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The Etiquette At Singing Sessions Of
Traditional Irish Songs

An Interview With Brian O'Rourke, Traditonal Singer And Songwriter

Before starting into the interview, let's watch two traditional Irish songs live.

Watch Noirin Lynch perform 'Hedger and Ditcher' here at a singing session of and get a feel for how a singing session works!

Hedger and Ditcher is not a traditional Irish song per se but rather a folk song popular both in  England and Ireland. Because of emigration and a shared history folk songs travelled back and over. The song is the story of a poor young woman singing about her fears that no one is going to marry her.

An Irish singer in full flight- Brien O'Rourke performing a a singing session in Ennis, County Clare in 2013.

An Irish singer in full flight- Brien O'Rourke performing a a singing session in Ennis, County Clare in 2013.

Here is a modern song written in a traditional style, performed by the song writer himself, Patsy Carucan. The song praises the natural beauty of County Clare.

The Etiquette At Irish Singing Sessions Of Traditional Irish Songs

Brian, could you tell us about the etiquette at singing sessions. What should people expect if they go along?

Generally speaking, singing sessions and singers' circles are specifically meant for those singers who sing only unaccompanied traditional Irish songs. Bringing a guitar along would be frowned upon. There are many venues to sing songs accompanied by guitar; this is not one of them. Unaccompanied singing is the most traditional way to sing Irish songs, and these sessions were created to bring this tradition back to life.
It is perfectly okay however, if two or three people sing a song together using different harmonies.

In fact, Brian, songs performed with different harmonies are some of my favourite performances as they really make the songs come to life for me. But how about the order of things on the night of a singing session. Can anyone sing whenever they feel moved to sing?

Generally, there will be an organiser of the evening, a person in charge who is taking on the role of M.C. for the event. The M.C. will call the order of who is to sing. In many places, there is a tradition that the oldest person present will start off the night with a song. This is a gesture of respect in the spirit of keeping traditions alive.
Very often singing sessions will have a guest singer, someone who is specifically invited to the event and might not be a member of this particular singing circle. But they will be someone who is well-known and respected on the singing scene. The guest singer is typically asked to sing the second and third song.
After that, the session will be opened up to some of the local singers who will contribute the next four or five songs, then it is back to the guest singer for one, then back to the locals and so on. The guest singer will sing somewhere in the region of six to ten songs on the night.
The spirit of the event is about encouraging people to sing traditional songs. If you come along to a singing session you will likely be asked if you have a song. There is no pressure on singers to perform to any particular standard. This is not a stage performance. The spirit of singing sessions is about tradition.

Brien, do singing nights have a theme as in inviting a particular type of song?

Only sometimes these singing events have a theme. Some festivals might focus on a special type of song, such as ‘comedy song’ or on songs dealing with a particular topic. If that is not the case, singers can sing whatever they feel drawn to themselves. Some popular types of traditional Irish songs are emigration songs, songs about the natural beauty of the country, drinking songs, rebel songs, and of course several different kinds of songs occur also in the Irish language.

Hi there, nice to meet you! Really glad you took the time to read our article on the etiquette at Irish singing sessions, and we hope you enjoyed it. You might find a session and join in sometime soon?

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Warmest regards from Susanna and Colm.

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