If the Irish didn’t invent the pub, they’ve certainly espoused its cause with great vigour. The pub retains a pivotal place in Irish society. It’s the place where stories are narrated, deals and pacts are made, jokes are told and traditional music is heard.
During the 1990s, the “Irish pub” concept (albeit with “authentic” period decor manufactured in Dublin) spread to far-flung points of the globe. Yet experiencing the real thing on its home turf to a live soundtrack of traditional music is still an unbeatable experience.
The country’s musical traditions remain essentially based on the age-old practice of passing down tunes and songs by oral transmission, from generation to generation and from friend to friend. The pub session has become its core, where the richness of the musical tradition can be experienced at first hand, and the craic (or crack) – that idiosyncratically Irish, heady combination of drink-fuelled chat, banter and fun – simply takes over.
With a pint of the black stuff in hand, here are some of the best, entirely authentic pubs to experience live music from the new Rough Guide to Ireland. It’s time to get started on a lifelong love affair with bodhráns, tin whistles, pipes and fiddles. But remember, sometimes the best sessions are the spontaneous and uproarious affairs you never expected to find.
Arguably the best traditional-music venue in Dublin, this dark, cosy, wooden-floored bar is also a fine place to sample the hoppy products of the nearby Dublin brewing company. High-quality sessions take place nightly from around 9pm, and on Sunday afternoons, while the Back Room hosts a variety of gigs.
2. O’Donoghue’s, Dublin
The centre of the folk and traditional-music revival that began in the late 1950s, forever associated with ground-breaking balladeers the Dubliners. Nightly sessions draw a considerable crowd of tourists, while the large heated courtyard is more of a draw for locals.
3. De Barra’s, Clonakilty
This is the pick of Clon’s old-time pubs, with great live music most evenings, including a popular traditional session on Monday and an acoustic session on Tuesday.
Entertainment’s the name of the game in Killarney, and most bars provide regular live music, of wildly varying quality. The best is Buckley’s, a smartly refurbished traditional bar with long, sociable bench seats. Come on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the traditional sessions.
A slow crawl through the pubs of High and Quay streets is a must in Galway City, soaking up the atmosphere of their historic interiors in winter, and the buzzy street life at their outdoor tables in summer. You’re bound to find a traditional session here, although some of the best are at Tigh Coili, a welcoming, central and sociable traditional family-run pub.
6. Reel Inn, Donegal Town
The place to come in Donegal Town for traditional music, and it’s no exaggeration to say that there’s something on here every night of the week, every day of the year. Music aside, this is a real boozer’s pub with oodles of character, and characters.
This wonderful, unpretentious and atmospheric pub is off the beaten path but well worth seeking out. Its two large rooms (one upstairs, one downstairs) are filled with locals and as well as excellent traditional sessions there’s also set dancing.
8. Seán Og’s, Tralee
In the market town of Tralee, two big open fires and and regular traditional music are among the draws at this friendly, dimly lit and cosy pub just off the Mall. They also offer B&B, so you can even stay overnight.