If you ever step into a pub in Ireland, the tune of classic songs like “The Wild Rover” and “Whiskey In The Jar” will hit you before you get a chance to order your pint. Here in Dallas, musicians are dedicated to making sure that St. Patrick’s Day is full of the same songs that every Irish person knows by heart.
“The music is very foundational to Irish culture,” musician Ken Fleming says. “It resonates well with people because it’s familiar. There’s a pulse to it, and it’s hard not to tap your feet to it.”
Fleming is a part of Jigsaw, a traditional Irish band based in Dallas, as well as the founder of the Traditional Irish Music Education Society and North Texas School of Irish Music. When he’s not teaching, he’s at sessions around Dallas, playing Irish music with anyone, building on hundreds of years of tradition when traveling musicians would join in at pubs together to create a tune.
“The music is very foundational to Irish culture,” says Jigsaw’s Ken Fleming. “There’s a pulse to it, and it’s hard not to tap your feet to it.”
“There’s this pulse that’s in Irish music,” he says. “People internalize it. The music is dance music, there’s that connection of movement with the music. I see these young children at some of the sessions, how they start bouncing around and enjoy that pulse.”
Fleming and his old band, Tinker’s Dam, played at the original Greenville Avenue St. Patrick’s Day parade, and he was the 1988 Grand Marshall of the old Dallas St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which had a stronger focus on Irish St. Paddy’s traditions. Think no green beer, no leprechauns, and more focus on family and traditional Irish drinks — like a shot of Jameson.
Tom McArdle, a volunteer with the North Texas Irish Festival (which takes place through Sunday at Fair Park, featuring a long list of performers), remembers his boyhood in Castlebellingham in County Louth and how families would attend the town’s parade.
“The brass band would lead the parade,” he says. “There’d be dancing and music and all that. We would play Gaelic football, and in the afternoon, the counties would play the cup for the football and hurling finals.”
McArdle, who moved to the United States in 1971, says that while it was a religious holiday in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day still attracted the type of fun that Dallasites think of when they think of the day. And music was always at the core of it.
“As a child growing up there, I didn’t focus much on drinking,” he says. “In the evening, the adults would go to the pubs and play Irish music and have sessions. The pubs were full, that’s for sure.”
Today, St. Patrick’s Day in Dallas is a drinker’s holiday, and Fleming says that attitude is more American than Irish — stereotypes be damned.
“I look at it this way,” he says. “I don’t think it promotes Irish culture, I think it promotes America’s desire to party. It’s fun, but it’s more of a cultural thing for Americans. I don’t think it necessarily disrespects Irish culture; there’s a different purpose there.
“I don’t say it’s bad. I play a number of events on St. Patrick’s Day, and they’re an opportunity to drink and get together and be ‘Irish.’”