You can hear recorded Irish music in many a bar, but for the last 10 years, Thursday nights at Molly Malone’s, 7652 Madison St., have rung with the homemade music of the pub’s Irish music players. Beside a blazing fireplace, the Celtic jam session kicks off at 8 p.m. and features an ever-changing roster of musicians.
Teresa Shine and her brother John have been the mainstays. They are first-generation South Side Irish, who grew up surrounded by the sounds of the Old Sod.
“Our parents wanted us to get into the culture and preserve the heritage,” Teresa recalled, “John and I took fiddle lessons from a Sligo man, Phil Durkin. He introduced us to a whole world of music.”
Teresa was only 12 when she tagged along with her 15-year-old brother to the Thursday night sessions at Durkin’s home. There they learned to make music with players in their 70s.
“It was such a blessing,” she said. “It’s something we’ll always have. You can find Irish music all over the world.”
In 2002, Teresa was part of an eight-piece ensemble that qualified for the All Ireland Competition. Around that time, a friend of hers started the sessions at Molly Malone’s. “It’s become our second home,” Teresa said. “People find it on the website. We’ve had visitors from Canada, California and New York. I’ve met a lot of musicians through Molly Malone’s. I see new faces every week.”
She also sees one familiar face. Forest Parker Steve West is a session stalwart, who lives a short walk from the pub. He’s been playing flute and assorted instruments since he was in third grade. He’s also played Irish music for the past quarter-century.
“I was first attracted to Irish music when I started rambling around the country with a flute in my backpack,” West said. After learning that being a street musician could bring in a few bucks, West became a busker in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Since then, he has become a master of the penny whistle as well and carries a large bag of these jaunty instruments to the sessions. On Thursdays when the Shines can’t make it, West “hosts” the session.
“We usually have half a dozen musicians show up,” he said, “The worse the economy, the more that come.
“The music is spontaneous, the tunes are very short and we usually repeat them three times.” As host, he often introduces the melody and the other players join in. On a recent Thursday, the ensemble had a starting line-up of Mike Casey and John Morris on fiddle, Glynis White on penny whistle, West on flute and Bob Losik providing some much-needed bass with his guitar.
They cheerfully launched into sets of jigs, reels and hornpipes, introducing variations until the sets sputtered to a close. Their acoustic sound didn’t interfere with the undercurrent of conversation in the pub. Applause was appreciated but not expected. They played songs with titles like “Red Haired Boy,” “Cat’s Meow,” and the unforgettable, “I Buried My Wife and Danced on Top of Her.”
“Irish music is a folk tradition that goes back hundreds of years,” West explained.
Of the thousands of Celtic tunes, the group doesn’t do too many “slow ones.” The rhythm became even more insistent when a player arrived with his bodhran. This round Irish drum added a heartbeat that had all the players tapping their feet.
“Some are playing the melody, others are searching for it,” Casey joked. “It’s anarchy at work.” During brief breaks, they chewed the fat along with the soda bread.
Casey teaches a variety of stringed instruments at Casey Music in Oak Park. He also plays mandolin with a bluegrass band called the Sag Valley Boys. (“Irish music had a baby and they called it bluegrass,” Casey observed). West plays with a Celtic trio called Glen Ayre, and John Shine fiddles in a band called the Great Whiskey Project.
The staff at Molly Malone’s is certainly appreciative. Event coordinator Brigid Brooks said the pub is one of a handful still hosting sessions. “The sessions offer something unique and traditional at the same time,” Brooks said. “It works really well in an Old World pub atmosphere. We have regulars who come here for the music. It’s not amplified. You can let it flow over you and still concentrate on the conversation.
The sessions swell the crowd, along with the Thursday special, fish and chips. During summer and winter school breaks, students join the sessions.
One of these is Forest Park’s own Kathleen Turek. The high school student is Irish on both sides of her family and has developed a deep appreciation for Celtic music. “When I was really little,” she said, “I went to Celtic Fest and saw a young fiddle player named Rose Duffy. I thought it was so cool what she was doing, I asked her for her autograph.”
Turek began her violin lessons at 4 or 5, concentrating on the classical repertoire. However, at the ripe age of 8, she also began studying Irish music.
“I took lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music,” she said. “Learning Irish music was easier than classical. It was less technical but you had to learn it by ear. I like both but I love Irish music more.”
Turek went on to form an Irish music group called Saoirse (“freedom” in Gaelic). The ensemble features a dozen players – the oldest is a junior in college and the youngest is a freshman in high school.
“We play weddings and Irish fests,” Turek said. The band’s development came full circle when Rose Duffy’s sister, Margaret, joined Saoirse.
Summing up her own feelings about the sessions, Teresa Shine said, “It lifts my spirits on a tough day. It makes me feel more at peace. Molly Malone’s has one of the longest-standing sessions in the Chicago area. It’s pretty steady, even during the hard times of the recession.”
She described Irish music as “manic-depressive” with reels and jigs being manic and the tragic ballads being depressive. The music at Molly Malone’s is eternally upbeat, as Shine leads the crew through countless tunes that echo the soul of the Old Sod.