NEWPORT – Irish-American culture is very present in Rhode Island. Neighborhoods such as Smith Hill and Fox Point in Providence and places like the Irish American Athletic Club at 642 Thames St. in Newport have a long history of this culture that still exists today.
There’s also the Newport Museum of Irish History just down the street from the Athletic Club, while the Irish port and fishing town of Kinsale is considered one of Newport’s sister towns.
A main part of the culture is the Irish session, where a group of musicians perform traditional Celtic variation music in a pub with booze consumed and loud, raucous singing through the crowd.
At the Fastnet Pub at 1 Broadway, this session returns every two months, having started on September 12 from 6-9 p.m.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the session was held every Sunday in the early evening for 14 years, with banjo, mandolin and guitarist Timmy May, violinist Tony Gutierrez and accordionist, whistle and violinist Jack Wright as ‘host.
It all started when the Fastnet Pub opened under new management and the owner was receptive to the idea of a weekly session.
“In 2006 the pub changed hands and they had music there, but it wasn’t an Irish session,” May said of how it started. “It was more of a folk thing and they had singers there. There wasn’t really a session where people who knew Irish music came in, sat down and joined in the game.
“At the time, Finbarr Murray, who owns The Fastnet and is called Butch, started running the pub and I’m part of a group of people who play Irish music all over Rhode Island. We were looking for a place to have a more regular session and during this time in Newport there was only a monthly session so we had wanted something more regular.
“Butch was 100 per cent supportive. He just believed I was the right person to run him, and I talked about a good game and was paired with some really good players so I could have a successful session. .”
“It pretty much took off right away,” May added. “We made it known and we had loyal listeners and people who come regularly since. This continued on a weekly basis every Sunday early evening unhindered until the pandemic hit in March 2020 and like everyone else it all came to a screeching halt.
Before the session returned to the second and fourth Sundays of each month, May and everyone else hosted two standalone sessions earlier this summer — one on July 18 and another on August 15. Both sessions were well attended while creating some optimism for the future.
“There was tremendous excitement,” May said. “The first time we did we were inside the pub and the second time we were on the back terrace, it was quite warm and it was a very festive atmosphere. The place was packed both times.
“I’ve been to Fastnet over the years and wondered about our impact on their business in terms of people. I don’t know if it will be like this in the future, but the pub liked it. The Fastnet is a great place and they do 1,000 other things with every sport imaginable on the TVs.”
“They really cater to the international crowd and Newport is an international city with people from all over the world,” May said. “As far as music goes, there’s a huge love and demand for traditional Irish music in Rhode Island, so we have a built-in audience. With the start of the NFL season, we plan to start the first few sessions on the patio and then bring it indoors when it gets cold so we can stay warm.
For anyone who didn’t stop by the Fastnet Pub for the Irish session, May says to expect a party atmosphere. He also says to expect a surprise from time to time from whoever enters.
“You’re going to hear beautiful Irish music and you’re going to start tapping your feet,” he said. “This is that body of music that is internationally recognized and for many years so many people from all over the world have participated in it. It’s a festive atmosphere with a group of musicians who perform spontaneously without a setlist and it’s the music that people have in their heads.
“Basically you’ll hear jigs and traditional songs, but you’ll also hear something very unusual. You might have a singer from another country, he happens to be a professional musician and they are always curious when they are passing through.
“If someone sounds like a real singer or musician, we welcome their participation 100%,” May said. “They can play or sing whatever they want, it doesn’t have to be an Irish song. It is also very welcoming for all ages. I have a son who is now 18 and he has spent countless Sundays at the pub for dinner. He also picked up music on the guitar and that’s something he’s been pursuing now, so we’re trying to pass that on to the next generation as well.