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A user's guide to sessions

Every once in a while, I like to refrain from my usual stream of consciousness and throw down a few words that some people might actually find useful.

And ho-ho dear reader, we’ve reached that time. If you’ve ever been intimidated by, nonplussed or generally curious about sessions, it’s time to strap the seat belts onto your eyes, because I’m about to take them for a convoluted ride down Music Boulevard.

I’ll start with the most basic. A session—which in Irish is spelled seisiún—is a group of people playing instruments and/or singing in an informal setting. As you’re reading an Irish periodical, I don’t suspect I need to go any farther here.

Next, I’ll break down sessions into two camps: instrumental and vocal. A lot of people refer to instrumental gatherings as trad sessions, a term I don’t use because it seems to indicate that singing isn’t traditional, which it most certainly is. Likewise, some singing sessions are called pub song sessions, and I’m not a fan of that as I feel it minimizes the importance of songs in Irish culture.

And before I start to get hate mail about traditional singing being limited to sean-nós, I’ll just mention that nobody in Ireland had ever heard of a bouzouki until the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s folk music. It changes. If there were guitars around in Ireland in the nineteenth century, they would have been utilized (and no, not for kindling, so stuff it).

There is also a rare form of session that combines equal amounts of both instrumental and vocal, and these are personally my favorite. These are sessions where both camps respect the other, where the rhythm instruments know how to back up the tunes and the instrumentalists can back up the songs. I’ll point out here that backing up songs is an artform to itself. Playing the tune behind the lyrics isn’t the same as complementing the song.

Unfortunately, this type of session is usually not the case. Singers tend to think of tune players as diddley-dee boring and finger-in-the-ear arrogant, and tune players can look down on folksingers as being ignorant of Irish culture and lacking musical talent. In my opinion, both are right and wrong and can blind either side to the benefit of the other.

You’re probably going to want to visit your local session before joining it to scope out the feel. Every session has its own personality. Are they more advanced players than you, and if so do they seem accepting of learners? There might be hierarchies or accepted rules. Instrumental sessions tend to be free-for-alls, where anyone in the circle starts a tune, whereas oftentimes a singing session will go around in a circle with the next person encouraged to perform. (This isn’t always the case, and if it isn’t, take a tip and don’t become a spotlight hog. It’s good to have a little while between bursts to allow for some shyer participants to perform. Just because there’s a lull doesn’t mean you’re required to fill it.)

Take note of the tunes and songs performed. There are some standards that everyone will know and some that will be more popular at your local session. You can always work on them back at home and come in more prepared when you first attend.

Introduce yourself to some of the session-goers at the end or if they’re grabbing a pint. I find they’re a lot less intimidating when you talk to them rather than watching them play with dour faces aimed at the floor. They’ll usually be honest as well about how accepting the group will be to learners. Be forewarned, there can be open hostility to a novice inserting him or herself into a session of seasoned players. Not so much for the singing sessions.

I find there are three basic levels of tune players: the novice, who is intimidated by everyone, the amateur, who is superior to everyone, and the pro, who is supportive of everyone. (This obviously isn’t always the case. There are a lot of amateurs who are enthusiastic about newbies and there are jackass pros, but these are tendencies I’ve noticed.)

Some insights for newcomers

  • In general, when a song or a set of tunes ends, everyone takes a drink.
  • During tune sessions, when the singer starts, the players use the opportunity to grab a pint or hit the loo. Don’t take it personally (except in some cases, do).
  • A fiddle is the same thing as a violin, but generally, someone playing classical music refers to it as a violin and someone playing Irish music calls it a fiddle.
  • Uilleann pipes are the complicated-looking bagpipes that are played sitting down. When you refer to them, forget the “U” at the beginning. They’re illin, like you’re chillin’. Likewise, don’t pronounce the “D” in bodhrán (the Irish drum).
  • There were years where eyes would roll when someone brought a guitar into a tune session. Along with the bodhrán, it was seen as pedestrian, played by someone less than a trad musician. In my opinion, a man named John Doyle changed that, so guitars are welcome once again (insert rejoicing sounds).
  • If you’re a singer, you don’t need to use all of the thirty verses ever written for a song. It’s admirable that you researched it, but it gets a bit tedious.
  • Poems and stories are underutilized in sessions. I wish that would change.
  • You don’t need to preface every song with its history or significance. Just sing the song. It should usually speak for itself.
  • Lulls aren’t the enemy. You don’t need to jump in every time there are two consecutive seconds without music. Give someone else a chance.
  • Sessions are often the best when they’re not too planned.
  • Hosting a session at your home? The higher the player to listener ratio, the better. A party that includes a session is not a session. It’s a performance.
  • Check out the internet for common tunes and songs. There are a lot of them. Also, get the flavor of the session. Some might include old Americana music or bluegrass. Some might welcome music that doesn’t fit the mold, but some won’t.
  • And finally, for the love of all that is holy, it’s music. It’s supposed to be enjoyable. Those with an attitude are wrong. Those trying to enjoy music are right. Anyway, that’s just my opinion.

Want to know a culture? Check out their groceries.

Hear me out. I know that to understand Irish culture, you need to visit the pubs, but for me, the most underappreciated establishment for any culture is the grocery store. It’s the commonality between almost everyone in every country around the world.

Roam the aisles and cast your eyes on the foreign variety of biscuits and beer, frozen foods and chocolate bars. I absolutely love experiencing the local Lidls and Tescos, the Carrefours and Aldis. Food is at the heart of every culture and these shops are where your average Juan and Maríah Sixpack grab their essentials.

I’d argue that you learn as much about a culture by visiting their food marts as you do from their museums. Sure, museums will teach you their history, but the grocery store will tell you who they are.

Among my favorite pastimes in Ireland, for example, is to hit the petrol stations and peruse the sheer volume of crisps: gammon and cheese; scampi; buffalo; Irish stew; Wuster sauce; chorizo and cherry tomato; bacon and cabbage. It seems endless and that’s before considering the styles like chipsticks, hula hoops, potato puffs and waffles.

And it’s not just what the stores stock, it’s what they don’t. I searched high and low through store after store in Romania before I found a container of maple syrup. It made me appreciate not only the different offerings they stocked, but what I had back at home. Speaking of which, I’d like to offer a shout-out to the cashier lady at our local Carrefour in Sebeș, Romania. For three months, the other half and I saw her almost every day and not once did she crack a smile. After months, the shop’s security officer wouldn’t stop following us around through the aisles. I wanted to pull him aside and explain that Libby and I probably spent as much in the store as a family of eight. But I digress.

Anyhoo, a grocery store will tell you what the average home puts on their plates day after day. In Spain there’s plenty of rice and seafood, in Germany, local sausages and infinite beer, in Puerto Rico, tropical fruits and corn flour.

I was in a small shop on the island of Curacao. The shop wasn’t busy at all, but there were four lanes, each with cashiers and baggers. There was no waiting. I zipped through. When I made an off-hand remark to one of the locals in the parking lot, he informed me that that’s common down there.

Conversely, he said, you can’t always find what you want. There might be days without salsa, or seasons where certain produce just isn’t available. One just needs to be ready to adjust based on the offerings. It dawned on me that that’s not the worst thing.

There was a child running a corner store in Córdoba, Spain, probably ten-years-old. I was looking through packages of biscuits and she pointed to a container of butter cookies, a selection I likely wouldn’t have chosen. But she was right. I brought them home and Libby and I devoured the entire package with cups of tea.

Are international flights not in the cards for you? Not to worry. The offerings in the southwest are quite different from the northeast, from dried hatch chilis to local wines to beef tongue. One of my favorite shops is in Abiquiú, New Mexico. Called Bodes General store, it serves a small community of 231. It’s a gas station that sells just about everything you can imagine, from cattle feed to hats, local wine to frozen meals.

There’s a food takeout window inside Bodes where you can grab a cup of chili or freshly made tamales, load up on their baked pastries and snack as you drive past craggy red rocks and desert. It’s an experience, let me tell you.

And for those of you not in a traveling mood, may I suggest you make use of import shops and Irish bakeries, some of which you can find advertising in iIrish. If you’re new to Irish cuisine, here are some of the items it is compulsory to start with: Tayto Cheese and Onion crisps, Irish sausages, vegetable soup, Cadbury Dairy Fruit and Nut bars, and Smarties. I’m not saying you want to make a diet based on these things, but…well, if you add potatoes, you should be okay.

Cruises: The good, the bad and the ‘rona

Be prepared to do a little walking. You’ll find the best anywhere has to offer will be found when your feet are on the ground.


As I start this column, the snow outside my window is falling at a rate of three inches an hour. So, I do what any sane person does: I curse myself for living in New England and let my mind wander back to memories of cruising around tropical islands and sipping on margaritas by the pool in the shade under a blistering sun.

The truth is that I have a love-hate relationship when it comes to cruises, but more on that later. First, we need to deal with the elephant in the room.


The ‘rona

Is it safe to cruise? According to the Centers for Disease Control, the answer is no (though they did recently lower their risk to level 3). They recommend that everyone should avoid cruise travel, even if vaccinated and boosted, because of the Coronavirus. Cruises are hotbeds of virus outbreaks even during normal times.

In their defense, cruise lines seem to be doing everything they can to make things safe. Almost all are requiring people over a certain age to be vaccinated and they all require a negative Covid test from everyone prior to boarding. Unfortunately, you’ll need to check with your chosen line before booking, because some are allowing exceptions. I’ve also read about some passengers ignoring the mask policies, so be forewarned. And, of course, make your decision based upon your risk and the risk for anyone you come in contact with.

Note that if you have been exempted from receiving a vaccine, countries often will not allow you in unless you are on a cruise ship specific tour bubble. There is also often a travel insurance requirement if you are unvaccinated. In fact, I’d recommend travel insurance for any cruise-goer nowadays. If there’s ever been a time it’s needed, that time is now.

Keep in mind, there is a lot of close contact on board cruises, but how stuffed the ship is depends on the cruise line. A line like Carnival Cruises tends to focus on keeping it economical, so they try to fit in more passengers, whereas companies like Crystal and Celebrity are less crowded, but are also generally more expensive. And as the price goes up, so too oftentimes does the average age. In other words, if you want a party, a cheaper line might be perfect for you, but if you want a relaxing vacation, you might need to spend a little more.


The good

My top suggestion would be to spend the extra money and get a room with a veranda. One of my favorite times in life is sitting on my private deck before bed, a glass of wine in hand, the starry sky glimmering above and the open ocean coursing by. Obviously, it will cost more, but you won’t remember that a few years down the road while reliving your cruise.

Possibly the most incredible part of cruising is waking up every day in a new port. The Caribbean, for example, is filled with island countries and territories. One day you’re dining in the Cayman Islands and the next snorkeling in Belize. No new hotel to book into. You just bring your key card with you and it gets you into the country and back on the ship.

Make sure to take a walk around (always research the safety of the area), stop into a pub or restaurant, but get away from the port. There is often real life just beyond the closest proximity to your ship.

It’s as good a time as any to point out that your room card is absolutely everything. It’s your charge card onboard and generally your passport as well (the line will, of course, require a passport before boarding you onto an international cruise, but you can put it away afterward).

Convenience is a pretty big selling point too. There is almost always food and drink available. Even after all of the restaurants and bars close up, you can order room service. Most of the food is free and easily accessible. Sitting by the pool? Take a few steps over to the burger or taco bar and nosh away. Feel like making it an extra special night? Many cruises offer more upscale restaurants where you’ll find gourmet selections at a much cheaper cost than you’d find on land. It might be $15 to upgrade to a steakhouse restaurant over the free fare and it is really good.


The bad

During these dark Covid times, you’ll need to be prepared for the possibility that there’ll be an outbreak on the ship and in such a case, an island or country is unlikely to let the ship disembark passengers.

Also, you’re going to need to prepare to part with some Benjamins. You can do this whole cruising thing for the cost of getting there and the cruise, but be prepared to spend more otherwise it won’t be that experience you’re hoping for. Just about everything costs more money. “Free drinks” might just include coffee, water and unsweetened tea, not soft drinks and most certainly not alcohol.

Do you want to go see that Mayan temple? You can make your way there on your own (cheapest), you can look for an excursion company not affiliated with the cruise line (cheaper than the cruise’s, but it can be a crap shoot), or you can pony up and be just about guaranteed a good tour with the ship’s (most expensive).

To be sure, the surprise bill you will inevitably rack up during your vacation is always a hoot (insert bulging eyes here) when you see it at the end of the week.

I’m going to put entertainment pretty high up on the list of things I don’t like on cruises. I’ve probably been on seven or eight cruises, but the entertainment can be quite plastic, glossy and stiff, especially for the big productions, which have reminded me of cheap Vegas drivel. Though I’m admittedly not saying this is always the case. A little research will help here. Smaller piano bars and poolside island-style music can also be exceptions, and you might well luck out with particularly personable musicians and singers.

While one of the truly amazing experiences is stepping off the ship and into a new land, there is many a port not near anything resembling a vacation, I’m talking a working port, where containers are being loaded and unloaded. Any town is miles away. This means paying for a cab there and back.


Interested?

There are Irish themed cruises depending on your musical taste and while I dissed the cruise lines’ entertainment, these ones are exempt. Joanie Madden is offering a Mediterranean cruise filled with trad and folk music in September (www.joaniemaddencruise.com); Debbie Casey is bringing folks around the Mediterranean on her folk music cruise (www.irishmusiccruises.com); and Gertrude Byrne, who features a show band-style lineup, has already sailed for 2022, but better luck next year (www.gertrudebyrnepromotions.com).

Are the palm trees calling you during these cold months? Perhaps Hawaii is in your future.

Why do we Irish love potatoes?

Like the call of the siren, it beckons from the center of the Thanksgiving table in all of its starchy goodness, just on the other side of the green beans. There’s no shame. Everyone with Irish ancestry succumbs to its lure. We’re all powerless in its awesome gaze.

Of course, I speak of the spud, the incredible, edible, delectable master of all tubers, the potato, the perfect vehicle for gravy, the granddaddy of side dishes.

The potato has played a crucial role in our history, sustaining our ancestors and spreading us tragically across the world when nature denied us its bounty. My father used to say that a day without potatoes is like a day without sunshine. Indeed, I’ve been served dinners in Ireland with three different kinds of potato sides. And I loved it.

How seriously do we take our potatoes, any of you non-Irish may ask? Let’s just say that three years ago, in November 2018, a Cork woman was sentenced to jail for damaging a packet of Pringles. Don’t mess with our crisps!

But how did we get here?

Potatoes evolved from the poisonous ancestor of nightshade, so its cousins include tobacco, chili peppers, bell peppers and tomatoes. Just so you know, the part we eat is the root of the plant, where the energy is stored for the following year.

Yet, I digress. Our story starts about 15,000 years ago in the South American Andean highlands between what is now Peru and Bolivia. That’s when human settlers appeared in the region. Somewhere about 8,000 B.C., we domesticated the wild potato. (My personal belief is that the first fish and chip shop opened not long after, but archaeology is murky on this subject.)

The potato remained unknown to the rest of the world until the Spanish conquistadors started poking around the area in the early 1500s. Somewhere between 1570 and 1593, they brought the plant to Europe, but it was hardly an immediate success. Europeans were used to eating the upper portions of plants, not the roots, and as such, the plant was regarded as poisonous and even evil. Doubters blamed the potato for leprosy, sterility, over sexuality and for destroying soil.

But the lowly potato found its salvation in its long shelf life, in particular for the French military. France sought a food not only to sustain their soldiers, but also a populace starved from continuous warfare. The government planted one hundred acres of potatoes and guarded the food. The fact that it was guarded sparked interest among the French and eventually it became one of the most popular food sources in Europe.

The Great Hunger

The potato was introduced into Ireland in the late 1500s and apparently we liked it. Not only did it flourish, but the tuber grew so well in Ireland that eventually farmers began to rely solely on the plant for their crops. Big mistake. It became the staple for the poor Irish family.

So, when a blight hit the potato crop in 1845, the working poor were unprepared. That year, a fungus-like organism called Phytophthora infestans turned up to one half of the potato crop into goo. It devastated about three-quarters of the crop over the next seven years.

Britain—which at the time ruled Ireland—failed the population. Though Ireland continued to export a great many food sources, their populace was dying. Roughly a million Irish people died of starvation or related causes and another million left the shores of their homeland for Amerikay and other less impoverished nations. We spread throughout the world.

In 1997, British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a statement, offering a formal apology to Ireland for the British government’s handling of the catastrophe.

And so here we are, with Irish seeds cast all over the world. We stuck by our beloved potato and have—in the inimitable Irish way—bettered ourselves through our misfortunes.

But there’s more!

Allow me now to move past the traditional roasted, mashed, baked, boiled, fried, chipped, crisped potato to offer you a new avenue for potatoes: pizza crust. Yes, it’s possible and yes, it’s delicious (and gluten free).

I’d suggest listening to appropriate music while making this recipe. Suggestions include Bud the Spud and the Ketchup Song, both from Stompin’ Tom Connors; Potato’s in the Paddy Wagon, by the New Main Street Singers (from the movie A Mighty Wind); and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

Potato Pizza Crust

1 ½ pounds potatoes (try red potatoes)

½ cup of shredded cheese of your choice

1 egg

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Salt and pepper

Your choice of toppings

Preheat oven to 425 F (220 C)

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper

Peel potatoes, discard peels

Grate potatoes in grater (large holes)

Transfer potatoes to towel and squeeze out excess moisture

Add potatoes to a bowl with cheese, egg, salt and pepper. Stir to combine.

Form a 12-inch circle on the parchment paper with the mixture

Bake 25-30 minutes

Remove from oven and top with toppings of your choice (suggestions: mozzarella cheese, cherry tomatoes sliced in half, pepperoni and basil)

Bake an additional 10-15 minutes. Crack open the latest edition of iIrish and enjoy.

Writer's Digest Award


Well, don't that beat all. I have won an honorable mention in Writer's Digest for an article I wrote for iIrish about Newgrange.

Not much to add to that, but I'm pretty happy about it.

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