A love letter to Irish trad, the music of my childhood I thought I'd always hate

In the words of a very old song: Óró, sé do bheatha ‘‘bhaile. Welcome home
October 6, 2020

I have a new thing. Whenever I come back to our London flat from a night out with my boyfriend, we crack open a beer, sit at the kitchen table, and listen to Irish traditional music—otherwise known as Irish trad—for two hours. We’ve been doing this for about a year. The sessions get longer each time, and it’s become a regular feature of spending time at our house. “I went to Gavin and Caroline’s for dinner last night” will now be followed up with “…and did they make you listen to Irish trad?” A question that has been delivered in a variety of tones and levels of sarcasm.

I’m not sure where this new habit came from. A friend of ours says it’s us preparing for the next phase of our lives by “ironically” performing it. Much like how the people who jokingly refer to their pets as their “fur babies” are mentally preparing for parenthood, my new hobby is gearing me up for my middle-aged self: a walking boots-owning trad-listener who knows all the Child Ballads and employs a harpist to play at major life events.

“Trad” is a vague term—and one many people are protective about—so let me specify. When I say Irish trad, I mean anything that reminds me of home. It’s the kind of music that I used to hear in Cork pubs in the nineties, back when children were allowed in pubs. I mean The Dubliners; The High Kings; The Corrs before they went pop. People often talk about what they would say to their younger selves. If I had to talk to my younger self—specifically the 19-year-old who worked in the “specialty’” department of HMV and sold Irish pipe music to passing tourists in the summertime—that I was willingly listening to Luke Kelly, I would be so paralysed by her disgusted face that I’m sure it would prevent me from travelling forward in time.

So why trad? And why now? On a very simple level, I just like it. My boyfriend, who is English yet prone to drunken renditions of “Come Out Ye Black and Tans,” says that it reminds him of house music. And—if you look past how insane it is—you can kind of see his point. Most house tracks are around 120 beats per minute; most trad session players play at the same tempo.

But beyond this, there’s a spiritual kinship between the two, a sense that both genres are both slowly rising, steadily collecting atmosphere and sweat, towards a similar shattering crescendo. Lyrics are repeated so often, and are so dated, that they don’t really make any sense: the trad song laments some long-dead market stall in Belfast; the house song commands you to dance at some defunct club in Chicago. And most importantly, both kinds of music were designed for house parties. Sure, one party might have been a wake in Ballybunion in 1926, and the other in a city apartment in the 1980s, but the theory still stands.

I’m in danger of sounding like an over-eager English teacher here, trying to rouse her sceptical students by asserting Shakespeare was also a rapper. But like many immigrants who have been away from their mother country, I find it difficult to feel connected to the place that raised me. All the things I grew up with are part of the global western millennial identity: Coco Pops, my beloved childhood cereal, isn’t Irish; neither was my teen television staple Sister Sister, and nor was singing “washing machines live longer with Calgon” at the top of my voice. You can support the new culture in your country—the fresh bands, books and movements—but after a few years, you develop a physical longing for something older, deeper.

But where to go? I thought about Catholicism, and decided against it. I considered being the kind of immigrant who romanticises Irish butter as a feeble way of romanticising themselves, but I found this nauseating and  decided against it. I will not be the Irish person staring forlornly at a brick of Lurpak, preparing an earnest monologue about how Kerrygold is the only “real” butter around. My only option, then, is to look back, and find something so old that I can put my own spin on it: that thing is singing “The Parting Glass” until the wee hours.

For others it’s different. I know two brothers who left England as teenagers for Spain, and instantly felt reviled by their nation. The “Brits abroad” legacy that washed up and down the Spanish coastline made them desperate for something in English culture that wasn’t utterly embarrassing. One brother became an archaeologist of Anglo-Saxon history, and the other became an expert on the oysters of the British isles. Both of them needed something to be proud of. Something so old that it is almost baked into the country’s sediment; so constant that it is almost naff, and so strangely uncontroversial that you can put your whole weight into loving it. Something so established that it is willing to make room for you and your complicated feelings about where you’re from. In the words of a very old song: Óró, sé do bheatha ‘‘bhaile. Welcome home.