A quick search online for Irish Bars in New York will reveal hundreds upon hundreds of hits across the five boroughs. But in a city and an age where having a gimmicky name and a neon shamrock hanging in the window qualifies a joint as being an ‘Irish Pub,’ it is rare to find an establishment less concerned with turning a buck off the much used concept of the Irish Public House, than one willing to sacrifice the sham-rockery to bring punters a true taste of the history and culture of Ireland, hundreds of years of which, have formed the concept of what a traditional Irish pub is.
Right in the heart of Red Hook, lies one of these rare gems. In July 2007, Owner/Proprietor Chris Byrne relocated Rocky Sullivan’s from Lexington Avenue down to the cobblestones of Van Dyke Street.
A veteran musician, Byrne toured for many years with renowned Celtic-Rock outfit Black 47. From it’s inception in 1996, Rocky’s has always been more about just providing a room to down pints in. It has been host to a plethora of cultural events. Rocky’s hosts live music sessions, book and poetry readings, film screenings, language and dance classes as well as local community events and happening.
Tuesday’s a good start
Foremost in it’s weekly calendar of events, Tuesday’s Irish night, offers the newcomer the best opportunity to sample some of these cultural goings on. The events begin with the beginners’ Irish class at 7 pm in the back room, hosted by Brian Mallon. These classes are open to all, and are a fun way for people to learn a few phrases of an ancient and beautiful language. The level is taken up a gear at 8 pm as the class switches to intermediate level, but all participants are encouraged to stay along and have a bit of craic.
At 8 pm, Paul and Monica host the beginner’s Irish set dancing classes. A popular form of folk dance in Ireland, set dances, will usually revolve around a ‘set’ of four couples, repeating a number of pre-rehearsed steps. The classes are greatly enjoyable and a fun of way of sneaking in some mid-week exercise.
At ten, Byrne and his former Black 47 cohort Andrew Harkin host a traditional Irish seisiún, where musicians of all abilities are encouraged to sit in and play along with the Irish tune sets, driven by the lush sounds of Byrne’s Uilleann Pipes and Harkin’s Bouzouki.
Traditional sessions have been an integral part of Irish pub culture for hundreds of years. Typically, they tend to be informal and open; meaning that new musicians are free to join in. Depending on the venue and the players, some sessions can be more ‘open’ than others, with some long in the tooth players offering frosty welcomes to uninitiated and unfamiliar musicians. The Tuesday session at Rocky’s is known for quite the opposite, with Chris and Andrew welcoming players of every ability to sit in and play, and indeed, singers to sing, also predisposed to aforementioned frosty welcomes at certain sessions.
A main fiddler or piper will usually lead the sessions. They will begin by “calling” a set of tunes, which is a familiar grouping of two or three tunes and players will join in, providing they know the tunes in question. Sets of tunes are generally interspersed with conversation and banter, with sessions seen as being as much for the musicians themselves as the audience.
On any given Tuesday night at Rocky’s, instruments that may show up around the front table include, fiddles, banjos, accordions, or even a bodhrán (Irish hand drum.) The tunes often being interspersed with the odd song if there is a singer is present.
The music goes late, all the while George behind the bar serves up the pints. So, with the weather getting nicer now, there’s scant excuse to stay on Van Brunt. Take a walk through the cobbled streets and sample the sights and sounds of New Yorks most legitimate, and truly traditional, Irish pub.