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Has COVID killed the session?

The days of ‘ól agus ceol’ may be behind us - musicians, publicans


A typical scene at a Scully’s Festival session in the days before COVID 19

A typical scene at a Scully’s Festival session in the days before COVID 19

A typical scene at a Scully’s Festival session in the days before COVID 19

It's an image which people all around the world associate with Ireland - traditional musicians playing away at full pelt in a pub and everybody enjoying the 'ceol agus craic'.

But, while the country may be emerging hesitantly from the lockdown, it could be a long time yet before we hear live music in bars and other venues.

In Newmarket where Sliabh Luachra traditional music was being celebrated at Scully's Fest this weekend, there was music from trad legends Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly, Brian and Liam O'Leary among others, but it was a live recording which was shared online on Monday night.

According to Scully's Festival organiser Eoin Stan O'Sullivan, the future of the session as we know it is uncertain.

"In Newmarket there used to be traditional music sessions two nights a week but since COVID started, there has been no live music.

"At the start of it, people were trying to listen to as much as possible online but that's died back a little I'd say.

"The idea of a big group of musicians coming together in a socially-distanced way to play tunes is both technologically impossible and even if it could happen, it mightn't be enjoyable, not in the same way sessions were before the virus."

That said, Scully's Fest did go ahead in Newmarket with a host of musicians contributing and, as is the custom, a CD full of festival highlights will be available soon.

The closing of the pubs is an obvious reason for a dampener on sessions but even when the taverns reopen, is it likely or possible that live music will not immediately return.

It seems to be an accepted fact that loud music in a venue such a pub will lead to people speaking loudly - it's an Irish tradition that people continue to talk during a music session whereas they stay quiet during a concert. Speaking loudly is held to be a factor in the spreading of the illness as it is transmitted via 'aerosol' from the mouth.

"Here in Newmarket and traditional sessions generally we like to welcome musicians from 9 to 99 years of age - the older musicians are cherished and respected and the last thing we would want to happen is for someone to come to a session and get sick - we'd never have a session again if that happened," said Eoin.

It may be difficult given the prominence that traditional music sessions have in Fáilte Ireland's promotion of the country as a tourism destination, but there is no reference good, bad or indifferent to traditional music sessions or live music of any sort in the guidelines issued by Fáilte Ireland regarding the reopening of pubs. While most pub/restaurants which have returned to business since the end of June have been without live music, Johnny Fox's pub in the Dublin mountains did try live music with the singer performing in a recording booth with the sound being transmitted via the loudspeaker system.

While this eliminated the risk from the singer, it didn't cut out the danger of COVID spread from raised voices in the building.

Other options being looked into are more outdoor sessions - but the volatility and unreliability of the weather during an Irish summer means that's not an entirely sane option - and the issue remains of the danger of COVID spread from raised voices.

Other options being looked into by Eoin O'Sullivan include seeking larger venues, which may not be pubs, but in the meantime his aim is to continue to create an online space for musicians, to support them and to ensure that the Sliabh Luachra tradition of great music lives on.

"Twenty years ago Newmarket was buzzing and you could hardly get a parking space here at the weekend.

"People were still coming here for the tradtional music until COVID hit and it's hard to know now what's going to happen."

In nearby Rockchapel, there used to be a traditional music session every Tuesday during the Summer, but according to Jack Roche of the traditional music centre, that hasn't happened yet this Summer.

"We're hoping to host a session in the open air once during August but this is dependent on whether the virus is prevalent or not," he said

Jack was speaking to The Corkman on Friday after a sharp spike in the national figures had been reported the previous night.

Other venues known for top class traditional music sessions which have re-opened because they also serve food haven't restarted the music.

The Mills Inn and the Abbey Hotel in Baile Mhúirne in the Múscraí Gaeltacht have always had sessions once or twice a week. In the Mills, there used to be a session on Thursday, and Friday nights and there was always a gathering of musicians in the Abbey Hotel on a Saturday night. These have yet to tune up again.

In Macroom, the Castle Hotel had a session on a Tuesday night but though the hotel is open again, the session hasn't resumed.

Whether the pubs re-open on Monday as per the schedule or some time in September or October after schools re-open and a sense of normality reasserts itself, the question remains whether the features of a night in a pub which made it attractive to go out will make a return.

The traditional music session as we know it may be a thing of the past and we don't yet realise it.

If that proves the case, we're facing a long winter without music and the small local pub is going to find it even more difficult to survive in a time when circumstances are conspiring it to make it even more difficult to stay open and viable as the vibrant hubs of the community we have long regarded our public houses as.