• The Traditional Irish Music Session explained. Miltown Malbay - street session

The Irish Trad Session Explained

The Irish Trad Session Explained [updated Sep ’20]

At McNeela Instruments we love a good Irish trad session. Paraic, Fiachra, Dave and John are active players on the trad scene and play at all types of sessions. The rest of us go to as many as we can, so we’ve learnt a thing or two in our time.

The first thing to know is that while there are unwritten rules when it comes to participating or watching a session, a great session will often benefit from moments of anarchy that lend the gathering that mythical element of joy!

There are, of course, ways of joining in a session that will offend the least amount of people and keep the flow going, so read on but keep an open mind.

What Exactly is a Session?

A session is a casual and sometimes impromptu gathering of musicians playing traditional Irish music and usually takes place in a pub but has also been known to take place on street corners or even someone’s kitchen, in fact anywhere Irish musicians are gathered.

If you have the luxury of time it’s always a good idea to go as often as possible to your chosen session and observe, observe, observe and listen, listen, listen. Irish flute playing legend, Matt Molloy, has often said that the key to a great session is listening.

How to Find a Trad Session

Field (Pub!) Research

In order to find the right session for you, you’ll have to do a fair bit of field research (how bad!) but online forums like TheSession.org and TradConnect.com are great points of information for what’s going on where, what tunes are popular right now and plenty of inside tips.

Many of the forum members are seasoned musicians themselves.

Online Research

TheSession.org also features plenty of downloadable music in both sheet form and ABC notation; an amazing resource for the novice ‘sessioner’. Look out for Irish trad music festivals taking place near you as there will be sessions aplenty popping up everywhere, and with naturally fewer rigid rules you might easily slot in and acquit yourself very well.

Schools of Irish Music

It’s also a good idea to ring schools of Irish music in your area and see what might be going on. Plenty of students may be partaking in their own sessions or the school may be organising them, either way, they should be an excellent source of information.

Set up your own traditional Irish Session

You can of course set up your own session which means you choose the rules, the time and the place.

traditional Irish music session - A group of musicians, playing accordion, fiddle, flute playing in a pub session in Doolin County Clare

Different Types of Irish Trad Sessions

Every session has its own personality and ‘participation ideology’.

Advanced Traditional Irish Music Sessions

Some sessions can be fairly rigid with brilliant musicians playing for each other and their peers just for the sheer joy of it and not ultimately focused on the audience.

It would take nerves of steel to try to join this type of session, especially if you are still at an early stage of learning your instrument, however don’t be discouraged if you find yourself at one as it’s the perfect opportunity to learn and see how the pros do it.

You may even get very lucky and some kindly musician will invite you to play a tune or two but don’t bet on it and certainly don’t push your way in.

Major Session Faux Pas

In fact ‘pushing in’ is definitely one of most frowned upon session faux-pas.

Another session no-no as an observer is to attempt to clap along with the music! Spare your blushes and don’t do it. Sit on your hands if you have to.

And whatever you do, for the love of God, don’t sit in another musician’s seat. Alway check before you settle in.

Beginner Traditional Irish Sessions

Other sessions may consist of younger or less experienced musicians and will provide a safe and welcoming environment for the session ‘newbie’ – the underlying theme is that everyone is still learning and accepting of mistakes; both their own and others.

The Session Grump

Someone to watch out for and who you may come across, is the session grump. The intolerant, grumpy male or female player. Usually an elder or a well seasoned sessioner and the boogeyman of Irish sessions, especially for newbies.

Their bark is usually a lot worse than their bite but they’ve been known to order musicians out of a session if they’re mucking up in any way. Yikes!

If this happens to you, all you can really do is laugh it off, go away, master the tune and come back and play them under the table.

The Street Session

Take a look at this street session that happened just outside our pop-up shop at the Willie Clancy Festival.

Casual Participants

Note the man on the whistle to the left of the screen, the other man on the harmonica to the right and the woman on the flute who comes in later, all casual partakers and playing away.

It’s worth watching it all the way as it’s a perfect example of a street session where anyone can join in.

Tune Change at an Irish Trad Session

You may notice the tune change at 02:03 but can you work out who proposes it?

The Session Lead

It could be session lead, esteemed fiddler Antóin Mac Gabhann, (middle fiddle player) or legendary Irish accordion player, James Keane, seated facing the five fiddle players, see the subtle eyebrow raise just before the change. Answers on the comment section below!

McNeela Pop Up Shop Session

And this shop session that took place at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Drogheda. Yes, sessions really can pop up anywhere.

Don’t forget that most sessions will have their own repertoire and the best way to learn is to ask which tune is playing, find the music for it and get practising!

Listen and Learn

As the aim of a session is to play together and explore a common repertoire it’s important to choose a session that isn’t too far above your abilities so if you attend a session where all the players are consistently top-notch and you’re not yet fully confident in your mastery of your instrument it might be best to enjoy these sessions as an observer rather than a participator.

Irish Trad Session Repertoire

Note the Irish session tunes you like and record one or two to be learnt by yourself later on – always check with the musicians before doing this, just in case.

By the way, never refer to a tune as a song – that will mark you out as a newbie straight away!

Joining an advanced Session

Trying to actually join a session like this may be fraught and could kill your confidence completely so to reiterate, you’ll be better off in a ‘safer’ musical environment where mistakes are accepted and newbies are encouraged.

Then again, like we’ve said, a good session benefits from moments of anarchy so if you’re feeling it and know a couple of great session tunes, ask to join in, what’s the worst that can happen?

Ómós or Respect at an Irish Trad Session

There’s nearly always an unspoken hierarchy at play at sessions which generally takes the form of beginner or inexperienced musicians giving way to the more seasoned session players or musicians.

The Irish sense of ómós (oh-mohs, like the mos sound in most) or respect is a very strong element of trad sessions and is the underlying theme of nearly every session worth being at.

You’ll see it very markedly if an older more venerable musician happens to be about. All other players defer to him or her regardless of their expertise and they will try to ensure that their playing be a sort of tribute to that musician.

You will of course pick this all up by attending sessions regularly and observing closely how things are handled, better still if you know the esteemed musician’s music and playing style so start brushing up on your Irish folk and trad music knowledge.

A groupf children playing traditional Irish musical instruments at a street session outside McNeela Instruments Pop-Up shop in Miltown Malbay

Joining a Traditional Irish session

Jumping In

If you’ve found the session of your dreams, have hung around a few times with your instrument under your oxter (elbow), and are on nodding and smiling terms with the musicians, it’s time to take the next step and actually play. A polite request to join in on a tune or two is a good start, just make sure you know it!

Playing under the music

Most musicians will have mastered the art of playing ‘under’ the music ensuring any mistakes are neither audible nor intrusive so for your first few sessions let the others propose the set and play along without putting anyone off – it’s a good way of building up confidence and showing respect for the other musicians.

Find the Flow

Many musicians have often likened the traditional Irish session to a good conversation, with flow being one of the main desirable attributes. So in order to facilitate flow there’s give and take, no one should hog the limelight and shyer players should be encouraged.

Sensitivity and awareness

It takes a certain sensitivity to partake in a session and luckily most musicians are naturally blessed with it, the ones who aren’t will stick out like a sore thumb.

Conversely, don’t be overly shy either about sharing your music. If you’re confident in your ability, have a fair few tunes under your belt and play music similar to your session of choice then get into it! Hup!

Bodhrán Players at Sessions

The same etiquette rules apply to bodhrán players but there is an added edge.

There are some musicians who will groan inwardly when they see a bodhrán player approach a session, even before the bodhrán player has a chance to show their skills, as there exists within some circles a snobbery towards bodhrán players (often borne of bitter experience, they will argue).

Even if you feel that this is unfair, a bodhrán player needs to display an extra special sensitivity to their fellow musicians. If you feel you’re out of your depth play quietly along with the music and resist all temptation to thump the bodhrán before you know the lay of the land.

This sensitivity will be much appreciated by the other musicians and when you do let loose you will find you have a more receptive audience.

If there happens to be another bodhrán player with you and they display better skills than you, pull back a little, listen and learn.

The Irish phrase, “Ar scáth a chéile a mhairimid” is particularly relevant here.

It literally means, ‘we live in each others shadow or shelter’ an inevitability of both mutual influence and interaction which implies reciprocal hospitality and generosity among people thrown together* including and particularly applying to musicians at a session.

In other words, we need each other, so be nice!

One last thing, what does ‘Hup!’ mean?

You may hear this a lot or not at all and it might be used for different scenarios at different sessions.

Firstly the session ‘lead’ may say it to indicate that an upswing in pace is imminent, or to indicate a change of tune or even a key change.

You may also hear it said by a member of the audience to show pleasure at the music, as encouragement to the musicians or just general delight.

Only use it sparingly and when the mood strikes and if in any doubt use ‘g’wan ya good thing!’ or WHOOP! instead – always appropriate!

If you want to read more about ‘Hup!’ head over to The Session for a comprehensive and very funny discussion of this elusive interjection.

The above is by no means an exhaustive guide to the traditional Irish session, in fact there are myriad nuances and insights still to explore, so what are you waiting for?

Get out there!

And as always, McNeela Music is here to help and advise. Get in touch with us if you’ve any questions about Irish musical instruments, sessions, teachers etc.

Browse our full selection of traditional Irish music instruments


*Thanks to Uachtarán na hEireann, Micheal D. Higgins for this great definition.

Posted by McNeela


  • Steve

    It’s good to know and learn session etiquette. It’s too easy to muck things up. I’m often asked to play the bodhran louder than I’d like but if I’m not familiar or confident with a tune, I prefer to listen and play softly until I feel that my contribution is a positive one.

  • Rob G

    I’m in Thailand for 6 months and reading your emails are a very welcome contact with home


    Rob G

  • Sandi

    I am waiting excitedly for the arrival of a bodhran from Paraic and was glad to read all about the etiquette involved in playing in a group. Thanks, Paraic!

  • Benjamin

    Hi, I play the low whistle in sessions in Spain. Why isn´t this instrument current in sessions?

    • Paraic McNeela

      Hi Benjamin, you won’t find a low whistle too frequently at a session. The reasons are twofold – they are harder to master than the flute or tin whistle and also, whilst they produce a beautiful tone, it is usually too low to be heard over the general volume of a session.

  • Timothy Bend

    There is sadly a lack of sessions around here to attend. There is also a lack of actual pubs, only a few pub themed bars and clubs. Saves this poor bodhran thumper some embarrassment I’m sure, but also makes it hard to learn from my betters.

  • Mr Timmy

    Session holders in Sydney (Australia) should take close note of the above.

    Some of the rudest and most aggressive people I’ve ever encountered I have met during sessions in Sydney bars. Just shocking behaviour now.

    Certain elements of the Irish community (of which I am a member) feel that their shite is gold and act accordingly. Sadly, this is why there are far fewer sessions now than there ever were as publicans got tired of customers being scared away by their “exclusivity” vibe. And I don’t blame them. Their caper was embarrassing.

    So we hold ours at each other’s homes now. The best ones! A group of us got tired of the elitist rubbish and started having them every alternate fortnight at our houses. Going on 11 years now and the tradition is very strong and very happy to say we recommend them to McNeela’s if they need a decent instrument. Our regular numbers are capped at 110 because any larger the Council gets annoyed and Police like to get involved. We can only fit so many in the backyard.

    There’s no hierarchy here, though. We encourage everybody whatever their skill level and the only thing we won’t tolerate is disrespect. Other than that, just play and see where it leads. We’ve had great results from just that simple philosophy.

  • Michael Ballard

    Thanks for the great intro to session playing. I sometimes tell people that I play 2 of the most hated instruments in traditional music: bodhrán and bones. A particular session I used to attend actually had written rules of the session (2 pages long!). The shortest of those rules was simply “No bones”. I was granted a special exemption from that rule because I demonstrated a level of skill the other musicians had not seen. On the other hand, there was a certain pub I visited exactly once. I didn’t got more than about 3 meters from the doorway. My bodhrán never even got a chance to come out of its bag. A very large man got right up in my face and made it abundantly clear that “my kind” were not welcome there. I didn’t say a single word. I walked out and found somewhere else to play.

  • A tune player

    Thank you for an excellent article on sessions – I think in the last 25 years or so I have experienced most of the things you comment on and almost certainly I made most of the mistakes as well! I have never seen 2 pages of rules though…
    I did want to ask, if you have any comment on the inclusion of songs in traditional tune sessions? Most of the sessions I have been in over the years don’t include songs (though I have only once or twice seen singers actually discouraged), but one I currently play in has a few regular singers who sing traditional Irish songs and are respectfully welcomed. In this case the session is very inclusive, and I am interested to know if it is common in Ireland to find singers in a usual pub session.

    • Paraic McNeela

      Thank you for your kind comment, Tim! Yes, whilst it is not necessarily very common, you will find singers at sessions, usually of the sean nós tradition. There is a great respect for those singers and you’ll often be told to ‘shush’ if you try to continue a conversation over their performance!

  • Tobu

    Since you mention the “hup!”, and whooping as an alternative, I was wondering…is there a word for that high whoop of enthusiasm that you sometimes hear people (performers and/or audience) letting out during performances? It reminds me a bit of the Polynesian “cheehoo” or the Mexican “grito” – you can hear it at about the 7:12 mark in this track: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNsoErj_XK8 I’ve heard people doing it since I was a little girl listening to my parents’ friends play, but I have no idea what to call it…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *