Westport at night.
Music Notes / By Colleen Taylor
People go to the west coast of Mayo for the views—Achill, Clare Island, the Great Western Greenway, Croagh Patrick, the stunning Clew Bay—but they should stick around for the tunes. Westport, Co. Mayo, is not just a launching pad to the Irish sublime, it’s also a secret haven for music lovers, with tunes to be heard and craic to be had in every pub on the main street. In just three short days, I caught up with singer Seán Keane, saw Matt Molloy play a session in his pub, and became a quick fan of Paris-based Irish rock band the Deans—and this was just an average week in Westport. We assume Dublin is the heartbeat of Irish music, but journey three hours west and the pulse is just as lively—and arguably more colorful. Westport is a hub where Irish music thrives, where you can pop from pub to pub and find music for people young and old, for tourists and locals, trad enthusiasts or those simply looking to rock out.
This summer, many Mayo/Galway locals are stopping into the Westport Theatre to see Galway native Seán Keane in concert for the second year in a row. After a 25- year solo career, Keane remains one of the most distinctive voices in traditional Irish music. His deep singing voice is inflected with the sean-nós style he learned from his mother and aunts, also evoking the atmosphere of Irish show band music from the mid-20th century. Keane is a lively, youthful person, but his music preserves a historical sound. A nearly sold-out auditorium was nostalgically singing along with his songs, but I was just as impressed with his instrumentation. Keane is a supreme traditional flute and whistle player, and he was backed by a band of equally talented multi-instrumentalists, who combined to produce some truly superb sets, particularly the “Mountains of Pomeroy,” a Tyrone air that moved into a lively set. But the true show stopper was his well-known song, “Shenandoah,” which Keane dedicated to the first settlers to America, those men who traveled alone by canoe on the Virginian rivers. The lyrics transported the audience members across the ocean and into history, and there was a hush as Keane traversed the romantic melody.
Keane is in Westport celebrating the release of his 11th studio album, “Gratitude,” recorded with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, which he debuted less than a month ago. Before the concert, Keane told me about the great thrill he experienced playing with the Orchestra—the live recording, the new arrangements of his songs, many of which he had not recorded before. He talked about the benefits of playing in Westport as well, what the called a “booming” town, and where he was excited to sell out seats most nights. But Keane has big performance plans ahead too: a 2019 tour in the States, and before that, he will be playing for Pope Francis’s visit to Ireland in the beginning of October.
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Westport is most famous, however, for another venue just down the road: Matt Molloy’s pub. No trip to Mayo—no trip to the west coast of Ireland, for that matter—can be considered complete without catching a session in Matt Molloy’s. The former Chieftain opened the pub as a musical destination, but the building’s history is far older than that, dating back to the 19th century. Stop in before the daily trad session begins around 9 or 10, and you’ll not only get one of the best pints of Guinness outside Dublin, you’ll also experience a museum-like tour. The pub itself is a living history, with two grammies casually resting behind the till and every wall covered in photos of celebrities who have visited Matt Molloy’s, from Bono and Michael Douglas, to Michael Flatley and even Joe Biden. The pub evinces and fosters an Irish-American cultural bond, visible in the pictures on the walls and in the daily conversation shared between Westport locals and American visitors there to catch a session.
A Chieftain’s famous bar.
Most of all, Matt Molloy’s is the place to be for fans of traditional Irish music: the owner is a patron of up and coming musicians, and regularly hosts album launches in the pub’s back room, the “Yard Bar.” I caught a session with the young and rising Sligo fiddler James Carty, whose detailed, technical skill was truly impressive. Toward the end of the set, Matt Molloy grabbed his flute and joined James and his father (both fiddlers) for some Sligo reels, making the session complete. As any Chieftains fan will know, hearing Molloy play is a rare treat, but it’s not that rare in Westport—Molloy often joins in on the sets, particularly those special shows in the Yard Bar.
The character, history, and lively atmosphere of Molloy’s make it one of my favorites in all of Ireland, and the cramped crowds circling the session in the back room (the house’s former kitchen) harken back to an earlier Irish music era. Matt Molloy’s, however, gets packed quickly, even on a weekday night, so if you don’t feel like beating the crowds, you can easily pop across the street to Cosey Joe’s to see some sean-nós dancing, or next door to the Porter House to sing a round of “The Fields of Athenry.” Music lovers will find an ideal home base in the beautiful Castle Court hotel in the center of town, just a few steps’ walk away from Molloy’s, Cosy Joe’s, and all the other music pubs in Westport. Or you can simply pop down to the Castle Court’s own elegant bar, Petie Joe’s, which hosts its own live music performance every day.
Those looking for some music off the tourist’s well-worn path should make their way to McGing’s. This is where Westport locals spend their weekend nights, and where you’ll find other kinds of music besides the traditional. McGing’s is the kind of place where everyone knows the bartender by name and where you can catch some of the best musicians in the country, live, for free, just a few steps away from your bar stool. I caught a gig by the Deans, a three-person Irish rockband based in France, who were making their way across the country for their hometurf tour. It was surprising to hear a band of that caliber and projection in such a small pub setting, but it worked perfectly: the three young rockers had a diverse array of ages jamming to their powerful, but not overbearing tunes. The singer, in particular, was all charisma, especially up close—what you’d expect from a solid rock band. But what I liked best about the Deans was the way they meshed with the Westport scene while also bringing a youthful, modern perspective. They rock out with a folk inflection, combining the rootsy sounds of the likes of Dylan and Tom Waits with the strong rocker style of the influences of Nirvana or the Clash. They honor a long twentieth-century rock tradition while also sounding entirely hip and current. McGings is a great supporter of Irish bands, and a perfect place to hear stars on the rise, like the Deans who, with a forthcoming EP, are bound to make another appearance in this column.
Sunset, Westport Quay.
Westport is an Irish version of what I imagine Greenwich Village was like in the 60s: if you ask around, you can catch the nation’s most talented musicians in an intimate setting—for free. That’s something you can’t find in any city or any modern music venue. The culture of the Westport naturally bridges the gap between performer and audience. Part of this is an architectural effect: the small, old-fashioned pubs put everyone in close proximity. But at the same time, there is just something in the air out there. With such a close look at the musicians’ technical skill and their emotive connection to the tunes, you feel the music more acutely, take more active part in the rhythms and melodies. Spectatorship becomes a participatory effort—ignites your feet, spurs you into conversation with other listeners, and the result is a welcoming community of disparate figures, joined together to enjoy the moment of the music. In our modern world of syndicated sounds in the recording studio, of massive concert venues and superstars on tour, this kind of musical experience is rare, but in Westport, it’s just an average night. I may be leaking one of Ireland’s better-kept secrets, but next time you’re in Ireland (or, if you feel like spontaneously booking an inexpensive flight to Shannon with Norwegian Air), don’t skip Westport. Just like the local scenery, the music will take your breath away.
Visit www.destinationwestport.com for more information.