The Traditional Music Scene in Belfast

An overview of the city’s vibrant traditional music scene

Folk, trad or diddle-dee! For some, it’s just a bunch of old fogies drinking stout and playing the same old music over and over again. For others, it is a way of life, a vibrant scene where young and old come together to share a common interest.

The traditional music scene in Belfast has been in a good state of health for some time now. The quality of the traditional music played throughout the pubs and venues of the city can rival that of Dublin, Cork or Galway. Being a university town also means that many young musicians from the sticks can be found passing through the big smoke at any given time.

It was not long ago that being a young practitioner of traditional music meant not letting your mates know you attended ‘violin’ classes or feisanna or fleadh competitions. It was the height of un-cool to be associated with Irish folk music: that was something that your da listened to. How things have changed.

Today it is safe to say that traditional music is definitely trendy. The average age at most of the good music sessions in Belfast today is about 23, and we have accomplished young musicians emerging from music schools in the city, dedicated to the preservation and promotion of traditional music.

I remember realising that there was an attractive subculture to the traditional arts after my parents sent me as a young, naive teenager from south Armagh to the Willie Clancy week in Milltown Malbay, Co Clare. There I met musicians my own age, played non-stop for a week, and of course discovered Guinness and girls. I met young people who were also tired of living a lie and began to come out of the traditional music closet.

The Francis McPeake School of Music in Belfast has been churning out excellent traditional musicians for over 25 years. Classes are held throughout the city and they have recently opened city centre premises on Gloucester Street. The musical year culminates in an annual trip to Milltown Malbay, where the young musicians attend classes. The McPeake School is also developing the Francis McPeake International Summer School, offering classes in all disciplines of traditional music, as well as in dance and the music business.

Another excellent music school that serves the youth of Belfast is the Andersonstown School of Traditional and Contemporary Music, directed by Maxi McElroy. Their evening classes are held at the Christian Brother’s Secondary School at the Glen Road. The school presently accommodates over 290 students, ranging in age and musical proficiency. It is a key part of the community in west Belfast and is growing visibly in numbers and respect. Legendary fiddler Sean Maguire is among the tutors working for the school. In recent years, numerous pupils have excelled as a result, and perform regularly in the session scene at home and further a field.

Historically, the city centre and the docks areas of Belfast have had a monopoly on good traditional music. However, in recent years sessions have been popping up in bars throughout Belfast as publicans are becoming more receptive to the pull of traditional musicians. In fact, traditional music sessions have become a major attraction for visiting cultural tourists, evident particularly in the summer months. Every race, colour and creed has at some time or another tapped their sandals to a rousing tune in Madden’s, Kelly’s Cellars or The Hercules Bar, the Bermuda triangle of traditional music where men have been known to disappear for days. What baffles the tone-deaf punter is why beautiful, exotic, foreign women for some unfathomable reason find sweaty, drunken, unhealthy Irish musicians totally irresistible!

Today the sessions have infiltrated Belfast’s own answer to Montmartre, the Cathedral Quarter. There are weekly sessions in The John Hewitt, The Duke of York and White’s Tavern. The renowned Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival has also embraced the traditional arts, and has encompassed The Lagan Fleadh into its programme. The successful Open House Traditional Music Festival is now in its fifth year, and each winter brings a glow to audience’s faces with the best of local and international traditional song and dance.

As traditional music continues to grow in popularity, what with Riverdance, Cara Dillon and other influential factors, don’t forget we have an exciting and vibrant traditional music scene on our own doorstep. So why not check out one of the great traditional music and song sessions happening throughout Belfast? That reminds me. How many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to change the bulb and the other to sing about how good the old one used to be!

Paul Flynn