The general public will get its annual dose of Irish culture this weekend, as seemingly every pub and restaurant in Columbus rolls out sights and sounds of the Emerald Isle. But when the St. Patrick’s Day fanfare dies down, a bustling culture of Irish musicians and dancers carries on year-round.
“It’s an ongoing subterranean phenomenon that sprouts shamrocks every March for all to see,” said Phil Franck, a three-decade veteran of bands including The Irish Brigade, Yankee Celtic Consort and The Drowsy Lads.
Thanks in part to family traditions, key instigators over the years and the ever-increasing prominence of the Dublin Irish Festival, Columbus boasts an Irish music community that would render most towns green with envy.
“There are not many cities our size you can find Irish music in on a regular basis,” said Pat Byrne, whose Byrne’s Pub hosts Irish music every Saturday.
It all stems back to The Irish Brigade. A group of friends led by the late Dave Murphy began spreading traditional Irish sounds throughout the Midwest in 1979. They inspired a legion of Columbus folkies and bluegrass players to try their hand at centuries-old Irish tunes, from vocal-driven folk to instrumental jigs and reels played on traditional instruments like the bodhran (a hand drum), bouzouki (a Greek lute) and button box accordion.
“It just started to blossom,” J. Thomas Davis said. “It just kind of multiplied.”
Davis, a world-renowned luthier, caught the bug in the early ’80s after working on the Brigade’s instruments. He and his bluegrass buddies soon formed The General Guinness Band.
In 1987, an Irish dance competition called the Columbus Feis (pronounced “fesh”) hired General Guinness to soundtrack its event at Coffman Park tennis court in Dublin. The event was such a success that the City of Dublin turned the feis into a full-blown festival the following year; these days, the Dublin Irish Festival attracts world-class dancers and musicians every August.
Around the time General Guinness began, Davis and his wife Judy began studying Irish step dancing with the late Ann Richens. A native of Dublin, Ireland, Richens commuted from Dayton to Columbus to offer lessons. In 1993 her star pupil John Timm won the ADCRG Senior Men’s World Championship; they went into business together, opening several Richens/Timm Academy locations across Ohio and Indiana. By the time Richens died last summer, the academy had trained 49 regional champions, 11 national champions, three All-Ireland champions and one world champion.
The rise of Richens/Timm coincided with the explosive popularity of Irish step-dancing show “Riverdance,” generally recognized as the catalyst for surging nationwide interest in Irish culture in the mid-’90s. A number of new traditional Irish bands sprung up after “Riverdance”; around Ohio, groups also began playing the hybrid genre Celtic rock.
Byrne, who owns Byrne’s Pub in Grandview with his brothers Brian and Rick, heard records by traditional Irish groups like The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers around the house growing up, but he fell hard for Celtic rock groups like New York’s Black 47.
“They were my Rolling Stones,” Byrne said.
In 1996, Byrne’s booked Black 47. The pub has hosted Irish bands on Saturdays ever since, from traditionalists The Kells to regional rockers including Homeland and 9 Castle Close.
“It wasn’t always easy,” Byrne said. “We had a lot of empty Saturday nights in here. Now we’ve got a large crowd of people who come out regardless of who the band is.”
Besides Byrne’s, Columbus fans can hear Irish bands at bars like Fado and Claddagh, as well as at fraternal clubs including The Shamrock Club of Columbus and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Dempsey’s, a new Downtown restaurant owned by former Shamrock Club president Mark Dempsey, will host bands, too. But concerts aren’t the primary way people discover Irish music.
That would be seisuns (pronounced “sessions”), informal jam sessions that typically happen in pubs. Players teach each other music and wail away over whiskey and Guinness. The best players set the pace, but anyone is welcome to take a crack.
Claddagh in the Brewery District hosts a blazing-fast Sunday night seisun; a Monday evening seisun at Delaware’s Concord Presbyterian Church is geared toward beginners. Similar events happen worldwide.
“There’s this kind of instant camaraderie around Irish music. What’s really cool is that it’s true wherever you are in the world,” Franck said. “If it was all due to YouTube, you’d be able to say, ‘Oh, that’s because of telecommunications.’ It was this way really from the folk method of bygone days.”
Many musicians discover Celtic sounds through family ties. Singer-songwriter Hilda Doyle married an Irishman; now she and her grown daughters perform in Ladies of Longford, a group specializing in traditional folk tunes with modern arrangements.
“We’re all moms, and we’re passing our love of music to our children,” said Heather Fraser, Doyle’s daughter and bandmate.
Franck is living a similar story; he plays with his son Josh in The Drowsy Lads. In Columbus, Irish music is a family tradition even for those of German descent.
“There’s just something really infectious about Irish music, and it’s true for super young kids, for teenagers, young adults, old people,” Franck said. “It’s a music that really spans generations.”