Walk into Tyber Creek Irish Pub in South End on the last Sunday of any given month, and you’ll hear the instruments of a far-away land wafting down from the second floor, where Charlotte-based traditional Celtic band ClannDarragh hosts its monthly Irish music sessions, inviting any and all nearby residents to grab their flutes, fiddles and tin whistles to join.
Charlotte Irish Connection hosts the event, which allows patrons to fully immerse themselves in Irish music and cuisine for a few hours on the last Sunday of each month.
At January’s event, a group of around 20 people were still going strong three hours after the start time of 6 p.m. They played ClannDarragh songs and improvised jams before wrapping with “The Parting Glass,” a traditional Scottish song dating back to the 1600s that had everyone on the top floor of the bar singing along, no instruments needed.
After the event came to an end at 9 p.m., some players stuck around and kept jamming, with one woman leading a more contemporary set with her acoustic guitar, injecting some blues and soul into the Irish vibes as two men with a flute and a fiddle played along.
According to ClannDarragh’s Leo Fitzsimons, who emigrated from Belfast in 1977 and landed in Charlotte in ‘87, as his band has gotten smaller, there’s been all the more reason to bring on friends.
“It’s a music session, so it’s not a band per se; it’s open to musicians of any nature and any level,” he says. “There was seven of us like 10 years ago and some of the members moved away and there’s three of us left.”
Today the band, whose name derives from the Irish word for oak, is composed of original members Fitzsimons, who plays bodhrán and guitar and sings; Ken Lee on guitar, vocals, and tin whistle; and Diarmuid O’Sullivan on tin whistle and recorder. Irish dancers show up on occasion, but their appearance is usually reserved for holiday celebrations like Christmas and, of course, Saint Patrick’s Day.
“In-between we have a couple of dancers show up, but we don’t ever really know who is coming — musicians or dancers” Fitzsimons says. “Sometimes we have new people show up with the rhythm instruments, banjo or fiddle or whistle or whatever.”
Lee, who’s also an Irish native, reveals more about the lax entry requirements for the session. While the core members will often play a few set songs near the beginning of the evening — a setlist that’s been cut way down from the 30 or 40 songs the band played when it first started at Tyber Creek — it often turns into a melodic free-for-all relatively early, he says.
“A lot of the session musicians, they have tunes and know the same tunes, so if one guy starts playing a reel or a jig or whatever, you’ll have a few other musicians who know the tune and they’ll hop on as well,” Lee says. “And similarly with a song, most of the Irish songs we’ll either join in on the chorus or we’ll do harmonies or something like that. Anyone who knows how to play an Irish instrument, [or] knows how to sing an Irish song, come along and do your party piece … It’s one of these open gigs where anything goes.”
One thing that has remained the same are the pieces the band starts and ends the sessions with. “The Parting Glass” usually ends the evening. The popular song was long ago considered a go-to farewell song, at least until Robert Burns came along with “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788.
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem cut a version of “The Parting Glass” in 1959, Bob Dylan used the melody for his ‘64 song “Restless Farewell,” and most recently the Wailin’ Jennys recorded a version.
“Of all the money that e’er I had/ I spent it in good company/ And all the harm I’ve ever done/ Alas it was to none but me/ And all I’ve done for want of wit/ To mem’ry now I can’t recall/ So fill to me the parting glass/ Good night and joy be to you all.”
Another crowd-pleaser that’s always included in the set is the 1840-era Irish song “A Nation Once Again,” written to bolster the Irish independence movement.
Traditional Irish music began with three genres: jigs, reels and hornpipes, Lee explains, though polkas eventually slipped into the mix as well. “The Kerry Polka” is one of the most popular polkas in Ireland and a common beginners’ piece for tin whistle players.
The tin whistle was the first instrument Lee learned in Ireland in primary school, where learning to play traditional instruments was part of the curriculum. He still remembers taking part in a half-hour of music lessons every day in 6th grade.
“I’m 49 years old, and 37 years later I can still play the tunes I learned when I was 12,” he says.
That experience planted the seed, and Lee added the guitar to his repertoire at 15 years old, playing and singing Irish ballads in local competitions. After moving to Dublin for work, he found a lively sessions scene and played a couple of nights a week with different bands around the city.
About 20 years ago, Lee married an American woman, and they lived together in Ireland for about five years before moving to the States together in 2004, which is when Lee began connecting with members of the local Irish community and helped found ClannDarragh.
Lee says that, despite the downsizing of the band over the years, Irish music is a healthy and growing enterprise in the Charlotte area, with four or five Irish bands playing regularly and performing specifically Irish traditional and ballad singing.
Most of the players from those bands have joined in ClannDarragh sessions at one point or another.
“The ClannDarragh group was the original, [with] very little going on 15 years ago when we started in terms of Irish music in the bars.” Lee says. “Connolly’s and Tyber Creek were the two main Irish bars in town when I got here and now there’s probably 15 to 20 Irish bars across the region.”
The Carolina Irish Fest, held in September, had a good turnout this year, with eight bands playing to a crowd Lee estimates at around 5,000 attracting bands from the Northeast, with two Irish dance schools participating as well. The local Irish-American community in Charlotte are trying to build a Charlotte Irish American Center, and the annual festival raises funds toward that goal.
“The Irish community is getting bigger and bigger,” Lee says. “The Charlotte Irish Connection is all about celebrating Irish culture, of course. And the membership is open to anybody that’s got an interest in Irish culture. Whether you’re from Ireland, [or] of Irish birth. You could be from Timbuktu, If you’ve got an interest in Irish culture, [and] Irish music, we embrace everybody.”
The music session began about five years ago, as ClannDarragh invited musicians of all types to participate at Tyber Creek, which itself is part of an Irish culinary and bar empire in Charlotte. The bar, established by Tommy Timmins, Tim Krot, Kevin Devin and Maynard Goble, will celebrate its 21st anniversary in May. The owners have five other spots in Charlotte: Dandelion Market, Prohibition, Connolly’s Irish Pub, the Daily, and Workman’s Friend in Plaza Midwood.
The Irish theme runs through all of the establishments, though each location has a slightly different take on presentation. While the food is the main draw at Tyber Creek, many have come for the cuisine but stuck around for the Sunday sessions.
The vibe is similar to a bluegrass jam session, where anybody can step up and flex their musical muscle — or lack thereof — without fear of being judged.
“Tyber Creek is totally open to any musician of any ability who can come and bring their guitar or their flute or whistle or fiddle and join in and play a tune or sing,” Fitzsimons says.
The sessions have been instrumental in involving local musicians as well as lay people who just want to join in.
“It’s well-known, and many times we’ll have up to 20 people wanting to participate in the music sessions on that last Sunday. It’s grown into something that’s almost a brand,” Fitzsimons says.
The branding has been helped by the Charlotte Irish Connection (CIC), which Fitzsimons used to preside over.
“Basically what [the CIC] does, it invites anyone of Irish descent or who are connected to Ireland or want to be connected,” he says. “You don’t have to actually be Irish.
In fact, many people who show up at the Tyber Creek sessions just like Irish music. They might be of German descent or Polish or whatever. So everybody’s invited to be in the solidarity of the Charlotte Irish Connection.”
Fitzsimons points out that the CIC is no longer a dues-paying organization, so anyone can sign up to be notified about events.
Older patrons may remember ClannDarragh’s initial appearances at one of Tyber’s sister locations in Uptown: the Dandelion Market. They moved down to Tyber Creek because of better parking access.
According to Tyber Creek general manager Heather Sonnentag, that’s also brought them more musicians.
“We have people who will be stumblin’ upon us on Sunday evening and be like, ‘What’s going on upstairs?’ They’ll go check out a session, and if they have an instrument of their own or a musical background they might bring their instrument next time and try to join in. It’s cool how you have your main band members who turn up, but then there’s always somebody who’s like, ‘It’s my first session, and I wanna tag along,’ and they always have a good time and they’re bringing their family along.”
The sessions and the restaurant, after all, are for people of all ages, which allows for some added entertainment.
“There’s a few Irish dancers that will come and dance through the aisles during the session,” Sonnentag says. “It’s not something that we line up, but they just get up and do their own thing. It’s nothing that’s listed as a performance. There’s not gonna be an itinerary, it’s just people coming together to have a good time.”