Portraits from Irish Pubs [Encore Publication]: Ireland’s trad music scene is a visual as well as an aural treat

The Republic of Ireland has undergone tremendous social and financial changes over the last 20 years.  It’s now indisputably a modern global society with a strong diversified economic engine.  Yet it’s also a happy truth that today, as in days of old, the pub remains at the center of Irish social life.  Far more than a simple watering hole, the local Irish pub, whether in the center of cosmopolitan Dublin or in a tiny coastal fishing village, is a gathering place where stories are shared, traditional music is played, old friends catch up, and new friends are made.  Oh, and a pint or two might just be downed.

Many pubs feature live traditional, or “trad,” music on a nightly basis.  The casual informality of Ireland’s pub scene allows local amateur musicians to sit in with seasoned pros and pass down the songs from old to young.  Members of the “audience” (it’s hard to distinguish between performers and audience when the sessions are so participatory) are invited to step up to the “stage” (usually just a table covered with pints of beer) to sing a song at any time.  This informality allows the travel photographer to get to know these wonderful musicians over a few pints and to make authentic portraits without feeling like we’re intruding.

Today’s post is a simple photo essay featuring portraits I made of musicians and fellow customers at a variety of pubs across Ireland (plus one in Scotland).  I will forgo the usual technical details except to remind you that when shooting portraits in low-light settings where the use of flash is impossible, that a good fast portrait lens should be used along with a high ISO setting.

My current favorite lens of all is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

This young singer and fiddler who we met at Dublin’s famous O’Donoghue’s Pub was already a seasoned pro.  In this portrait I sought to capture her expressiveness with hand gestures.  Even without hearing her sing, the viewer can tell that she is expert at weaving stories.  Buy this photo

O’Donoghue’s is widely known as the spot where bands such as the Dubliners sparked the Irish folk music revival in the 1960s.  This band carries on the tradition, sharing songs old and new.  With a wide aperture comes shallow depth-of-field, so when photographing several people at one time you may have to choose which part of the image will be in focus.  Here I wanted to place the emphasis on the guitarist, so the other players are in softer focus.  Buy this photo

Another of Dublin’s great spots for trad music is the Cobblestone Pub.  On this night they were holding a very casual session, where all musicians were invited to come and play some tunes together.  The informality gave me a chance to get to know most of the players over the course of the evening and to make portraits without feeling like an intruder.  Again, the shallow depth-of-field required artistic choices about which subject would be in sharp focus and which would be in softer focus.  Buy this photo

In lively Kenmare, we wandered into a pub where a fabulous folksinger was performing many of the Irish songs I remember from childhood in Boston.  I chatted with Pat during his set breaks and bought a couple of his CDs.  He was a great subject for some expressive portraits, too.  Buy this photo

We didn’t have to leave our hotel on our first night in Killarney to hear some wonderful trad music.  This trio played many of our favorite songs right in the hotel’s pub, and they got most of the audience up to sing and dance along.  Buy this photo

Surprisingly, we heard only one rendition of Cockles and Mussels (aka “Sweet Molly Malone”) during our whole stay in Ireland.  This brave soul stood up in front of the crowd to sing that old standard.  Buy this photo

There’s nothing like watching an Irish crowd respond to the playing and singing of “The Wild Rover” to get one’s blood pumping.  Be ready to capture action in the “audience” as well as on the “stage.”  Buy this photo

Our second night in Killarney brought us into the center of town to an old and lively pub.  The table next to ours had four generations of a local family in attendance, each enjoying the musical set in their own way.  The oldest generation was my favorite.  Buy this photo

I got to know this fiddler over the course of the evening in Killarney.  During the break between sets she was kind enough to let me make her portrait.  It can be difficult in these crowded settings to avoid a cluttered background, but using a wide aperture for a shallow depth-of-field can help, as can careful post-processing.  Buy this photo

Elements I look for when making a portrait are faces with character and colorful details.  I found both with this accordion player and his beautiful instrument.  Buy this photo


The tiny fishing hamlet of Dingle has a population of just 1900 people, yet it somehow supports 52 lively pubs.  My kind of town!  Over pints of ale and shots of local whiskey in this colorful old pub, we made new friends from across the street and from as far away as Newfoundland.  This portrait of a musician was made almost entirely with light from the fireplace.  Buy this photo

The Scottish traditional music scene is as vibrant as Ireland’s, as evidenced by this band we heard at Edinburgh’s Sandy Bell’s Pub.  This place was bustling and extremely crowded.  The cluttered background somehow doesn’t detract too much from the power of this portrait.  Buy this photo

Have you traveled in Ireland or Scotland?  Do you have favorite portraits of the generous and friendly people you encountered there?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling?  Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.

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