An overview of traditional music and session pubs in Belfast.
I remember the first time I ventured from my dank student digs in the Holylands, south Belfast, into the city centre with my fiddle case slung over my shoulder in search of a rousing traditional music session. It was the early 1990s and I was fresh from the sticks of south Armagh. At about 6pm, the city was eerily dead, but I had heard from a few older students at Queen’s University about a great music pub at Bank Street, behind Primark department store on Royal Avenue.
Walking around the corner, I was greeted with a full-scale party. The doors of Kelly’s Cellars were flung open and its punters flowed out into the narrow street. A group of musicians had commandeered the bonnet of a car parked outside the door, and beer kegs made temporary tables and chairs as the Guinness was passed at head height from the bar inside. I was in heaven. The music was fast and exciting, featuring pipes, fiddles, mandolins, whistles, Portuguese guitars and bodhrans.
Then I was spotted. My fiddle case was the give away, decorated with an array of fleadh and festival stickers. A bearded bodhran player signalled to me and I approached with caution. Before I knew it, he had given me his perch on the beer barrel under orders that I was to break open my fiddle case. I must have been rosining my bow for half an hour before I found the courage to strike a note, eyes closed in a mixture of concentration and sheer terror. But I could not believe it. The Tommy People tune I had only ever played in the privacy of my bedroom was now being belted out by a group of real traditional session musicians. And I was leading them.
I made a lot of friends that night and I have been a regular at sessions throughout Belfast ever since. Unfortunately Kelly’s Cellars is not how it used to be. Development of the surrounding area and a change in opening hours has driven real music from its historic walls. However, it is commonly accepted that the present situation is a crying shame and I suspect in time Kelly’s will regain its reputation as the best traditional music pub in Belfast.
The Cathedral Quarter
In recent years, traditional music sessions have been popping up in more and more city centre pubs. These are usually in old established bars, not necessarily previously associated with traditional music, but with an atmosphere preferred by musicians and attractive to visitors.
While Madden’s bar at Berry Street remains the most popular haunt for traditional musicians and listeners, and the Hercules bar accommodates a similar session every weekend night, traditional music has increasingly infiltrated venues in the Cathedral Quarter, now recognised as the hub of all arts activity in the city.
The most renowned bar in this area is the John Hewitt at Donegall Street, frequented by an eclectic mix of the arts fraternity, trade unionists and old ‘lefties’. Named after the Northern Irish writer and poet, the John Hewitt offers traditional music on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons.
The Hewitt also plays host to local arts festivals such as the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and the Open House Traditional Arts Festival, incorporating the best in traditional music, song, and dance.
A stones throw from the Hewitt is The Duke of York bar in Commercial Court. The Duke has hosted traditional music sessions for numerous years. Its famous Thursday session, organised by fiddler Donal O’Connor, attracts musicians from all across the country. This venue attracts students and tourists with an interest in the very best of traditional arts and it is a fine example of the healthy state of traditional music.
A more recent addition to the session pub roll-call in Belfast city centre is White’s Tavern. Founded in 1630 as a wine and spirit shop, White’s Tavern retains the spirit of a bygone age. Situated at the aptly named Winecellar Entry, this public house is a hidden treasure in the heart of the city with a relaxed atmosphere far removed from the bustle of the busy streets outside.
With flagstone flooring, an open turf fire and a no television policy, customers can peacefully converse while sampling White’s unique ‘straight’ Guinness and listening to the best traditional musicians. On Friday and Saturday evenings, traditional music sessions feature downstairs. Upstairs is a beautiful Georgian style venue with old sofas and lampshades. This room hosts acts as diverse as traditional music, jazz bands, drama and comedy.
The traditional music scene is attracting more and more people interested in the arts in Belfast. It is viewed as a young and vibrant scene and an essential factor to the success of the city centre and Cathedral Quarter. I can only conclude that traditional music in Belfast will continue to grow in popularity.