Even once the last bit of corned beef has been eaten and the last pint of Guinness has been drained late on St. Patrick’s Day night, the music of Ireland plays on in Portland.
Here, some three dozen musicians comprise a lively, year-round Irish music scene. At least five places around Portland feature weekly Irish music “sessions,” where musicians sit in and jam with one another. In Portland, you can catch weekly Irish music on Sundays at three restaurant\pubs, Brian Boru, Bull Feeney’s and RiRa. There’s Irish music every Wednesday night at Blue, an eclectic music venue on Congress Street, and there’s an Irish session every Monday at dinner time at O’Reilly’s Cure, a new restaurant on Route 1 in Scarborough.
Many of those same musicians will be playing Friday, St. Patrick’s Day, arguably the biggest day of the year for Irish music. It’s the one day, for most people, where all things Irish become more interesting, including the folk tunes, jigs and reels. It’s lively music played on traditional instruments, like uilleann pipes, fiddles and whistles. But St. Patrick’s Day is also a day where people are drinking a lot and being loud, so not necessarily the best conditions for really, truly listening and appreciating the skill of the musicians playing.
That’s why those performing in bars and pubs on Friday hope you’ll come out and hear them again soon, in places where the music can be more of the focus.
“It’s a great holiday, great for us to get out there and get paid for some gigs, and maybe get some (more) gigs out of it,” said Tom Rota of South Portland, 48, who’ll be playing the uilleann pipes with the band Boghat on Friday at 33 Elmwood in Westbrook. “But, at the sessions, you probably have more people there just for the music.”
Of course, St. Patrick’s Day does feature some Irish music concerts, where the musicians aren’t drowned out by the carousing, Nicole Rabata, a flute player from Portland, will be performing in a St. Patrick’s Day concert Friday at One Longfellow Square in Portland with the trio Fodhla. But she also performs in local Irish music sessions all year long and helps host one on Sundays at Bull Feeney’s.
“Playing on St. Patrick’s Day you reach a wider audience, people who might not check out traditional Irish music otherwise,” said Rabata, 38, who plays classical music as well and also teaches flute. “But the sessions are really fun, musicians just jamming with each other, playing all these tunes that are passed down by ear.”
Besides places with regular Irish music sessions, a good place to look for information on Irish music shows is the website of the Maine Irish Heritage Center on Gray Street in Portland. The center, in a converted church, often hosts Irish music performers from all over. On March 24, the center will host a concert by The Irish Descendants, a group from Newfoundland, Canada that performs and records a range of Irish music, from reels to ballads. Tickets to that show are $20.
The Sunday sessions in Portland are spread out all day long, beginning at around 10:30 a.m. during brunch at Brian Boru, followed by a session starting at noon at Bull Feeney’s and a later afternoon session at RiRa. None have a cover charge. The Wednesday Irish music night at Blue features a concert at 7:30 p.m., with scheduled performers and sometimes an admission charge, but it’s always followed by a free session of local musicians at 9 p.m. The dinner-time session of Irish music at O’Reilly’s Cure in Scarborough just began this year, and there’s no cover.
Rota and Rabata, like most of the players in Maine’s scene, are serious students of Irish music. Both have lived and studied in Ireland and have played in the traditional music sessions in pubs there.
The sessions around Portland are usually informal, said Rota, who helps run several of them. There might be a core cast of musicians who come every week, but others come and sit in. There’s no sheet music and often the musicians don’t even know the names of the tunes, since they likely learned them just from playing with someone else.
But many do have names, great evocative names like “Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself” or “Pull the Knife and Stick it Again,” said Rota. He estimates that there are some 400 to 500 Irish folk tunes that serious musicians know, or at least have heard.
So, at a weekly session, the musicians take turns selecting a tune. They’ll start up, and the players who know it will play along. The others might sit out until the next tune, Rota said.
Rota grew up in New Jersey and didn’t get interested in Irish music until he began working in distribution for an Irish music record label, Green Linnet, in the mid-1990s. He took up the uilleann pipes, basically the Irish version of Scottish bag pipes. He eventually moved to Limerick, Ireland, to study music at a university there.
“I think the appeal of Irish music is that, on the one hand, it’s fairly simple; it’s a folk music, a lot of it written to dance to,” said Rota. “But if you really play it correctly, it’s complex.”
Rabata, from Cape Elizabeth, got into Irish music while studying music at the University of Southern Maine and, after college, spent four years in western Ireland. She said that, in recent years, digital music and the internet have helped Irish musicians. Since a lot of these tunes have no sheet music, players go online and listen to tunes and learn them. Then, when they go to a session, they can join in.
“I got interested (in Irish music) because it’s informal, played by ear, and just a lot of fun,” said Rabata. “It’s uplifting and infectious music that I think really strikes a chord with people. ”
THE MUSIC PLAYS ON
Here are some local places with weekly Irish music sessions all year long.
Brian Boru, 57 Center St., Portland, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays.
This “public house” in the bright red building opened in 1993 and has been serving up Irish beer, food and music for years. The Irish music usually features a duo or small group playing during Sunday brunch and into the early afternoon. No cover.
Bull Feeney’s, 375 Fore St., Portland, noon to 3 p.m. Sundays.
This session takes place at Bull Feeney’s restaurant and pub during Sunday brunch, where an Ulster Fry breakfast is served. Irish bacon and Irish soda bread are on the menu. There’s no cover charge. The session, featuring a group called The Milliners includes flute player Nicole Rabata and accordion player Chris “Junior” Stevens. Other musicians are encouraged to drop in.
Ri Ra, 72 Commercial St., Portland, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. rira.com/portland
Ri Ra, an Irish pub and restaurant on the water, has a weekly session led by uilleann pipes player Tom Rota and includes a regular cast of fiddlers, whistlers and pipers. It’s informal. There’s no sheet music, no rehearsals, the kind of jam session you might see at a pub in Ireland. There’s also no cover.
O’Reilly’s Cure, 264 Route 1, Scarborough, 6 to 8 p.m. Mondays.
This restaurant on Route 1 in Scarborough just started a Monday night Irish session, with musicians sitting at a table together while others eat and drink around them. The open-concept space allows you to hear and see the musicians wherever you are. No cover.
Blue, 650 Congress St., Portland, 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Wednesdays.
Blue is an eclectic music venue that happens to have a weekly Irish music night. At 7:30 p.m., there’s a feature act or two performing a concert of Irish music, and sometimes there’s a ticket charge. Then at 9 p.m., there’s a free Irish music session hosted by Rota and featuring a cast of regular drop-ins from the local Irish music scene.