The jaunty sound of the “Swaggering Jig” rose up from the corner of the pub.
Like a scene from some quaint neighborhood public house in the Irish countryside, six musicians sat in the corner playing. They had all of the tools of traditional Celtic music — mandolin, banjo, uillean pipes, tin whistle and fiddle.
They riffed off one another, rolling through the folk sounds of Ireland while people around them sipped their stouts.
“I’ve been in Indianapolis for 12 years, and when I came here, this wasn’t going on. There was only one session. Now there’s three or four sessions, there’s the Irish Arts Academy. There’s a lot of opportunity for traditional music,” said Ed Delaney, who spearheads an Irish session at Brockway Public House in Carmel. “Indianapolis is really on the Irish music map.”
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Throughout central Indiana, traditional Irish music maintains a year-round presence with the help of dedicated musicians who gather each week to perform together. Known as sessions, these informal gatherings have popped up at taverns and pubs in Indianapolis and beyond.
The sessions give musicians a chance to play the tunes they love with like-minded and skilled people, while providing Celtic music fans a place to hear live music on a regular basis.
“It’s the closest thing to Ireland from what I’ve seen,” said Jim McGinley, whose family founded and owns McGinley’s Golden Ace Inn in Indianapolis. “This is what they do — they come in, sit down and start playing jigs and reels, or occasionally burst out into song. Music is such a big thing in Ireland, and it fits in great here.”
The oldest sessions in the city are conducted Tuesdays at the Golden Ace, one of the most famed and authentic Irish bars in the state.
Just as founders John and Ann McGinley brought the tavern’s aesthetic and atmosphere from their homeland in Donegal County, Ireland, McGinley’s children and current owners have fostered traditional Irish music on a weekly basis.
World famous Irish musicians have come to the Golden Ace on a regular basis, but a weekly slot has also been set aside for sessions for the past 18 years.
“We have had music here in the Ace for years and years. To me, it’s an extension of what they have in Ireland. You go over there, and you see these sessions take place all over the country,” Jim McGinley said. “The musicians get together, play in the corner of the bar and jam out.”
Irish music has become more visible and pervasive over the past few decades in Indianapolis.
The Irish Arts Academy of Indianapolis has become the center of Irish culture in central Indiana. Classes are at Garfield Park Arts Center, where students can learn to play the bodhrán, the harp or the highland pipes. They can sing in the traditional sean-nós style, learn to dance the ceili and even speak Gaelic.
The goal is to help spread all things Irish throughout the year, said Dmitri Alano, founder and director of the academy. Part of that mission is fulfilled with the sessions.
“For me, it is the wild and free spirited emotion in the music that connected with me, and made me want to learn this music. It is music that stirs your soul,” said Chris Deis, a performer at the Brockway session. “Many of the instrumental tunes we play were composed specifically to accompany dancers, and the same lively melodies that make someone want to get up and dance are also great fun and challenging to play.”
From the original at the Golden Ace, sessions have taken hold in taverns throughout the city and the state. Broad Ripple-area eatery Bent Rail Brewery hosts one every Sunday afternoon. Pubs in West Lafayette, Evansville, Bloomington and South Bend have planned sessions for local musicians as well.
The session at Brockway Public House in Carmel has been going on for nearly 10 years. The former owner had welcomed giving the musicians a place to play and convinced those who ran the pub afterwards to continue making space for the group.
Every Tuesday, the musicians come together for the session. Delaney played the concertina, Deis worked the flute and Indianapolis resident Jim Fallis plucked the mandolin.
Lew Truex expertly played the banjo, while Hank Kratky, a Fortville resident, played a tin whistle.
“They’ve been real supportive of having a session here. That’s really nice, because it’s really hard for Irish sessions to find a stable home, and it takes some time to build up a crew and everything,” Delaney said. “Having it at a place like this, I can’t say enough for their support of traditional music here.”
John Platt, one of the fiddle players at the Brockway session, has been playing Irish music for nearly 30 years. The Fishers resident had grown up listening to classical music and graduated to playing old-timey Americana tunes as a young man.
But it wasn’t until catching a radio show with Liz Carroll, a famous Celtic fiddler from Chicago, that he became smitten.
“I heard her and said, ‘I want to do that,’” he said.
For performers and lovers of Irish music, the sessions provide a valuable sense of community, as well as a chance to indulge in one of their passions.
“It’s mental health. It uses my other part of my brain that I don’t use all the time,” Delaney said.
What: Informal gatherings where people play Irish traditional music.
Who can take part: The sessions are open to the public, and anyone can come to listen. While the sessions are loose and free-flowing, some basic etiquette is expected. The expectation is if you’re new to a session, to wait to be invited to play.
Organizers of each session are observant and on the lookout for new participants, so if they see you walk in with an instrument case, they’ll likely strike up a conversation to learn a little more.
Where to find a session:
- Bent Rail Brewery & Restaurant, 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays, 5301 Winthrop Ave., Indianapolis, all ages welcome.
- McGinley’s Golden Ace Inn, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2533 E. Washington St., Indianapolis, must be 21 or older.
- The Brockway Public House, 7:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays, 12525 Old Meridian St., Carmel, all ages welcome.
- The Runcible Spoon, 7 to around 10 p.m. Tuesdays, 412 E. 6th St., Bloomington, all ages welcome. The Bloomington Singers’ Circle hosts a traditional singers’ session 8 to 10 p.m. every second Sunday as well.
Information from the Irish Arts Academy of Indianapolis