The Best Irish Trad Session You’ve Never Heard of

by Mike Dunphy

It’s almost infuriating to watch people pass by the windows of Bagitos in downtown Montpelier on Saturday afternoons, as one of the state’s, if not country’s, if not world’s, best sessions of Irish traditional music fills the room and bleeds through the panes. It’s not that the gawking faces distract from the elegant glide of the fiddle bow, the breathy squeeze of the accordion, or the drone of the pipes—but because so many move on.

There is only one right reaction to music of this caliber—arrest your stride, turn your feet 90 degrees, and step inside. 

Benedict Koehler, Hilari Farrington, Sarah Blair, Rob Ryan.

Led by husband and wife Hilari Farrington and Benedict Koehler, who also run the Vermont School of Irish Traditional Music, the group regularly features the talents of fiddler extraordinaires Sarah Blair and Robert Ryan alongside a revolving cast of players, from beginning students to professional players such as Michael Tubridy of The Chieftains, the Rowsome family of Dublin, fiddler Liz Carroll, the band FullSet, and Irish concertina player, Gearóid O’hAllmhuráin. Nor is it uncommon for dancers and singers to step out of the audience and get jiggy with it (pun intended).

Although open to all serious devotees of Irish trad, regardless of ability, the session generally only allows melody instruments. That means fiddles, pipes, accordions, concertinas, harps, banjos, tin whistles, and mandolins, but not guitars, drums, or piano. Of particular note are the Uilleann pipes played by Koehler. His global renown as a player is only overshadowed by his status as a maker, with a 10-year waiting list for his instruments that is now closed.

“Traditional Irish music is melody music,” explains Farrington, “But the reason [for the rule] is that we have a lack of space, and if you have someone playing accompaniment, people will listen to the accompaniment instead of to each other. People have felt we were being snobbish about it, but actually it’s just that this is a session that we all started, and we all agreed the way we wanted to do it. I’m not saying it’s a better way, but it works well for us.”

As for the music itself, the three-hour session, from 2 to 5 pm, covers a variety of traditional forms, from jigs, reels, and hornpipes to Irish polkas, slides, and the occasional waltz or solo performance. Who plays what and when depends to a large degree on the session leader. “It’s your job to get things off to a very good start,” Farrington says, “It’s not a total democracy, and there’s usually someone who might set the pace and make sure the players aren’t getting away from themselves.” But that rarely seems to be an issue in the Bagitos session. “In our session it’s a wonderful blend of people. I don’t feel like there’s any showing off. Everyone’s really supportive of each other, and we don’t want competitions or any of that.”

That’s one reason why the sessions don’t welcome jamming in the jazz, blues, bluegrass, or rock sense, but it has more to do with the structure of traditional Irish music. “Occasionally people will come into a session and think they can just jam along,” Farrington explains, “but Irish music isn’t done that way. You either know the song or you don’t.” That’s not to say there’s no room for variation in Irish music, but it tends to manifest in ornamentation, like a well-placed triplet of notes. “Without those variations Irish music would be very boring,” Farrington admits.

That doesn’t mean a player needs to be a master to join the session, she stresses, and beginners are always welcome. “I think people confuse being able to play fast and having a lot of tunes with being welcome in the session. If you are serious about learning music and just want to start a tune you’ve been working on at a very slow speed, everyone will happily play with you at the speed you want.”

The crowd that shows up each Saturday to watch also becomes part of the fabric of the sessions, and it’s no surprise to see a dancer or singer step forward to join. Others are content to watch, thump their feet, and even record, which Farrington encourages “There’s some people who come out and won’t play a note, they’ll just record, practice at home, and eventually work up the courage to come into the session and play some tunes.”

What draws people to Irish trad remains a bit of a mystery to Farrington, who began playing it while living in Quebec, and doesn’t always depend on having an Irish surname or genetic code. “Some people just have a passion for it no matter what their background is; it just speaks to them. On another level, it’s a real, social community. It makes the world a lot smaller.”

Unlike some “pure drop” traditional Irish musicians, Farrington is less concerned about the road than the destination, particularly in relation to slicked up versions of Irish trad like Riverdance or Ed Sheeran’s 2017 number one hit song, “Galway Girl.” “My husband would gag,” Farrington chuckles, “but I see it more as a gateway drug. Some of those more modern takes on Irish traditional music are what gets people hooked,” noting her own road led through the soundtrack of the Stanley Kubrick film, Barry Lyndon, which featured The Chieftains. “That got people all of the sudden interested in The Chieftains music, which is not 100 percent traditional, but it led a lot of people like me onto a road that brought us to the real thing.”

Although the Irish music community in Vermont is small compared to places like Boston, the Green Mountains do offer some crossovers to the green fields of Ireland. “Vermont is a place that respects tradition,” Farrington believes, “and is a fertile ground for quite a number of traditional arts and crafts.”

Certainly the group has the support of Bagitos’s owner Soren Pfeffer. “When Hilari and Benedict asked me about hosting the Irish session I was very enthusiastic,” he remembers, partially because it filled in a time that tended to be somewhat slow and also when no other musicians were ordinarily scheduled. “I had no idea at that time of the quality of the session or that world-renown musicians from all over the world would come to Bagitos to join the session regularly.”

With Saint Patrick’s Day falling on Saturday this year, the March 17 session will take on an even more festive flair and go longer than usual, with more guest singers and dancers expected. Farrington also plans to bring her harp, which usually stays at home. “There are other sessions in the state for sure, and there are some good ones, but I think that this one is special.” 

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