As early as the late 18th century, Irish immigrants arrived in New Orleans, setting up shops and integrating into the city’s world-famous melting-pot culture. While much of the music that can be heard in the streets of New Orleans today can be traced back to early African influences emanating from Congo Square, the upbeat rhythms of Irish music have not faded away.
Demand for the type of collaborative, pub-style communal jam sessions that fiddle player Richie Stafford regularly leads in Irish pubs across the city seems to rise every year as St. Patrick’s Day approaches.
But for Stafford, a carpenter by trade who found his way to New Orleans from his native Dublin in 1977, traditional Irish music has always been a part of his life.
“I’ve been playing this music all me life, basically, really since I was a kid,” Stafford said. “If you go to New York, or San Francisco, or England, or across, Europe, there’s Irish music everywhere. You can go just anywhere and play in a session.”
These “sessions” consist of any number of musicians—Stafford said anyone who shows up is welcome—and feature musicians playing everything from a traditional hand drum called a bodhrán to acoustic guitars.
Stafford is a member of the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Session Band, a loose-knit group of musicians from all walks of life that’s led by 80-year-old bodhrán player and retired design engineer Noel Reid. Together, the band plays a main show once a month at the Kerry Irish Pub on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. They also provide accompaniment for the set dancers that band member Debbie Cornett instructs in traditional Irish dance numbers.
Kerry Irish Pub owner Doris Bastiansen said tourists visiting the French Quarter often expect to hear traditional Irish music at Irish pubs given the city’s connections with Ireland.
“We are probably the only club in the French Quarter that currently has Irish music,” Bastiansen said. “I think that a lot of tourists that are in town do find it charming, and they do like to come in and listen to the Irish sessions and the Irish bands that play.”
The heart of the Kerry’s music lineup has always revolved around singer songwriters who aren’t necessarily big enough to draw a crowd at some of the larger venues in town, Bastiansen said, and traditional Irish music fits into that mold perfectly.
“Being in New Orleans, I grew up listening to all kinds of music, which is why we have all kinds of music at the Kerry,” she said. “But it is very important to have and support Irish music, so we do always have it throughout the month and of course all day on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Recently, the Comhaltas band has taken up residence at Chef Matt Murphy’s Irish House bar and restaurant on St. Charles Avenue every Monday night. The musicians, under the watchful and energetic eye of Reid, sit on sofas and benches facing each other, each waiting patiently for a turn to start up a lively melody.
“We don’t really learn the music, we just learn the tunes and play along,” Reid said. “We’ll keep constantly playing. When you’re ready to start a tune, you just signal to the person next to you, and then you start playing the first part. Each tune consists of two parts, so you’ll play part A two times, then you’ll play part B two times, then you’ll play the whole thing together two times. Then it’s onto the next tune.”
While Reid claims he isn’t a good enough musician to sit in on the fiddle or guitar, his bodhrán rhythms help keep the up-tempo tunes flowing and he sings the occasional song. Other traditional instruments used by the session band include a handheld percussion instrument fashioned out of animal bones, pennywhistles, harps, fiddles, guitars, flutes, and the constantina, a small keyless accordion—favored by sailors for its portability—that provides the perfect accompaniment to a chorus of sea shanties.
Reid promotes the session band throughout the year, attending festivals in his native Ireland as often as possible. He’s always on the lookout for a new place to hold sessions, each one drawing newcomers into the world of traditional Irish music, a genre he said he sometimes has a hard time promoting.
“You can’t get into places to play Irish music anymore,” he said. “We all enjoy playing at the Kerry once a month on Sunday afternoons, and we’d play at other places if we could get it, but it’s hard to get in. As soon as I see a place that may be open to Irish music, I go and ask them.”
For some Irish pubs, hosting traditional bands has proven to be problematic. Several years ago, Reid and a few other musicians joined the festivities at Mid-City mainstay Finn McCool’s Irish Pub on St. Patrick’s Day. Set up on the sidewalk among the revelers, Reid said they were quickly shut down because of complaints from the neighbors.
“We could barely hear each other over the noise out there on the sidewalk!” he said. “I don’t know how we could have caused a problem. You couldn’t hear us three feet away.”
Finn McCool’s owner Pauline Patterson said she has had to shift tactics to please her neighbors, especially on St. Patrick’s Day when they already have a full lineup of events including a parade led by musicians playing uilleann pipes, a type of Irish bagpipe.
“We have music on our anniversary, which is July 26, and then we have music on St. Patrick’s Day, but always early on in the day,” she said. “People just want to sing along, really, so we’ve switched to doing karaoke inside.”
World-famous Irish singer Tara O’Grady will be featured on March 14 at Trèo, a new upper-class pub on Tulane Avenue that Patterson recently opened with her husband Stephen Patterson. The pub also features an art gallery upstairs. The O’Grady performance is a fundraiser for the Irish Network of New Orleans.
While one-off concerts by well-known Irish singers are sure to draw a crowd, Stafford said he finds that most people, especially in New Orleans where so many of the instruments cross over into other musical styles, are open to traditional Irish music despite its lack of popularity. But that hasn’t always been the case back home in Ireland.
“When I was a kid, even when I was in my late teens, I didn’t play Irish music because it wasn’t cool to play Irish music in Ireland,” Stafford said. “It was kind of like hick or hillbilly music. It wasn’t cool. I lived around the corner from guys who I found out years later all played, but they were playing in their houses. All across Dublin, people were playing in their houses because there were no venues to play. You’d get kicked out of a pub for playing music like this.”
The folk boom of the ’60s led to a revival in traditional Irish music, Stafford said, and there are still young converts to the style every day. For 23-year-old Loyola University music student Fiona Howall, playing the flute in a traditional Irish band is a great way to take a break from her family’s rock music heritage.
“My aunt and uncle are Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from the Talking Heads, and my mom Laura Weymouth was in the Tom Tom Club,” Howall said. “So they’re all really into rock music. I’ve been playing music for 13 years now, and I started playing Irish music five years ago when I came to New Orleans. It’s really a great fit for me.”
In addition to flute, Howall plays guitar, mandolin, and the Irish whistle. Session band leader Reid also praises Howall’s singing voice, which she uses to great effect while singing in Gaelic, the Irish language.
“I’m planning on releasing a CD next year,” Howall said. “So I guess we’ll see how that goes. I’m just going to keep playing Irish music.”
As long as the musicians are willing to show up, they will have a place to play at the Irish House, dining room supervisor Catherine Mahfouz said.
“It’s mostly regulars on Monday nights, but every once in a while you’ll get somebody in from out of town on a Monday who happens to catch a session,” Mahfouz said. “They come, fall in love with it, they go home and talk about it, and eventually they’ll come back for it and plan their visit around it. When you come once, you want to come back. It’s a real treat.”