Paddy in The Smoke

Auld Triangle, Finsbury Park, London, England

The Auld Triangle is a three-cornered building sitting at a three-way intersection in a quiet neighborhood in Finsbury Park. Sunday nights, if there’s no Arsenal match (if there is, there’s no session), usually find the pub stuffed to the gills with Irish expats. You will usually find James Carty and Gary Connolly (along with others) heading the thing up most weeks, and a great many of London’s Irish traditional musicians have dropped in at one point or another.

The first time I went to the Triangle, I was being shepherded round London’s sessions by a forebearing friend who is well-known on the London session circuit. As we trundled in the doors early in the night, two men, one young with dark hair and a flute case beside him on the bar, and an older distinguished-looking gent, caught sight of us and broke into wide, welcoming smiles and waved us over with their pints.

When I was actually introduced later, I was somewhat mortified to find that not only was the friendly flute player James a member of the well-known Carty family, but the charming gentleman with the twinkling blue eyes I’d been chit-chatting with between sets was Reg Hall, one of the UK’s best known musicologists and collectors in both Irish and English traditional music. Hall is often credited with being the single most important musician of the English trad dance music revival, writer of countless liner notes, and other essential reading for Irish and English trad musicians.

Hall was one of the prime movers behind the recording of Paddy in The Smoke, which is simply one of the most important and influential recordings of Irish traditional music ever made.

Recorded by Bill Leader in 1968 at The Favourite, one of the great London pubs for music (on Queensland Road, off Holloway Road), Paddy in The Smoke was captured with a microphone dangling from the ceiling. It recorded not only the music played (under the careful management of Jimmy Power, seconded by a young Hall) from a small stage at the far end of the bar, but also the noise of the crowd, crammed into the small pub and unwilling to miss any of the fun to be had. This was not a session as most people think of the things now; Power would look about the crowd as they played, see who was there, and call people up to play or sing. Perhaps it was here that singers at sessions first found their due; Peta Webb wrote in 1998 that a lack of proper attention to singers would get a “Shhh!” in the microphone from Power.

While I think anyone who loves Irish traditional music should own a copy of Paddy in The Smoke, clearly, it’s a recording that might not be understood for what it is by the casual listener or someone who has found Irish music through the modern artists-Lunasa, Altan, even as early as The Bothy Band. The student might think it at most “nice” or “quaint” or even admire it as a sort of snapshot of the way the music was once played and simply leave it at that.

Those with a few more tunes under their belts, however, practically revere this recording. It is a snapshot of a time and place, of an era; when The Favourite was demolished to make way for the new Arsenal stadium, many felt that part of the history of two generations of Irish immigrants and musicians went with it. Many feel Paddy in The Smoke captures the joy, laughter, pain and sorrow of an entire generation of Irish immigrants in London, that this was music that really means something. This was how they spent their Sunday afternoons, some of the small amount of the leisure time they had to command. For those who can hear, this music truly moves the heart, both in its genius and emotion.

An acquaintance of mine remembers that, after the 2:00 closing time and Jimmy Power’s famous admonishment to “go home and have your dinner!” everyone would spill out onto the pavement, where the musicians would often re-group and carry on. The police would come by (it was a neighborhood of mainly factories and warehouses) and tell them they wanted the sidewalk session gone when they returned, but no one would leave until they were famished for their dinner.

Paddy in The Smoke gives us just a small taste of the many years of music, song, and fun to be had at The Favourite, but it’s a very satisfying one. “We didn’t get everyone we wanted (on the recording),” Hall told me between sets at the Triangle, “but we got what we could over the time we had to record. We didn’t do too badly with it, I think.”

An understatement.

One can’t help feeling that there’s no way to come up to the level of the liner notes by Hall, so I’ll leave that enjoyment to the listener when they get their own copy. But there are no bad tracks on this recording, and each offers a feast for the ears and mind of those who love Irish trad music. Clearly these musicians played the music as played for dancing as well as for the enjoyment of itself, and it’s difficult to keep the feet still. The crowd is appreciative.

Every session recording I listen to, carefully passed along from musician to musician, harks back to this one.

The musicians are among the finest London had and ever will. The first three tracks are of Martin Byrnes of the ponytail and immense verve of style and creativity. A young Danny Meehan (who worked laying slabs in London until just a few years ago; he sometimes would give his co-workers some tunes to go with their lunch on jobsites, stowing the fiddle in a handy van) regrettably makes only one appearance (but on my favorite track! “Paddy Ryan’s Dream” is a tune I’m extremely fond of). Lucy Farr and Julia Clifford provide ample proof that the women kept up despite their busy lives. Influential Clare fiddler Bobby Casey (whose son Seán led the session after it re-located to The Victoria-known as Tommy Flynn’s in latter days) is on many of the tracks, including two with Seán O’Shea, who made the session whenever his schedule as a policeman allowed.

I’m always astounded by the number of people who consider themselves well up on Irish traditional music recordings who have never heard this very classic recording. If you haven’t, it’s time you did. If you have, get it back out and re-visit. I hear something new with every listen. So will you. Paddy in The Smoke is available at Ossian USA, iTunes, and other vendors.

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