that this triad of bars perfectly captures the eccentricities, atmosphere and musical heritage of West Cork.

Levis’ offers up perhaps the most peculiar feature – its stage. It is not so much a stage, rather an old shop counter that performers must huddle behind, trying not to knock over mouldering bottles of pop and old tins of dried lemon zest. As a performer, it is hard to match in terms of peculiarity.

“I have often discussed with friends what it is that truly makes the Irish pub experience. I don’t claim to have the definitive answer, but if you want my advice, book yourself a weekend and head down to West Cork, there are three amazing music venues waiting for you.”

Ailie Blunnie – Cryan’s, Carrick on Shannon

Leitrim native Ailie Blunnie first made waves on the Irish music scene with her debut album West To The Sun last year. She plumps for Cryan’s in Carrick-on-Shannon.

“Cryan’s is one of my favourite pubs for a session – it has the charm, the music, the location, the clientele, and the potential for all sorts of unexpected magic,” says Blunnie.

Blunnie explains that Cryan’s has an off-beat charm that immediately enamours patrons to it.

“Once you find your way in (via the door without the unexpected stairs in the way), things start to get good. It becomes apparent that the old-style mosaic tiling pattern covering much of the exterior of the pub tastefully contrasts with the rustic vitality inside—the warm, cosy atmosphere, the open fire, the uplifting music, and the striking photos of local musicians. You quickly begin to feel at home.”

Music is deeply engrained in Cryan’s, and if you’re in Carrick-on-Shannon of an evening, strains of music floating out the door will almost certainly attract your attention.

“Cryan’s is the kind of place where musicians are welcomed with such warmth and enthusiasm that travelling and visiting acts will often drop in en-route, or after their own gigs, and join in, or contribute their own tuppence ha’penny when the time is right.

“Before you know what’s happened, it’s not unusual that a visiting choir will start singing 4-part madrigals while you slowly recover from the memory of that last slip jig which must have featured about a million musicians who magically appeared over the course of the evening. There’s always a bit of room in Cryan’s for the unexpected!”

Old Hannah – Murphy’s, Thomastown, Co Sligo

Hailing from Sligo, four-piece Old Hannah combine folk, country and traditional elements into something truly unique. Singles from their forthcoming debut album have been well received by critics. They share fond memories of starting off as a band together, playing sessions in their native county.

“The best sessions always turn into the bigger sessions, where the night just steamrolls. One of the best is Murphy’s in Thomastown. It’s the kind of pub where as a band, you walk in and there’s a guy called Ted behind the bar who might not take too much notice at first and the next thing you know, he takes you back into the kitchen and makes you a delicious feed, and you sit and eat and have a pint and set up for the gig and that one steamrolls.”

When in Dublin, singer Lucie Crichlow says, Arthur’s Bar on Thomas Street is a great place to catch live gigs and join in a session on a Tuesday night.

“Luke and Anthony (members of the band) run the session here and the rest of us come along and often join in. Arthur’s is incredibly supportive of local musicians, they have a great calibre of acts who perform upstairs and do ticketed gigs but even downstairs there’s a session every Tuesday that we just love to just rock in to, have a couple of pints, try out a few new tunes and see how the night goes!”

Liam McCabe (Heroes in Hiding) – The International Bar and O’Donoghues, Dublin

Multi-instrumentalist Liam McCabe makes up one quarter of Dublin based folk rock band Heroes in Hiding, whose newly released album Actors is receiving nationwide acclaim.

It’s too hard to pick just one bar for a session, says McCabe.

“I think for a general sing song you can’t go far wrong with the International in Dublin and for a trad session it’s hard to look past O’Donoghues on Baggot Street. The International is a small bar with no PA system so you would regularly have people just sitting around singing while sitting down drinking. It’s open to all to join and the atmosphere is very warm and inviting.

“O’Donoghues is such a fantastic bar and has such a long tradition of wonderful trad sessions, being a favourite spot of the Dubliners and Christy Moore over the years.”

It’s all about the atmosphere, according to McCabe, and bars like these have a certain something in the air. “It’s the X factor, ‘It’, whatever you want to call it. The extra special something that’s hard to describe, that can’t be bottled but you know when it’s there and it’s electric.”

For newcomers to the Irish session, he suggests to “go with zero expectations and just let it happen to you.”

Seamus Fogarty – Bowe’s, Dublin

Born in Mayo but now based in London, Seamus Fogarty mixes a blend of alt-folk and electronica on his recent album The Curious Hand.

The quest for the perfect session can be a tricky one, because “there’s always one on the horizon that threatens to be the best yet”, says Fogarty.

“These days you’re more likely to find me at in Mannion’s of a Friday night in Tottenham but when I’m in Dublin, I try to make the Sunday night session in Bowe’s, just around the corner from Trinity College. My old friend and bandmate Graham Watson used to run it along with the piper Eoin Dillon and a few other folk and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Bowe’s is a hidden gem, just off the beaten track of Temple Bar and it is famous among those in the know for its pints of stout and Sunday night session. “You’d get the same punters rolling in every week”, says Fogarty, “they’re as much a part of the session as the musicians.”

More: ‘Real authentic’: The restaurants turning Capel Street into Dublin’s most exciting food quarter>

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