Traditions in Music City
The Nashville Irish Seisiún Scene: McNamara’s Irish Pub and Restaurant
This article is part of a new series, Traditions in Music City, which will focus on the many and diverse musical traditions happening around Nashville. Instead of a critical focus, they will seek to communicate the history and sense of community in an event. Be sure to share and leave a comment at the end!
If you ask most people what they envision when you mention a traditional Irish seisiún (pronounced session), they’ll describe a scene where several grandfatherly types are playing lively tunes on fiddles, flutes, and accordions, tucked in the corner of a quaint pub- resplendent in dark wood- in the Irish countryside. The bi-weekly seisiún that happens at McNamara’s Irish Pub and Restaurant near the Nashville airport isn’t dissimilar from this description, except the location is Music City instead of County Clare, and the age of the seisiún players runs the gamut from early 20’s to the aforementioned grandfathers. Lively tunes abound, as does the dark wood and cozy atmosphere.
Sean and Paula McNamara opened McNamara’s Irish Pub and Restaurant in the Donelson area of Nashville in 2010. The pub’s success is reflected in the expertise the two bring to the table: Paula was born and raised in County Down in Northern Ireland, and is an veteran of the hospitality industry. The inviting atmosphere and cozy decor reflect her attention to detail. Sean is a second-generation Irishman, who moved to Nashville from the Northeast to pursue his love of folk music. The fact that McNamara’s boasts fantastic live traditional music in their main room Wednesday through Sunday, often featuring Sean’s Irish Band, Nosey Flynn, is a testament to Sean’s discerning ear. The main room also serves as a venue for noted Irish musical acts to perform at when passing through Nashville. But hosting stage acts, serving authentic pub fare, and featuring a wide selection of Scotch and Irish whiskeys wasn’t enough. Within a few months of opening, Sean reached out Irish fiddler Bill Verdier and Irish flutist Bill Wolfe to add the final magical touch to the pub: a seisiún.
Irish seisiúns, such as they appear in the current day, became popular with Irish immigrants on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1950’s, particularly in London and New York. Playing tunes with friends over a pint at the pub at the end of the week was both a way to relax, and a way to bond with other folks from the home country for a bit of reminiscing. First, second, and third generation Irish men and women have grown up attending and participating in seisiúns, and the infectious joy of traditional Irish music has spread to those without any Irish heritage at all. The Irish music and dance spectacle Riverdance that debuted in 1995 helped spark interest in Irish arts around the world, inspiring seisiúns in pubs from Moscow, to Tokyo, to Rio de Janeiro.
Over the years, seisiúns have developed a certain amount of etiquette required from the participants. This includes having an established leader or leaders of the seisiún who
chooses the sets of tunes to be played, and limiting the number of bodhráns (frame drums covered in goats hide played with double ended mallets, or tippers), guitars, or bouzoukis playing at any given time so that melody instruments are not overwhelmed by competing accompaniment. If the seisiún leader invites a singer to sing, the entire group of musicians (and often the whole pub) will pause their conversations to listen respectfully; once concluded, the riotous tunes and background chatter will start back up. Unlike Bluegrass music, Irish music does not rely on improvisation. Melody instruments are expected to play in unison, and players will jump in and out as they know the tunes being called.
Nashville has a long tradition of supporting folk music, but the seisiún scene didn’t coalesce until 1995, when an English pub called Sherlock Holmes opened on Elliston Place. A small group of Irish musicians, spearheaded by the aforementioned Bill Verdier and Bill Wolfe, started a weekly seisiún that grew until the pub closed its doors in 2006. At that point the seisiún changed venues to the (then) recently opened 12th South Tap Room, where it remained until finding a home at McNamara’s. It appears to be a mutually beneficial arrangement; pub regulars don’t expect a stage show, but they come to listen to players, young and old, joyfully wend their way through tunes that trace their lineage back two hundred years or more.
Over the nine years that the seisiún has resided at McNamara’s, many luminaries of the global Irish music community have stopped by to share tunes, and several have made Nashville, and this seisiún, home. Cities such as New York, Boston, or Chicago have many competing seisiúns; so much so that one could go to a different seisiún every night of the week. Nashville may not boast a large number of seisiúns (at the time of this writing there are three seisiúns in the Greater Nashville Area), but the people and the music at the McNamara’s seisiún are world class.
McNamara’s Irish Pub and Restaurant can be found online at mcnamarasirishpub.com. The seisiún occurs every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month, from 7:00 -9:30 pm. This is a closed seisiún, meaning it is suitable for advanced level players and is invitation only. Beginning level players are encouraged to check out the seisiún and instruction offerings at the Fiddle and Pick Musical Heritage Center, Fiddleandpick.com. A Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music by Professor Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin is a fascinating read for those wanting more detailed information about Irish music, musicians, and instruments.
Sarah Wilfong Joblin is a fiddle player, session string arranger, and Suzuki certified violin educator based in Nashville, TN. She is currently pursuing her Master’s of Music in Violin Performance at Middle Tennessee State University. Sarah has released two solo albums of original and traditional fiddle music, and her playing and arrangements have been featured on numerous other recordings, the most notable being a recently discovered and posthumously released track, “The Way is Love”, by Roy Orbison on the 25th anniversary re-release of his iconic album Mystery Girl. When not being involved in all things musical, Sarah spends her time chasing after her two young daughters, and watching Star Trek reruns.