An Irish Music Magazine article by Sean Laffey
This must be the strangest venue in Ireland, what I am about to describe may appear to be nothing more than a fanciful tale, can such a place exist in the land of the Celtic Tiger?
Looking for a session in Ireland is as much an art form as playing the music. I know of perhaps three hundred session pubs, enough to keep me away from the bosom of my family for a whole year, but finding a good session, indeed any session on the night you roil into town demands luck and perseverance. Here's a tip for all you back packers who intend visiting Ireland within the next year or two, learn how to ask questions and buy drink. Both are pretty safe ways of finding out about hidden sessions and other gatherings where the real music still happens. Combine a question with a few points and your own native guide may take you to the "best sesh around these parts".
Here's my story of a visit to Jim O'The Mills. It is officially in a place called Upperchurch in Co Tipperary. The leafy lonely north riding, lots of wooded valleys, steep little hills and very few houses or pubs. Jim O' the Mills is somewhere on the road from Dundrum to Rearcross. Dundrum hasn't featured much in song, it was a Protestant town,(and those God fearing folks didn't tend to write folk songs). Indeed you still have top go to another Parish for Mass on a Sunday. Nearby Bansha got a mention in the song, the Peeler and the Goat and was put on the map by Christy Moore on the Planxty Black album. Rearcross might have a song celebrating its wonderful environs. Its main claim to fame is that the centre boasts a galvanised Church. Regular visitors to Ireland will recognise the term "galvanised", its corrugated metal and in Tipperary it is usually red and adorns hundreds of barns and farm buildings (they tend to paint it green in Cork), in Rearcross they have built the Parish church from it.
A corrugated Church kind of sets the tone for Jim O' The Mills. Home made, improvised, agrarian, pragmatic. Finding the pub is easy if you know where it is. If you are new to the County you will need a local guide, Jim O'The Mills sits anonymously in plain clothes, dressed as a small farmhouse, nestled in a dip in the road. Just ask for the metal bridge and you'll be in the right vacinity. There are no Guinness or Harp signs, no fancy sun umbrellas, no cheerful display boards proclaiming Ceol agus Craic. You wouldn't suspect it of being a drinking house so well is it blended into the rural community.
My driver for the night was a local man by the name of Ryan (every second person in Tipp is a Ryan - I think he is still anonymous). My Mr Ryan is a regular of the pub, he knows the musicians and the best places to sit and the best time to arrive. He offered to collect me at 10; 30 PM, fair enough I thought, he is a farmer, he must have a fine herd of cows to milk before we head off in search of the diddly dee. On the dot of the allotted time, Mr. Ryan picked me up and off we went to North Tipp (I live in South Tipp - near the border). The actual distance was probably only 15 good Irish miles, but the terrain and the slow winding roads give an impression of greater distance.
We arrived at the pub around 11; 15, and it being mid summer we still had about half an hour of twilight to gather our bearings. We were early, a small gathering of around half a dozen locals were confident the musicians would be "on soon". We decided to have a drop of porter. Jim Ryan (Jim O The mills) mien host for the evening gladly poured us a few pints of the black stuff, lager drinkers have to buy it by the bottle - he only has one beer pump and that in itself is a bit on an innovation. The pub could be called "old fashioned" bottle beer and personal service, but his prices were on a par with anything I've bought in a Dublin pub. Still the place oozes atmosphere.
There are three rooms and a Jacques (I fact two Jacques, one for ladies - with a light and one for the boys- without a light). Beer is sold in the smallest of the three-ajoining rooms; the middle room acts as an atrium where you can go through timewarp decompression before entering the session room. The session space is stone floored, low ceiling and if it wasn't for the abundant electric light it has kept the ambience from the turn of the century. Around the perimeter of the room are a number of red benches and sugan chairs (most of which wobble on the Liscannor flagged floor) and totally taking over one wall is a large fire space. It would be pretentious to cal this a fire place, there is no grate or hearth, just a few stone slabs and a large chimney nook running the whole width of the room. Logs and turf are thrown onto the smouldering pile, and the fire gradually creeps left and right as the session progresses.
So what of the session? Most nights you will be treated to a grand feed of unusual songs and long ballads, with short interludes of traditional music thrown in to break up the flow and give you enough time for a refill at the bar. On the night in question, there were more musicians than normal, many of whom were very young, school was out for the summer and the kids were out playing. The repertoire consisted of a great deal of Kerry influenced sets and polkas, with a local accent. This may be a reflection on the age of the players or perhaps it goes back to a time when this part of the county supplied itinerant spailpin labourers to the rich farmer of Kerry and Limerick.
Songs were very local, many in Irish, with Stephen Fosters Hard Times being the best known of the more commercial ones that were sung on the night. Around half past midnight a large family rolled in from Tyrone. This brought out a series of rebel nationalistic songs from the locals, many of whom had Tyrconnel versions to entertain the visitors with.
The musical highlight of my evening was when the eponymous Jim O the Mills took out his fiddle and sang a wonderful swinging version of the Percy French song "The Darling Girl from Clare". Then it was ham sandwiches all round, more pints and a few songs. We left early, my Mr Ryan had a barn of cows to milk, and as we pulled away for the direction of Dundrum the sun was just beginning to rise.
Jim O' The Mills will take some finding and you'll need a herd of excuses to get out of the place before dawn.
Photo Credit: Session somewhere in Ireland by Sean Laffey
Sean Laffey, author of this article, is the editor of the excellent monthly Irish Music Magazine, one of the best and most professional folk magazines around.
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