Traditional Irish music pub sessions were founded in London at a time when vast numbers of Irish emigrants flocked to the capital. Among this new population were a sizeable number of musicians, singers and dancers (many from rural parts of Ireland), who would normally have met to celebrate community and culture in local houses and at crossroad dances. The first traditional Irish music sessions in a public house took place in Camden Town in the 1940s and 50s, this type of activity soon spread to neighbouring areas, eventually back to Ireland and is now a worldwide phenomenon.
With such a high concentration of Irish living in the Borough of Islington, it was inevitable that the area would become a hub of musical activity. Venues along the Holloway Road, in particular, became home to the most wonderful traditional Irish musicians, singers and followers of the tradition. At one time it was said that there was better Irish music to be heard in London than at home in Ireland.
A quick trip down memory lane recalls more than 40 hostelries which regularly hosted (and some which continue to host) Irish music in Islington. The ultimate mecca for traditional Irish music from 1967 was ‘The Favourite’ on Queensland Road where Waterford fiddler, Jimmy Power presented all of the greats on stage each Sunday morning, both London resident and those visiting from Ireland or America – to be invited up was the ultimate honour. One of the most iconic recordings of Irish music ‘Paddy in the Smoke’ was recorded here and released on the Finsbury Park based label, Topic Records by Irish music social historian and resident piano player, Reg Hall. Counties from across Ireland were represented on here and on subsequent triple CD collections ‘It was Mighty’ and ‘It was Great Altogether’. Regulars included Lucy Farr, Julia Clifford, Denis McMahon, Con Curtin, Tommy Maguire, Edmond Murphy, Seán O’Shea and more whose names crop up again later in this article.
In the 1960s and 70s Islington pubs played host to the finest of musicians who had made London their home, and began to introduce traditional Irish music to a new generation of London born Irish – The Victoria featured County Clare’s McCarthy Family with Paddy Gallagher and later, London born accordionist, Andy Martyn and banjo player, John Carty (son of Roscommon multi-instrumentalist John P Carty), The Brewery Tap (now The Lamb) hosted Galway’s O’Holleran Brothers and Mairtín Byrnes, also London’s banjo legend, Mick O’Connor (who still currently plays there). Other regular performers of these times included the Selina Munnelly Trio (Mayo), The Connolly Folk Band and The Caravelles (Clare) at The Mulberry Tree, The Pied Bull, The Leyton Arms and The Half Moon. The Mother Red Cap hosted Offaly accordionist, John Bowe, Galway flautist, Gabe Sullivan and more – The Red Lion hosed Limerick accordionist Tom O’Connell and Bernard Gorman. For those interested in exploring more detail of the history of Irish music in London until the 1980s, you will enjoy Reg Hall’s epic publication ‘A Few Good Tunes’, generously available to download for free at www.topicrecords.co.uk.
In the 1980s and 90s ‘Beyond the Pale’, featuring banjo player Annette Roland (daughter of Galway accordionist, Raymond Roland) played and sang at The Carnarvon Castle and Clancys. The Archway Tavern hosted Crusheen (with County Clare’s Terence O’Flaherty and the London born Searson Brothers), then later Dingle Spike (featuring County Kerry’s John Curtin). Other bands with residencies at this time included Sliabh Luachra (featuring Leitrim’s Bryan Rooney and Cork’s Mick Casey) also Tom Cussen’s Shaskeen at The Cock Tavern and St John’s Tavern respectively. Banjo player John Carty, performed regularly at The George and Mick O’Connor hosted sessions at The Whittington and Cat.
A number of the most highly regarded emigrant musicians of the time were brought together in the 1980s by John Bowe to form The Thatch Céilí Band. They played weekly at the Highbury Corner venue of the same name and went on to win the All Ireland Championship in 1986. Members included County Clare fiddlers, Bobby Casey and Brendan Mulkere, Sligo flautist, Roger Sherlock, Waterford piper, Tommy Keane and London banjo player, Mick O’Connor. Connemara flautist, Marcus Hernon held a residency at The Gunners with John Carty. Other children of the diaspora, including Andy and Madeline Martyn, James Nally and Kathy Walton frequently played at The Norfolk, St John’s Tavern and the Hemingford Arms. Tommy McManamon (whose parents ran ‘The Favourite’ and who, himself played with Storm, Shane McGowan and The Popes) went on to host his many musical friends at Filthy McNasty’s in Amwell Street.
Waterford music impresario, Vince Power opened ‘The Powerhaus’ in 1989 on Liverpool Road, and while presenting contemporary bands in the evenings, hosted Saturday and Sunday afternoon traditional sessions with West Cork’s John Coakley, Johnny O’Leary and second generation musicians Paddy Gallagher, Elaine Conwell and Karen Ryan. These musicians and more also played in Minogue’s and Leopold Blooms – the extended music community, including Mayo fiddler Bridie Staunton (mother of actress Imelda), Kathy Walton and more, went on to host sessions at Lark in the Park.
An important residency which spanned three decades from the 1990s was held at Finsbury Park’s ‘Auld Triangle’ (previously The Plimsoll) – initially a gathering place for Connemara people, the sessions were hosted by Reg Hall on piano and second generation Irish musicians including Gary Connolly, James Carty and the Linane Family. These musicians went on to form the Auld Triangle Céilí Band, who became All Britain Champions and recently performed at Kings Place. Simultaneously in the 2000s London born fiddler, Karen Ryan and Liverpool pianist, Pete Quinn hosted session guests on rota at Holloway’s Black Horse, including Donegal’s Danny Meehan, London’s Sharon Whelton, Seán Casey and Mick Mulvey.
In the last two decades Islington has staged weekly residencies hosted by second generation Irish musicians – Jack Boyle and Nigel Stevens at WB Yeats, Ben Gunnery at The Canonbury Tavern, as well as Mayo’s Cathy Nolan, Crispin Wright and friends at The Plough and The Magnet.
We are delighted that regular traditional Irish music sessions continue in the borough on Tuesdays at The Lamb Tavern, on the last Thursday of every month at Radicals and Victuallers, plus every Friday evening and Sunday afternoon at the new ‘place to be’ for Irish musicians in London, run by Ennis flute player, John Rynne and situated on Highgate Hill – Brendan the Navigator.
It has been a delightful experience to reminisce with fellow musicians and publicans about the strong presence of Irish music in the Borough of Islington in order to bring together some of these memories, but an almost impossible task to try to summarise the story of the area in less than a thesis length piece. This is not an exhaustive account of Irish music venues and musicians in the borough, and it doesn’t even touch on the wider context of the Irish cultural presence which would include one of London’s most important Irish Dance Halls, The Gresham, as well as Archway’s Green Ink Bookshop, Irish music and dance classes in the area, and Islington’s own Irish Centre – ‘The Roger Casement’.
What a proud and wonderful history of celebrating, preserving and promoting Irish culture Islington has – long may it remain so.
Karen Ryan (www.irishmusicinlondon.org)
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