By Liz Carroll
Last count, Chicago has a population of 2.7 million, and the greater Chicago area has a population of nearly 10 million people. Statistics from the Chicago Tribune estimate that the Irish (from Ireland and descended from) are the largest European heritage group in Chicago.
I’m one of them. And I play Irish music.
My parents were from Ireland, and met in Chicago at a dance on the South Side, as did so many of the young men and women who emigrated from Ireland in the late ’40s and ’50s. They courted each other through music, song, and dance at pubs and dance halls, church basements, and union halls. They danced to music played by Irish-immigrant musicians, generations of whom had traveled to America for better lives, and still held close to the jigs, reels, and waltzes of their homeland.
What put Irish music on the map in Chicago was a series of tune books by Francis O’Neill that came out between 1903–22. The series started with O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, which contains 1,850 pieces of music. Hailing from County Cork, O’Neill traveled and eventually came to Chicago around 1870. After becoming a policeman in 1901, he rose to the rank of captain. Primarily a flute player, he loved tunes and musicians, and offered jobs to many coworkers in the police force, who were also musicians—pipers, flute players, and fiddlers. Together, his books encompassed more than 3,000 collected melodies—many of which are still known and treasured throughout the Irish music world. As a young girl visiting Ireland, I noticed most musicians and fans of the music knew Chicago because of Francis O’Neill—and also, of course, because of Al Capone.
If you know Irish music at all, you know that Irish musicians seek each other out for what are called sessions—musical gatherings of folks who suss out familiar tunes together, or learn different new tunes from other musicians. They then jam together for a pleasant two or three hours. For an up-to-date listing of Chicago-area sessions, it’s hard to beat Jimmy Keane’s website (jimmykeane.com/sessions). Jimmy is a friend of mine and a heck of an accordion player. He’s won the All-Ireland title on the piano accordion five times, and he’s conscientious about keeping the session list current. Today, there are 18 sessions a week where you can go, take out your instrument, and join in with tunes you know, or attempt and record unfamiliar tunes you want to learn. Of course, anyone can sit and enjoy the music. The best sessions allow for players of all levels to join in, but also give opportunities for the experienced players to fly. At an average session you may have a banjo, two fiddles, an accordion, a guitar, and percussion. There will be a song or two and the odd dance. The sessions are available all over the greater Chicago area. Since I live north of the city, I usually pick a session on the North Side.
As for seeing Irish music performed, the Old Town School of Folk Music is a home to many of the traditional Irish musicians who tour the US. City Winery Chicago is becoming a home for traditional music as well. Of course, places like the Irish American Heritage Center on the North Side, and Chicago Gaelic Park on the deep South Side, and the pubs in between them, like Chief O’Neill’s Pub and Martyrs’, also host concerts, workshops, and music classes.
Along with Irish musicians, there are loads of wonderful diverse musicians of varying musical styles in Chicago. The University of Chicago has a great annual Folk Festival, and the City of Chicago programs a variety of cultural festivals in various neighborhoods throughout the year, as well as the World Music Festival Chicago in the fall.
A few last thoughts: Chicago is known for blues music, so hit one of Chi-Town’s many blues joints. Pick up a copy of the free Chicago Reader for weekly music listings—rock, jazz, Irish . . . you name it. If you’re an ambitious diner, try to read it as you eat at Alinea, one of Chicago’s best restaurants with the most sought-after reservations in the country (even Jay-Z and Beyonce couldn’t get in on short notice).